Saturday, March 15, 2008

Naked friendship

Regular readers of this blog will recall that my boyfriend, Tobi, is a native of Japan. Being with him has introduced me to some elements of Japanese culture. One of these is communal bathing.

Tobi and I sometimes go to an Asian public bath near where we live. There's a sauna, a steam room, hot and cold soaking pools, plus some lounge chairs to snooze in. There are also wash stands where you sit on a stool at a low counter while you wash your body with soap.

The environment is communal, and clothes are not worn, even when lounging. (And the washcloth-sized towels are not considered an article of clothing.) When we go we usually spend two to three hours soaking, washing, relaxing and chatting. I've never been so clean.

To Japanese people a trip to the public bath is a huge stress reliever. This is built into the culture. Now that I've adopted the practice, I can begin to see why. There's a kind of fellowship of the bath.

The Japanese have a term for this: hadaka no tsukiai (裸の付き合い) or naked relationship. This refers to a very close friendship where nothing is hidden. It's the kind of friendship between people who take a bath together naked. Or so goes the Japanese line of thinking. Inexplicably (at least to me), in correct Japanese this phrase may only be applied to men.

When Tobi was a child his grandfather used to take him to the public baths regularly. Now these are some of his best and fondest memories of his grandfather, who has since passed away. Tobi also went to public baths in Japan with his sports teammates and school friends. I can't imagine a group of our junior high schoolers getting together to bathe. :-) But for Tobi and his friends it was a significant part of their socialization and bonding.

One thing that Tobi and I joke about is this: hanging out in the spa together as a couple is one of the few perks that society grants exclusively to gay people. Unlike male/female couples, we don't have to go to separate spa areas! Score one for our team. Yay!

I should mention that both men and women in Japan approach communal bathing in the same way. The baths have separate male and female areas, but the customs on each side are the same. Since communal bathing is such a strong part of the way people cement friendships, this reinforces the separation between genders in Japan. I've noticed that friendships crossing gender lines are rarer in Japan than in the U.S. (I could be wrong on this point, but that's my observation.)

Here's to hadaka no tsukiai. Try it sometime.


J G-W said...

Fascinating... There's a parallel tradition around the sauna in Finnish culture. Growing up, we never had a lot of the hang-ups our friends seemed to have about being naked in front of other people. It would be considered rude or just odd in Finland to go to sauna with a swimsuit on. You just don't do it.

Sauna is also a place where friends socialize together in an intimate and of course non-sexual but naked way. It is also VERY relaxing, and you never feel so clean.

I've always thought it a shame that in America, public saunas are where you go for sex. I miss the Finnish sauna culture...

MoHoHawaii said...

John, interesting parallel with Finnish culture. BTW, I've noticed a lot of Russians hanging out at our local Asian bathhouse.

The environment at the Asian spa is very nonsexual and social. I prefer it to the uptight, cruisy and sexually repressed atmosphere of a lot of gym saunas in the U.S.

Clark said...

This is SUCH a cool post. I really think that the naked friendship concept is really powerful and I wish we weren't so scared of male boning in our country. This was very thought provoking.. thank you for the insight into another culture.

J G-W said...

I wish we weren't so afraid of male bonding either.

playasinmar said...

...not if they allow cell phone cameras in there.

MoHoHawaii said...

Playa, no worries. It's a technology free zone.

playasinmar said...

Only on April Fool's Day could you claim Japan has a technology-free zone. How did someone take a picture of you two without a camera?

MoHoHawaii said...

That's a generic stock photo to show how the washing stations work. I have no idea who the models are.

genkibond said...

new to your blog.
i'm mormon too, but i'm cool with whatever life someone chooses.
Anyways, I've lived in Japan, and the baths are great. little to hot for my skin, but great

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Genkibond,

Thanks for dropping by!

Dad's Primal Scream said...

I lived in Japan for a year and LOVED the baths! I agree that they are preferable to the cruisy atmosphere in gym in a sexually repressed culture. I found these "onsen" to be extremely relaxing, but I never got the social atmosphere you described because I always stood out. These are definitely among the best things Japan has to offer. Unfortunately they are disappearing and the younger generation are becoming obsessed with western shame of their bodies and they don't visit them as much.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hey DPS,

Thanks for your comment.

Body shame (among men) seems to be coming back. I've also noticed that younger people in the U.S. seem to have more of fear of nakedness than my generation and that of my parents. I'm not sure why this trend is occurring. I'm guessing it has something to do with the insecurities that arise when male bodies are as objectified as female bodies have been.