I went to the bath again recently…. this time one that overlooks the ocean. It was probably a very bad idea since I’m still not over whatever nasty bug hit us last week.
But it is a beautiful bath overlooking the ocean in a most amazing hotel. Very different from the bath house near my daughter’s apartment in Nagoya!
Now that was old school. The kind where the attendant can look into the change room if he wants to… Yes, he! There was a man on duty when I arrived. Of course, he or she seldom looks. And I think I was actually more disturbed by the fact that the doorway to the change room had not only no door but no curtain. And there was an unobstructed view through the change room of the bath beyond.
At least there was no door between the men and women’s bath! That used to be par for the course – it was ostensibly for the cleaning ladies but children liked to go back and forth from one side to the other. One was always in danger of seeing and being seen (by people one knew!)
I felt, well, uncomfortable. And it sent me back 37 years to that time when pregnant with our third child I found myself unable to reach our own bathtub. I just couldn’t maneuver that baby bump past the washing machine which shared the drain with the bath! So in desperation I headed for the local bath house telling myself that if my tall blonde colleague could do it, so could I.
Still, it was… challenging for a rather young (early 20s) and rather modest New Englander.
Modest… what was modest?
I don’t think I knew any more….
No American would have blinked an eye at my mother in her back garden with rather short shorts and a halter top and bare feet. But I suspected it would probably shock our language school teachers. I didn’t show them the photo. Sleeveless was still taboo in Japan. So were North American necklines. And for that matter, so were red dresses.
It seemed there were so many places we had to be careful not to offend.
And yet there were so many other things that offended my own sense of modesty… a perfect stranger snatching the covering from my carefully concealed breast in the midst of a very crowded thoroughfare with the excuse “Your baby is going to suffocate!”
There was so much underwear… It was obvious everywhere. It hung in racks over our heads while we entertained. On hot nights men stripped down to their underwear to lounge – or walk the streets! On long ferry rides even prim and proper ladies might strip to their underwear and sit around (in mixed company) eating and drinking with their friends.
And there was the lack of underwear… when my husband went calling he would, as often as not, be met by an old women clad only in an undershirt (no bra) and often zipping up her pants as she came to the door. (Young women also went without that item of clothing – they were just less obvious about it.)
Sometimes it was hard to identify on just how many levels a thing jarred.. for instance, when the ramen delivery man cheerfully greeted me as he peed on the street!
And the strange dichotomies when my worlds collided.
Toilets… I’m pretty sure that toilet conversations were common in North America. I had never thought twice about talking through the toilet door to close friends and female family members. My 4 daughters, however, all informed me that this was just plain gross.
They also complained loud and long about the the space under the door in public toilets in North America. The doors in Japan go to floor. Always.
And yet the child who complained the loudest about that space under the toilet door was very proud of her junior high class for their mature attitude toward changing their clothes together – boys and girls – in the classroom. Whaat?!
You can’t talk to your mother through the toilet door but it doesn’t bother you to change your clothes with the boys!
There’s more. While in high school this same child greeted a colleague of ours who unwittingly walked in on her in the bath with perfect equanimity. I learned about it from his Asian wife who thought it was terribly funny.
And me? Well, I was left wondering why the 12 inch space at the bottom of the toilet in the girls room is a problem…
Such a different world.
Such different standards.