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SOOTHING SOAK. This undated photo provided by Stephanie Crohin shows traditional baths and murals at Kasuga onsen, or hot spring bath, in Matsuzaka, Mie prefecture, Japan. Japan is proud of its bathing traditions. For many westerners, though, the fact that these traditions involve being naked with strangers is awkward at best, even though men and women bathe separately. (Stephanie Crohin via AP)

From The Asian Reporter, V28, #12 (June 18, 2018), pages 2 & 3.

Bathe naked with strangers? Welcome to a Japanese bathhouse

By Linda Lombardi

The Associated Press

TOKYO ó Japan is proud of its bathing traditions. For many westerners, though, the fact that these traditions involve being naked with strangers is awkward at best, even though men and women bathe separately.

On my first trip, I tried to wriggle out of a friendís offer to take me to an onsen, or hot springs resort. I suggested a different town that had an attraction I wanted to see, and thought I was off the hook.

I should have done my research better: That town was famous for its onsen as well.

It turned out for the best, though, because Iíve become a fan. Nothing is more relaxing after a tiring day of sightseeing than a long soak, and you can reassure yourself that youíre experiencing authentic culture at the same time.

Two terms are basic when talking about Japanese baths: onsen and sento. An onsen has natural hot spring water. A sento, usually translated as public bath, typically uses regular water, traditionally heated by burning wood. Tall chimneys for the smoke are one visual symbol of the city sento.

The distinction is noted because various spring waters are supposed to have different health benefits. Onsen are commonly found at hotels and resorts outside the city, but there are about 45 sento in Tokyo, for example, that do have natural spring water.

For the outsider, though, the facilities will look much the same and more important, so are the traditions and etiquette.

Stephanie Crohin is author of a book in Japanese about sento. For the past three years, she has been the official volunteer ambassador for the Tokyo Sento Association. She has visited more than 700 sento across Japan and her book and Instagram feed reveal the beauty of their interiors, where photography is usually prohibited, including many traditional painted murals and immaculate tilework.

She reassures first-timers that with everyone else acting like itís normal, you will quickly get comfortable. "For some people it is a big challenge to be naked in front of others, but genders are separate, and everybody just doesnít look and doesnít care," she says. "It is the ideal place to forget about complexes!"

Although you wonít have much trouble finding a sento in a city like Tokyo, their numbers are in fact declining. Last year, she says, 40 sento closed in Tokyo. Fifty years ago, there were around 2,700 sento in the city, but now there are around 560, with 2,500 across the country.

One reason sento are closing is that many of their customers are elderly. Now that every home has its own bath, younger people often never cultivated the habit. Some sento are trying new strategies to attract customers, including presenting exhibits and events such as concerts and developing English information to attract tourists.

Another innovation: "super sento," more like day spas with additional facilities and entertainment. One in Tokyo, Oedo Onsen Monogatari, is basically a hot bath theme park with a re-created Edo period townscape.

These may be an easy way in for the first-timer, but if you want to experience authentic local culture, make sure you try a sento too. Just follow the rules so youíll fit in. At a typical bath, hereís the routine:

* Leave your shoes in an outside locker.

* Pay the fee. If you havenít brought your own soap and shampoo, you can buy small bottles and rent towels. Youíll be given one large towel and a small one.

* Go through the entrance for your gen- der. (You might want to memorize the characters for "man" and "woman" in advance.)

* In the changing room, undress and put your clothes in a locker. This part should feel familiar to anyone whoís been to a gym.

* Leave the big towel in the locker but take the small one with you. Use it for washing and/or to dry yourself a bit after your bath so you donít drip onto the changing room floor.

* The bathroom has individual washing stations. The basin is the traditional way to wash and rinse yourself, but now there are also hand sprayers.

* Wash thoroughly. The bath is just for soaking; since the water there is shared, youíre expected to be clean first. Be careful not to splash your neighbors.

* Tie up long hair. You donít want it to dangle into the shared bath.

Now youíre ready to soak!

At this point, youíll still be carrying your small towel, which brings up another rule: never put your towel into the bath. If youíve seen Japanese bathing on television, people are usually covered with towels, but that is only for filming. The most traditional thing to do with the small towel is fold it and rest it on your head while youíre bathing.

Finally, sento and onsen have traditionally prohibited tattoos, which are associated with organized crime. These restrictions are loosening, though. Sento are usually fine with them, but super sento and onsen resorts may not be, so check in advance.

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