The Gangster In My Tub

The author finds himself in hot water at a Japanese onsen.

One of the first things to ask yourself when walking into a Japanese bath is, Am I Angelina Jolie? If the answer is yes, consider leaving. For a reason I’ll explain in a minute, most Japanese baths don’t let in people who are heavily tattooed.

The baths are known as onsen—hot springs. Japan being made up of volcanic islands, hot springs are plentiful. According to Anne Hotta and Yoko Ishiguro, the authors of A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs, if you visited one onsen a week, you would need more than 40 years to get to them all. Most onsen have associated inns, or ryokan, and the weekend trip to a mountain ryokan is as authentically and peculiarly Japanese as the August trip to the Mediterranean is authentically and peculiarly Italian.

Nonetheless, onsen can be intimidating. The Japanese are great at inventing complex systems of rules, and not so great at explaining those rules to foreign visitors. The onsen ban on tattoos is an example: it’s inexplicable unless you know that big, ornate tattoos are associated with the violent mobsters known as yakuza. More important, from the foreign visitor’s perspective, is the rule that cleaning and soaking are two distinct activities, and that baths are emphatically not for cleaning. Instead, you first go to an area outside the bath, where you sit on a little stool and wash yourself with fanatic thoroughness. Near the stool are a basin (fill with water, dump on self), a handheld shower (alternate use with basin), and big bottles of liquid soap and shampoo. The goal is to be so meticulously clean before climbing into the bath that you will not share any dirt with the other participants. If you fail to clean off, as I did the first time I went to an onsen, you will be rewarded by an unusual sight: half a dozen annoyed, naked people simultaneously exiting the water.

Japanese Baths
Some rare instances of yakuza in the baths
(Photo credit: Gideon Mendel/Corbis; Michael Rubenstein/Redux)

Almost all onsen have separate sections for men and women, although some have facilities where families can soak together. They may switch male and female wings from one day to the next, even from one hour to the next, perhaps to forestall any charge of favoritism. Which sex is currently occupying which space is indicated outside, with the character for man or woman. Visitors would be advised to learn those characters, and to check them every time. Failure to do so will have consequences as predictable as they are humiliating.

Then there’s the special towel most ryokan give guests. Small enough to use as a washcloth, it is just big enough to hang modestly in front of your tenders during the walk from the washing area to the bath. Different onsen then have different towel-regulation schemes. Some don’t let you put the towel in the bath, because that might get the water dirty; some want you to bring the towel into the bath, because otherwise cold blobs of cotton might litter the floor. Some guys finesse the issue by folding their towel and putting it on their head. Few Americans seem able to carry this off. Because I can never figure out beforehand which towel scheme is preferred, I simply copy what everyone else is doing.

Japanese Baths
The Takaragawa onsen
(Photo credit: Michael S. Yamashita/Corbis)

Every onsen has at least one bath in which the water is very hot. You’ve-gotta-be-kidding hot. Involuntary-exclamation-and-fanning-yourself hot. As you sit in this water, you can feel your muscles unkink. Many onsen also have a cold bath, usually just big enough for one or two people. Guests are supposed to plunge into this for short times only: hogging the cold-water bath is a no-no. So is jamming yourself in when it’s already occupied.

Why is all this fun? Japanese people sometimes explain the attraction with mumbo-jumbo about how onsen provide a spiritual experience. Personally, I think there’s something in the lizard part of our brain that really likes sitting around in hot water with no clothes on in a beautiful mountain setting. Also to be taken into account is that after the onsen, you can put on your yukata (a bathrobe-like garment provided by every ryokan) and eat wonderful food—the culinary quality at Japanese inns is amazingly high.

Don’t worry about not knowing the rules, I always tell first-timers. Ignorance can actually be an advantage. I once went to a mountain onsen with my brother-in-law Al, a physicist who works in Japan. Inside, some guy with tattoos had gotten in and was—just what you’d expect from a gangster!—boorishly hogging the cold-water bath. All the other bathers were glaring at him, but nobody said anything, inhibited by what was either Japanese politeness or the fear of getting murdered. My brother-in-law and I also wanted to get in the cold tub. Suddenly Al turned to me and said, “There’s only one thing the people here are more afraid of than a yakuza: a foreigner!” We grabbed our towels and mashed ourselves into the tub, practically on top of the mobster. “Howdy,” I said. The hardened criminal’s jaw dropped in horror. He was gone in seconds.

Sometimes it’s great to be a barbarian. A moment later, when we returned to the hot bath, the water felt absolutely wonderful.