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.