(Tokyo, Japan) Since I left Iowa in August of 2006 to circle the globe, I’ve slept on numerous types of beds, couches, cots, futons, and other sleeping amenities, but so far Japan has offered the must memorable: a capsule hotel. Spread throughout Japan, capsule hotels offer small, clean, efficient and cheap places to stay (about $US40/night). The capsules are about the size of a coffin, comfortably sleep one (dead or alive), and are stacked up in rows straight out of a morgue. Inside each nook, you’ll find a television, radio, reading light and alarm clock, all in “comfort” like your bed at home except well, you’re in Japan and you’re sleeping in a coffin. The actual sleeping part isn’t much to write home about, but the most memorable part of my stay happened well before I nestled into the bristly hotel sheets, as I paraded around stark naked with a half dozen fat, hairy Japanese business men pampering myself with oils, shampoos and UV sanitized hair combs.
Tokyo’s Riverside Capsule Hotel in the Asakusa Ward.
(some rights reserved. Courtesy Bessu)
On my list of “Things To Do” while in Japan, somewhere in the top ten between riding a bullet train and eating sushi was ‘sleep in a capsule hotel’. As regular readers will know, “check mark” on the sushi (and then some) and “check mark” on the bullet train. As I read about the capsule hotels in the guide book I began to get a bit discouraged to find that most did not welcome foreigners with open arms because, as Lonely Planet writes, “…they don’t know all the rules to follow.” “What rules?!” I jested, “How could there be rules to sleeping in a hotel?”
Despite my inability to speak Japanese, I decided I looked Japanese enough to give it a try. Expecting the worse, I coerced my Japanese-speaking brother (who had arranged another place he would stay that night) to go into the hotel with me to book a room. The check-in process was incredibly easy, the guy even spoke English and after laying down my Yen, he instructed me, “here is your key,” “the lockers are in here” and “the ‘Sentō,’ which you are free to use all night, is down this hall.”
The what? The Japanese have a long tradition with the ‘Sentō’, the public bath, that dates back thousands of years and can still be found throughout Japan (often more commonly heard of as an ‘Onsen,’ which is a public bath fed by a natural hot spring, apparently). After putting my backpack into my locker, I wandered back into the Sentō to check it out and what I found was a bit disorienting: the main room consisted of three large pools of water ranging from near boiling hot to ice cold, a room that housed a traditional steam room, a maze of lockers, sinks, and little microwave looking drawers, full of hair combs, radiating the unmistakable glow of UV sanitization lights. In the main room, a single fat, hairy, and naked Japanese man was squatting on an upturned bucket in front of a mirror, lathering up his hair with shampoo in one hand and spraying his body with a loose shower head in the other. Posted on the walls around me were warning signs, that presumably said “do this”, “don’t do this,” etc.
The air was dense and thick with steam, beads of sweat crested my forehead, I clinked around the pink tile floor of the washroom just outside the main sauna room in extremely uncomfortable two-inch wooden sandals (yes, the Japanese kind) made for size 7 feet (I wear a size 10) in my blue and white kimono-like bathrobe made for a 5 foot 5 inch tall guy (I’m 6 feet tall), and I suddenly realized what they meant when they said “foreigners don’t know all the rules to follow.”
After a long few days criss-crossing Japan on the bullet trains (5 different hotels/inns/hostels in 6 nights), a sauna sounded like exactly what I needed. But within this labyrinth of naked men, steaming pools of water, unintelligible lists of rules (not unintelligible to anyone that could read Japanese of course) and in a society that takes their ‘public baths’ really seriously, there was a minefield of cultural faux pas to make, that I imagined would have gotten me booted out into the chilly Tokyo night (Sometimes I guess I’m too sensitive).
Part of me thought sleeping in my capsule was a good enough story to write home about, but curiosity, hope for an even better story for posting on this travelogue, and a desire for a sauna got the best of me and I decided I’d have to figure it out. The washroom and sauna were nearly empty, it was about 1am on a Thursday night, but still too nervous I’d unintentionally make a public bath social blunder, I decided since I couldn’t ask questions, I’d simply have to learn through imitation. I waited a bit until a rather portly gentleman shuffled in from the street. The man, probably just getting off from work, first sat down at a row of mirror/sink combinations (not unlike a hair salon) and, probably unaware of my presence, started by washing his face. So, observing him through the reflection in my own mirror, I started to wash my face as well. This was going to be easy.
On the shelf in front of the sink were a myriad of containers, packages, bottles of liquids, hair oils, soups, brushes, combs, etc, labeled only in Japanese kanji–so in most instances I had no idea what was in each container. The portly man grabbed a mini-tooth brush from box #1 and a single serving of toothpaste (it’s like a Mini Me toothpaste tube, we found them in hotels across Japan, they’re really cool) and brushed his teeth. I brushed my teeth. He took a cotton swab to his ear, I did the same. He took a cupful of mouthwash from the green container, I took a cupful from the green container in front of me. At this point I was hoping he hadn’t noticed my mimicry.
Finally after what seemed like half an hour grooming ourselves (not together, just me right after him in a separate mirror) he got up, slipped on his wooden clogs and shuffled in his robe towards the steamy sauna room. I paused a moment, pretended to fix my hair, and quickly shuffled after him. “Clip-clop, clip-clop,” my sandals sounded like a horse stampeding behind him, he’d surely be onto my shenanigans and ring me out as either being gay or a pervert I was sure (neither of which I am). This is where things got tricky.
He shuffled into the locker room, disrobed, picked up a bleach-white hand towel and made his way into the main sauna room. I, hiding between the lockers one row over from him, quickly followed. In the American culture I come from it is rather uncommon to find yourself fully naked, walking around in a room full of other naked men. Although I’m sure it happens to some people more often than others, this was probably one of the few times its happened to me outside of a gym shower. And though I’m completely capable and comfortable handling myself in an American gym shower, the Japanese bath house presents a whole new set of challenges because 1) there are no showers, and 2) instead there are little marble stools that look like over-turned buckets in front of a line of salon-like mirrors that surround the room and the mirrors are fronted with about a half-dozen plastic bottles of mystery liquids all labeled in Japanese kanji (for reasons that should be obvious I don’t have any pictures for you). Though this seems simple at first, questions began to arise: do I wash myself before I get in the sauna pools or do I wait until after? Do I use soap? Which one is the soap? Do I get in the pools in any order? Does doing any of it wrong instantly put me out as a foreigner to be banished to sleep on the streets?
Again, I turned to my portly guide for answers, of course now that everyone was naked, it got a little more tricky. This time I had to position myself in a way I could watch what he was doing, but had to make sure not to watch too closely for reasons that should be quite obvious. He sat directly on the overturned bucket-like marble stool, grabbed a large basin-like bowl, filled it via the adjacent shower head, and dumped the bowl full of water over his head. I stalled a moment by stretching my arms, and then did the same as him. He went for the liquid in the blue bottle and rubbed it in his hair, I did the same: it was shampoo. I looked around cautiously to see if anyone had noticed that I was copying the portly man. He went for bottle number four, I did the same: conditioner. He reached into a box on the shelf, it was a small packet with a toothbrush and toothpaste. He opened it, applied the single serving, and brushed his teeth. I yelled “Hey, didn’t you just brush your teeth 5 minutes ago?!” No actually I didn’t, cause I fortunately caught myself before the urge overcame my common sense.
I stalled a moment by using my hand towel to clean off my feet. My bath house guide spent another 15 minutes in front of the mirror (Man was this guy vain!). I too did the same. Still, no one seemed to notice what I was doing. Finally, he got up, stepped into tub #1 (the really hot one), and sank down into what appeared to be a quiet slumber. I, not wanting to be too damn obvious, climbed into tub #2, figuring that since the room was now empty, if I followed this man’s every move he’d start to think funny things about me. He soaked his hand towel in the bubbling water, folded it neatly (he was Japanese) and placed it over his head. I didn’t, again cause I figured he’d be onto me—those Japanese aren’t just neat and particular, they’re also really smart.
He moved to pool #2, I moved to pool #1, he moved into the steam room, I moved to pool #3, he moved to pool #3, I moved to the steam room. The Japanese are not a staring society, it is very very rare that you will ever meet a stranger eye-to-eye on the street, on the bus, or even in a restaurant. At one point, as my portly friend and I passed each other as he walked into the steam room and I walked out (both of us holding our measly hand towels over our “parts”) his glance crossed mine, I was very worried at that moment, he was going to say something like, “Are you a pervert?” (Had he, I probably wouldn’t have understood his Japanese and instinctively nodded my head).
Eventually, he finished his sauna ritual and I, as I had been doing for the last hour and a half, finished just a few moments after him. Satisfied that I had figured out how to properly use a Japanese ‘Sentō’ and was no longer one of those foreigners who “didn’t know the rules,” I awoke the next morning, climbed down from my capsule, and spent two hours, before I checked, out cleaning my ears, washing my hair, alternatively taking dips in the different pools (placing the wet folded hand towel over my head like a pro) and brushing my teeth—twice. My portly friend was sadly no where to be found–he’d probably gone back to work.
(The capsule hotels are designed primarily for the infamous Japanese “salary men” who work such long hours to support their families and do their jobs perfectly, they at times miss the last train home, so instead often sleep in these capsule hotels. To make the system complete, one can buy socks, dress shirts, ties, and even suit jackets in the capsule hotel’s lobby, before returning to work the next morning.)
I tell you this story not really to brag about staying in a capsule hotel or because the story ends with a substantial payoff (comic or otherwise), but because I think it demonstrates in a simple way how challenging a foreign person can find such a simple thing in a culture that isn’t their own. I wasn’t raised in a Japanese culture nor had I been instructed on how to properly use such a bath house. Rhe simple process of cleaning up, stepping into a sauna, and toweling off became a bit of an anxious experience because I didn’t want to break a social norm or be tagged a “foreigner.” Its experiences like these, that happen often as I’ve travel, that make me realize how hard it is for people who cross cultural, country or social class lines and don’t know how to act in an unfamiliar environment, despite how simple the rest of us think it is. From a person without previous experience dining at a formal dinner with its myriad of forks, spoons, saucers, and cups (think Titanic); to international students navigating in a foreign university; or new immigrants exploring foreign shores, the challenges are substantial. Sometimes I think, we’re a a bit too quick to judge and not quick enough to lend a hand.
A capsule, as viewed from outside.
(some rights reserved. Courtesy Robert Paul Young)
A capsule as viewed from inside.
(some rights reserved. Courtesy Robert Paul Young)
What you can do from here:
- Read comments left by other readers about this post, or leave a comment yourself.
- Want another funny story from Japan? Read about Andy’s search for the “Best Sushi In The World”
- Read one of Andy’s most popular (and shortest) posts about trash cans and Tokyo called Trash Talkin’.
- Read a story about why Sometimes The Smallest Cultural Differences, Cause The Biggest Problems.