Between December 28, 2011 and January 16, 2012, I took a trip to Japan and Vietnam with my girlfriend. During this trip I kept a journal (which is totally more sophisticated and cool than a diary) to record my adventures in those foreign lands. Over the coming days, I will be posting my journal entries from that trip.
December 31, 2011
It did not take long for Japanese culture to prove itself a worthy adversary. Yesterday, Eriko’s family — including her father, mother and brother — and I took the train from Tokyo to Shimoda, which is a small sea-side town a few hours south of Tokyo. We went to Shimoda because it sits atop natural hot springs and there are several hotels in town that have baths where you can soak in the hot water. Naturally, I was excited because I like hot tubs as much as your average Jersey Shore cast member (though, unlike them, I prefer not to share my hot tub with STD-delivery-systems masquerading as humans). But I had an inkling that this might be different from your average American resort when Eriko told me before we left Tokyo that there was no need to pack a bathing suit.
My American mind was put at ease though when Eriko’s dad — who I’ll refer to as Suzuki-san — bought everybody beer and salty snacks at the train station, the ultimate balm for any homesickness. My guard came further down when Suzuki-san jokingly suggested that Eriko’s mother was going to make a poop anytime she left our sight for more than 30 seconds. Even under normal circumstances I am a sucker for cheap poop jokes, but such jokes are pushed to new comedic level when made in a thick Japanese accent by a middle-aged bald guy with glasses, such as Suzuki-san.
When we arrived at the hotel in the afternoon, however, any sense of comfort from the beer and poop jokes started to disappear. The hotel we stayed at was a traditional Japanese hotel, referred to as a “ryokan,” which meant that our room was just that — a single large room for the entire family. This meant that we would all be sleeping on mattresses on the floor, mere feet away from each other.
But before my mind had a chance to fully reckon with all the various noises my body makes when it is sleeping, Eriko’s family started putting on traditional robes, or yukata, that the hotel provided in the room’s closet. This was actually good as far as I was concerned because I feel at home in any culture that embraces robes, or any pants-less outfit, in polite company. I liked the robes even more because none of the ones in our closet fit me because I was too tall, so the staff had to get me a special large white-person robe. This made me feel fucking huge and invincible. I imagined that the Japanese had a size beyond XL simply called “Godzilla” that they kept in a safe place just for honored six-foot foreign guests like me.
As I put on the robe, which is made out of a lightweight cotton, I began to wonder how the hell Japanese people were talked into giving up this outfit for all but special occasions. When the first person said “hey, guys, I know that we have been wearing this unbelievably comfortable outfit that keeps our balls cool and free to move as they please, doesn’t reveal how fat you’ve become and shows just the right amount of chest hair up top, but let’s try wearing these outfits that some dudes with round eyes I just met were wearing that will look completely unflattering when we gain weight, hide our chest hair and make our genitals feels like they have been put in prison,” how did the townspeople fail to form an angry mob and, at the very least, beat the shit out of the guy? In fact, I wouldn’t blame the Japanese if they decided to isolate themselves from the West until the nineteenth century just to keep out idiotic European clothing. And how did any Westerners who visited Japan in the nineteenth century not return home and say “hey, guys, I have this new idea for clothing that will allow us to be comfortable. There are no heavy metal buckles or anything.” Surely, the world embracing Western clothing while giving up all sorts of way more comfortable clothing that other cultures wore (or still wear) has to be one of the dumbest things humanity has done. It is right up there with the Kardashians on the list of things that make no fucking sense to me.
Anyway, once we were all fully ensconced in our robes and relaxing with green tea, Suzuki-san announced something in Japanese to everybody in the room, which Eriko translated as: “My Dad is going to take a bath and wants to know if you want to join.”
“How many baths are there?” I asked.
“Just two, one for females and one for males. They are communal baths,” Eriko responded.
“Wait, but you told me that I didn’t need a bathing suit….” I said, trailing off as I realized that Suzuki-san was inviting me to sit nude with him in a large hot bath.
I was in a bind. If I said yes, then I would have to hang out buck-naked with my girlfriend’s father, who I barely know (not that knowing him better would necessarily make a difference, but still). What if the freedom and warm water combined with nerves caused me to somehow get an erection? Would he be checking me out to see if I was worthy enough to perhaps someday father healthy grandchildren? Maybe he would look at me and think “yes, there’s a man who is well-bred, with a nice gait and good proportions, who is lean but does not look like he is so vain that he has to work out more than a couple of times a week.” And that would be the best case scenario.
What about the walk from the locker room, where we disrobed, to the bath? Should I put a hand over my private parts and risk looking ashamed or strut around without any covering and risk looking like I am too comfortable with nudity? He will think that I must be used to being naked all the time. And once we get into the bath, what is the etiquette there? Surely, it will look rude if I don’t sit near him, but perhaps it will look pervy if I follow him too closely.
I’m also not sure if I could hold down a conversation in such a compromised position. I know its prudish, but I can never get comfortable around naked males. The wrinkly bodies of old men especially make me sad. Their butts usually look like deflated balloons, like they were once proud asses but now the party’s over. I know it is only a matter of time before that’s exactly what I will look like and it makes me kind of depressed.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to risk insulting the guy by refusing his offer to join him in the bath. Suzuki-san had been generous enough to book this nice trip and invite me along. Refusing to sit nude with him could look ungrateful. He would probably think that I wasn’t interested in learning about Japanese culture or even getting to know him better. Suzuki-san might also wonder “what is this guy hiding? Does he not want me to see that he has noticeable herpes all over his genitals?” I irrationally worried that there could be an ancient Japanese proverb warning that, “a man who won’t show you his penis is unworthy to date your daughter, as he is a man who hides many other things.” On the bright-side, as we undressed, I could probably make the generic joke, “gee, you didn’t even buy me dinner,” and he might think I was being completely original, because maybe that joke has never been made in Japan before.
I was just about to grudgingly agree to go with him, when Eriko’s brother, Chu, said to me in English, “I never go to those baths. I don’t need to see a bunch of naked old dudes. But they are serving free beer right outside the baths on the same floor if you want to come.”
I immediately grabbed his lifeline. “I don’t think I will have a bath today, but thank you for the offer, Suzuki-san. I will go and have a beer with Chu instead.” I figured with this compromise I couldn’t be accused of not wanting to get to know the family better. And if Chu wasn’t thrilled with communal bathing, then I figured I could turn down the opportunity as well.
“I don’t understand why he wouldn’t want to take a bath with me,” Suzuki-san said, to nobody in particular.
“Because it’s weird,” Eriko replied. “And besides,” Eriko turned to me and said, “the old men will probably think it is funny that there is white guy around and will come up to you and say things in English like ‘sank you berry much.'”
Satisfied that I was making a sound decision to forego naked time with Eriko’s father, Chu and I went to the bath area for our free beers, and he showed me around the male locker room in case I wanted to take a bath later. It looked pretty nice and I thought I might try to have a soak another time, when there were only strange naked men around and not Suzuki-san.
This morning, owing to jet lag, I woke up at 5:30 AM. I love jet lag that wakes me up early because it makes me feel like one of those fit people who get up first thing in the morning to do healthy things like run or drink orange juice. I figured it would be a great time to have a bath because there probably wouldn’t be many people awake at such an early hour. Also, Eriko’s family was still asleep and I didn’t feel like sitting in the dark.
I got up, threw on my ridiculously comfortable robe and headed to the baths. After getting off the elevator, I walked to the room where Chu and I had beers yesterday. The entrances to both the male and female locker rooms, through which you reached the baths, were off of this room. As I walked into the room, I turned right, towards the locker room that Chu had shown me yesterday. Right before I crossed the threshold, I noticed that there was a red cloth hanging down in front of the doorway. “Wasn’t there a blue cloth hanging here yesterday?” I thought, as I paused and took a step back. I looked across the room and saw that the blue cloth was now in front of the door to the other locker room on the opposite side of the room. I took a step back. I was sure that the locker room to the right, the one with the red cloth, was the one I went into yesterday with Chu, and there were definitely men in the locker room then, but what if the rooms had switched? “Why would they do that?” I thought. I then noticed that next to the doorway to the right, there was a silhouette of a male figure, and next to the doorway to the left across the room, there was a silhouette of a female. “Ok, the room on the right is definitely for males,” I thought. “I saw men in there yesterday, Chu told me that it was the male locker room and it has the male sign next to it. The cloths must be hung up randomly from day to day. Stop being paranoid and just walk in.”
Gathering up my confidence, I stepped through the red cloth and into the locker room to the right. I tentatively took about two steps into the room before hearing a high-pitched voice across the locker room. “Holy shit!! I think that was a female voice!” I thought, frozen in a panic. “Run you moron before somebody sees you, thinks you are white perv who likes to watch Asian ladies changing and you get dumped by Eriko faster than they can lock you up in Japanese prison,” I thought. I turned around and burst through the red cloth and back into the room.
At that point, unsure whether I heard a ladies’ voice but half expecting screaming women to come running out after me, I decided to grab a seat on a chair in the beer-room and wait for somebody else to walk into or out of one of the locker rooms, so I could determine what the fuck was going on. About ten minutes later, a woman came and went through the red cloth and into the locker room on the right. I had been in the ladies locker room after all.
“Well played, Japanese culture,” I muttered to myself. “I’m not sure why it is ok to randomly switch the male and female baths, but it is an inspired tactic to keep the barbarians like me on edge.” I then got up, went into the locker room to the left, took off my robe and strutted confidently — and nude — to the male bath. I had passed the first test.