Bathing and Smiling: The Do’s and Don’ts in a Japanese Bathing House
I was in Asahi-ku for my usual four hour bath time at a local sento called Asahi Family Kenkoland . This place was well-known for having yellowish water, a100% onsen source, and an excellent Swedish sauna which had two heaters instead of the usual one heater. This was good cause’ this made the room really hot, I mean so hot you could barely even sit down on the bench towels. Even the clock on the wall showed signs of heat exhaustion with its discolored long hand and warped side frame.
The usual tired old Japanese men, oyajis, stumbled and shuffled into the sauna after last nights drinking party, nomikai , only to discover this huge, black, sweaty, grizzly looking African American guy sitting there sweating it out to the sounds of his breath, and while staring back at them with his squinted one good red eye, because the other one was soaked full of sweat and stingy, he grimaced as sweat dripped from his chin. Even the drips were audible.
The look of awe was smitten across their faces and immediately they were spell bound and gripped with fear. You see, I never smile or talk in the sauna, I just sit there with red eyes and beads of sweat pouring down my face. People steer clear of me. I like it that way.
One of the oyaji remarked, "You should smile when you sit in a sauna because you look dangerous and scary and you should greet too. You are big and black and dangerous looking," he chided with fear "I am scared of you." I apologized and I explained that during my sauna session I never smile, especially after the fourth sauna session. I am concentrating on a 12 minute timer and I need to focus on my breathing. He didn't seem to understand that as the affects of alcohol lingered across his breath.
Later, during my break, I went upstairs to grab a beer and some fried octopus. While I was heading up the stair case that same oyaji saw me and begged me to come over and sit next to him and his wife whom I thought was a Japanese Jukujo. He exclaimed,” My wife is dying to meet you. I told her all about you!” So he grabbed me by the hand and tugged me in eager desperation. So, I obliged him in hopes that I could steal his prized possession Jukujo through my charms. Why resist the grab if he’s forcing me to meet my favorite kind of woman?
(“ Go ahead. Lead me to your beautiful Japanese Jukujo you idiot. I can hardly wait to snatch her from you!”).
After reaching the table my happy eyes turned to dismay as she was a Filipina and not a Yamato class Japanese woman! As we sat there on the tatami laughing at my size over beer and fried chicken (all paid for by them), I was regretting every moment.
I remember his left pinker finger was missing. His wife said he used to be Yakuza. I thought that was a job for life...What do you mean used to? He claimed he was stupid at the time and regretted doing it. I regretted allowing this fool to drag me up here to meet this monstrosity of his, so I ordered another beer on them.
Anyway, we laughed more and promised to meet up again sometime next week (not). He made me promise to smile and greet every Japanese person I come across while in Japan because according to his point of view I'm a foreigner and I look scary and people perceive me as dangerous.
Based off of my experience:
#1) The Japanese guy had a salient point. I live in a foreign country, I should smile more so that I appear friendly.
Counter) Well, if I were in my own country, would I expect every Japanese person to smile and greet me in a spa? Besides, there are no written rules for such behavior in America or Japan and I’d rather smile at his main squeeze than him any day. Don’t require of others what you don’t require of yourself. Maybe if I was in your face in a Japanese onsen and smiling maybe you’d call the police, or even call me a Damn Foreigner
#2) When I first started using onsen I used to smile all the time and I would attract all kinds of attention because of it. People would approach me and ask me in broken English “whereyafom?” Or try to use me for English practice. Some would even be interested in touching me, while others would express their anxiety by calling me fat with a smile on their face.
Here is a fact:
If you smile and greet everyone in a public bath house you only invite trouble. Why ? Because though your gesture may appear to be positive, it only allows people to say what they want to you, and frankly I don’t want to be talked to. When you show your teeth too much people think you are kind and friendly, and when they think you are kind and friendly then they want to warm up to you, and when they warm up to you and loose their fear of you, then they think they can say anything to you, like "hey, you are fat" or even touch you out of curiosity – I hate being touched by a stinky oyaji. Would you like me to touch you back?
It's when you don't smile and limit your words to "I don't speak Japanese or English" is when they don't talk to you and steer clear of you. I like this way best ! No harm, no foul and no stupid comments made to the foreigner. Besides, grown ass men shouldn’t be smiling and chatting it up to each other while naked anyway, especially if they are total strangers. Onsen is a place for relaxation.
Here is list of other Do’s and Don’ts by Tripwolf.