Take a deep breath, strip down and sink in: Japanese public baths provide the ultimate relaxation.

p40Sitting in a tiny, steaming public bath with my daughter, I shampooed my hair quietly beside a woman I recognized from a Japanese TV show. I did not want to disturb her—for one, we were sitting naked next to each other, and two, it was her private time and it wouldn’t have been right for me to impose. As it turned out, she struck up the conversation first; she told me how cute my daughter was and I thanked her. After that, I got up the nerve to make polite conversation, asking if she was a local and chatting with her about the neighbourhood.

After frequenting that particular public bath in Tokyo for some time, I started to notice that the same people were always there. It was a micro-community. My favourite patron was an elderly lady who would sit in the corner of the bath with her towel on top of her head and police the area, making sure that everyone—especially the newbies—were abiding by the public bath codes.

She scolded my daughter for not having her hair tied up before she got into the bath. On another day, my daughter was scolded again for splashing cold water on the person behind her in the shower area. Eventually, these rules became ingrained in my daughter’s bathing routine and things ran more smoothly. Like me, she loved the space to bathe and relax—the freedom to hop into a cold bath, a sauna, a hot bath or even an outdoor bath where you could enjoy the fresh air and look up at the stars. My favourite was the rotenburo (outdoor bath) with the ocean and a perfect view of Mount Fuji under an indigo starry sky. It was perfect.

I must admit, I wasn’t always comfortable getting naked in front of perfect strangers. The experience was incredibly daunting at first, especially since one of the first public baths I took was with all of my female junior high students. Talk about undermining your authority! While we are all the same when literally stripped to the bare essentials, I know for a fact that I could not do this in front of my own mother—but I am totally comfortable in front of my Japanese mother-in-law and my best friend.

Once you’ve overcome being shy, you can fully enjoy the beauty of Japanese hot springs. After skiing in a famous hot springs resort village called Nozawa Onsen, our group took a public baths tour. The village is full of small bath houses and you can get as squeaky clean as you like. They often provide shampoo and body soap for all customers to use, but in the smaller, local places you should bring your own. If you forget, no worries—for about two dollars, each bath house will usually sell you shampoo, body soap and a towel with the hot spring’s name on it, which conveniently doubles as a souvenir. If you can get past the shyness of baring it all, a hot springs bath is a heavenly experience: good for your health, heart and soul.

SHELLEY SUZUKI is a long-time teacher of English as a Second Language in Canada and Japan. She currently runs an English school via Skype and is pursuing a teaching career, or whatever other interesting opportunities may come her way. She appeared on the Japanese TV show Okusama wa Gaikokujin (My Wife is a Foreigner). She hopes to become a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.

Illustration by Chieko Watanabe