Japan: Neurotically Clean Anuses and Clean Feet

posted by Katie on May 17, 2019

Our last night in Japan was spent in what I can only describe as an onsen on steroids. We were seasoned public bathers at this point, ending each of our past eleven nights in Japan at the hotel onsen. Some were large. Most were small. Some stone. Some wood. If we were lucky, some had an outdoor bath, a cold bath, and a sauna. They were always separated by gender, always naked. Matt would go in the men’s section. I would go with Remy in the women’s. This was some antiquated, binary bullshit, in my opinion (which also meant I was on full parental bathing duties).

But even so, ending a sweaty day of sightseeing in a hot, hot bath was sublime. Remy understood the drill no problem. Thorough rinsing on the baby plastic stool. Vigorous soap lather on her pregnant toddler belly. Then dippity do into the steaming bath and feel the body melt into butter. Matt, too, couldn’t get enough. In addition to our pre-bedtime baths, he was frequenting the baths in the morning, arriving to breakfast like a lothario in his open-chested yukata and glistening, wet hair.

After each bath, he and I would do the same questions and answers: Who else was there? (Usually no one. Or, if there was, it was an old Japanese person because every other person in this country is old). How was the water? (Hot. Or sometimes: Not as hot as the one before. Because we had become self-anointed onsen PhDs at this point, recognizing when a bath was a few degrees off from another, when the salinity wasn’t as salient as it could be) Was it good? (Yes. Always. Yes).

My friend Rino, who grew up and currently lives in Tokyo, suggested we spend our last night in Japan at the family onsen, the aforementioned onsen on steroids. This one had a large, outdoor section that was mixed gender in bathing suits. It’s located in Tokyo Bay, closer to Narita, and therefore easier for us to catch our 10am flight to Danang the next day. I was excited to offload my parental bathing duties onto Matt so eagerly agreed. We could also spend the night there. In addition to an arcade, massage chairs with personal TV screens, shops, multiple foodstalls, nap rooms, pillow cushion play room, an outdoor giant, Strawberry shaped pool, etc., there was a hotel. Everyone walked around barefoot, wearing oversized, brown and tan prisoner pajamas that you received upon arrival. Your locker key (that you wore around your wrist) also had a barcode that you could scan to purchase anything, including beverages in the vending machines. Matt and I agreed. If we lived in Tokyo, we’d be spending every Friday night here with Remy.

Rino, her husband Jeff, and their two kids, Enzo and Kaya, joined us for bathing and dinner. I’ve known Rino since I was in college. We last saw each other two years ago, when she dropped by Remy’s 1st birthday party while on a family visit to the Bay Area. Catching up on each other’s lives as best as we could, amidst a constant stream of child interruptions, I learned that Rino is working on a book too. She works at a restaurant in Tokyo and is writing a collection of essays on Japanese hospitality. Her writing is geared towards foreign, English readers, akin to the kind of customers who frequent Den, her schmancy restaurant.

I heard the words, “Japanese hospitality,” and I think I said, “Yes,” or “Amen,” or “Hmmm-hmmm,” or “Go on gurrrl,” because Japanese hospitality is bananas bonkers—unlike anything I have ever experienced in all my travels. My ten days in Japan is likely the closest I will ever feel to royalty. But a kind of restricted, heavily regulated royalty, full of unspoken social obligations that makes you feel so exhausted by the end of the day that the only thing that can restore you is a steaming hot bath…oh yeah. Now I get it.

Every hotel, fancy or not, provided us with oversized, prisoner pajamas. Yukatas. Indoor slippers. Hairbrushes. Toothbrushes. Toothpaste. Warm toilet seats. Startlingly strong bidets. All you can drink green tea. Complimentary green tea chocolates that I took and am still eating a week later. Beautiful food. Delicious food. Beautifully delicious food to the point of gastrointestinal reflux (I’m not kidding). Apologetically helpful locals. Unapologetic cleanliness to the point of round-the-clock anxiety about accidentally wearing my outdoor shoes inside. “Why do I have to take off my shoes?” Remy asked each time. “Because we’re in a strange, new country called Japan,” I’d say.

Signs outside say, “No walking and eating.” They mean it too. During yet another soft serve ice-cream excursion–this time in our Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa–the three of us were forced to huddle in the corner of the ice-cream stand, under the tiniest sliver of shade, guarded by a pipsqueak, uniformed ice-cream attendant to make sure we didn’t bolt with our deadly arsenal of melty matcha soft serve.

Japan likes its rules. This is what makes the country go round (and makes it the fourth largest economy in the world). I enjoyed making fun of these rules. But I also found myself feeling a little afraid, constantly, of not doing something right and then…what?

Rino’s first essay is on Oshibori, or the wet hand towel everyone gets immediately after seated at a restaurant. Yes, this is hospitality. Yes, it’s wonderful. Yes, it feels clean and calming and like I’ve landed in my favorite ASMR toenail clipping video. “But is it also a form of self-preservation?” I asked her. “Is it a way for Japanese to keep the outside muck out?”

I wouldn’t have thought much about this conversation—about Japanese hospitality and the tiny binaries that exist between outside and in, between foreigner and not, between wearing a mask in public and…why the hell does everyone have to wear a mask in public and make me feel like I’m walking viral infection?—had it not been for Rino’s surprised reaction. “I never thought of that,” she said. “That’s such an interesting perspective.”

Look, I’m not trying to laud my brilliance here. (Actually, yes, I am. What? You didn’t think I was actually writing this blog out of sheer pleasure, did you? You didn’t realize this is all a ploy to get the hotshot NYC agents, editors, book deals, and money, money, monies to come chasing after me in Hoi An)?

The thing that was both extraordinary and unsettling about traveling in Japan was how inadequate I often felt, despite being the cleanest, politest, smiliest, most hair-brushed I have ever consecutively been in recent memory (I mean, I was using soap every night, which is unprecedented). It felt as though all the oshiboris I was given, all the prisoner pajamas I was asked to wear in the hotels, every tiny slipper crammed onto my wide-as-can-be Cinderella feet, were sending me a message that I was not up to par, that my regular, sweat-soaked self was inferior and needed lots (I mean, lots) of Japanese dressing to be acceptable in this country.

Is it any surprise we nearly missed the early morning bus out of Tokyo Bay to take us to Narita Airport on our final morning in Japan? By the time we found the correct bus, we were drenched in sweat. Matt’s entire back was one shade darker. My face looked like it had just come out of a sauna. We stank. It was as if our bodies knew we were leaving Japan and were allowing themselves to return to their regular, uncontrolled state. A state, which, I didn’t think I could possibly miss until I made my way to Japan to remind me of my mucky true self.