Dos and Don'ts of Public Bathing in Japan

SOME travellers go to extraordinary lengths to take a bath.Me, for instance.Mention a trip to Japan and soaking in a tub is up near the top of my to-do list.I don't regard it as a time-waster. In fact, it's one of the most memorable experiences of a visit to this hi-tech Asian nation.Even though the country is arguably more technologically advanced than anywhere else on earth, this ancient ritual survives - and thrives.I'm not talking about any old bath. No, what attracts me is the onsen (traditional Japanese bathhouse).Like almost everything else in Japan, bathhouse use is governed by strict rules. Well, they're not really rules - more custom and etiquette. But thinking of them as rules reduces the likelihood of being remembered as an ignorant foreigner.Bathhouses are part of the landscape all over Japan - in big cities and small rural towns, in business-oriented destinations as much as in holiday haunts.Some are large and lavish establishments in major hotels. Others are tiny family-run businesses. Most obtain mineral-rich water from natural springs, which are numerous on these volcanic islands.A few, in remote country areas, don't segregate the sexes. If you find yourself in such a place you just have to deal with it - and accept that you're totally naked among a bunch of strangers, some of whom will inevitably be of the opposite gender.However, they couldn't care less that you're not wearing clothes. Japanese don't regard bathhouse nudity as an issue - and consider it puzzling, even amusing, that some foreigners make a fuss about it.These days, it's usual to segregate the sexes - though not to do away with nudity. In cities as well as in country areas commonly frequented by tourists, the onsen you visit will almost certainly have separate facilities for men and women.For example, on my most recent bathhouse visit - to an onsen at the Hilton Odawara Resort & Spa - I found a high wall separating males and females.On each side of the wall, are a series of outdoor pools (an onsen can be inside or out) with water ranging from so-hot-it's-almost-scalding to tooth-chatteringly cold. You pick one you like - or move between them.Sound advice at an onsen is to do what the Japanese do.So, I strut confidently between pools - completely naked except for a small hand towel atop my head.I return the next day, reminding myself to remember onsen etiquette and not make gaffes which would make a fool of me and horrify fellow-bathers.Abide by these onsen customs to help you blend into the scene:DRESS: At a free-standing onsen, it's fine to turn up in street wear. But if the onsen is in your hotel and your room contains a bathrobe and slippers, arrive in these. (A hotel onsen charges guests less than non-guests. Hotels also often charge guests to use their swimming pools, which non-guests can use at a higher fee.)SHOWER: First stop: the showers. Use plenty of soap. The objective is to become clean enough to share the baths with others. An Australian who often visits Japan and is an onsen aficionado tells me she avoids being typecast as an unclean foreigner by lathering furiously until after the last Japanese woman has left the changing room.TOWELS: When it's time to soak yourself, don't wrap a towel around your waist. Instead, carry the tiny face towel you were given or drape it on your head - but don't use it as a modesty-enhancing fig leaf. Once in the bath (commonly the size of a family swimming pool), place your neatly-folded face towel on your head or at the edge of the pool near where you're wallowing. You can remove it from your head occasionally to mop your face, but don't rinse it in the water. (Towels, like swimwear, are regarded as potentially dirty.)NUDITY: On your walk from the changing room to the baths, you're completely naked. If this alarms you, you'd better not visit an onsen.TATTOOS: No, a girl with a (large) dragon tattoo won't be welcome. Tattoos are commonly associated with the yakuza, Japan's feared criminal network. An onsen may (or may not) make concessions, allowing "fashion tattoos". A little bird, butterfly, star, Chinese character or abstract design probably won't get you thrown out of an urban onsen. But an enormous dragon or tiger across your back will probably spark an attendant's polite invitation to leave. In the lobby of my hotel I bump into two irate Australian women, ejected because of big tattoos.SOAP: Soap, used liberally in the showers, mustn't enter the bath itself. Like swimwear, it's regarded as potentially polluting.CONVERSATION: Friends, workmates and family members chat between themselves, but it's not done to make small-talk with strangers. In a hot pool at Odawara I find myself in the company of a half-dozen men, each enjoying solitude. No-one speaks. They're all deep in thought. For some reason, I'm reminded of hippos in the Zambezi. Out of the water, nods, smiles or slight bows are acceptable.Adhering to etiquette will make onsen visits enjoyable. But flouting custom attracts disapproving stares.JAPANGetting there Besides numerous direct flights between Australia and Japan, Asian airlines connect through their home hubs - it's well worth comparing prices. A low-cost alternative is Air Asia X (1300 760 330) which flies from Perth, Melbourne and Gold Coast (plus Sydney from April) to Kuala Lumpur for connections to Osaka's airport, Kansai. Domestic connections - by bus, train and air - to many parts of the country are easily accessed at Kansai.Staying thereJapan is well-supplied with hotels from ultra-opulent to bare-bones budget categories. For a glimpse of Japanese culture, stay at a ryokan (traditional inn); these are numerous in major cities as well as in rural destinations.More Japan National Tourist Organisation: 02 9279 2177; Globus Tours: 1300 130 134 has a big range of tours as well as tailoring itineraries to accommodate specific interests.The writer was a guest of Globus Tours.Originally published asTips on public bathing in Japan

Dos and Don'ts of Public Bathing in Japan 1

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What to Really Pack for the Delivery Room
You have read all the lists about what to pack for the big day. You have outlined every aspect of your birth plan. You have copied, checked and re-checked every list to make sure you have forgotten nothing. Do you really need to pack emery boards and a facial spritzer? How about that tennis ball for lower back pain? Unless you plan to fill a steamer trunk and your luxurious birthing suite accommodates luggage for a 13-day cruise, here are the basics of what you need to have with you at delivery time.First, and I cannot make this clear enough; pack your "suitcase" ahead of time and put it in the primary car that you drive. I have been in the baby business for six years and I have heard story after story of last minute scrambles and misplaced necessities. You might be going to your 37 week check up getting ready to spend the next 2 to 3 weeks off your feet eating bonbons only to find out your OB nurse has wrangled up a wheel chair with your name on it headed straight for the maternity ward for an unscheduled inducement. Having the bag in the car can save precious moments in a hectic situation.Everyone envisions a peaceful and glowing birth with operatic angels singing a welcome aria in the tranquil birthing suite. Reality? Childbirth is unpredictable. Prioritizing your needs and wants is critical. Preserving the experience on video or film is a must for most first timers. Not everyone enjoys the thought of putting their body on display for the videographer, but if you would like to relive the experience, pack a video camera with extra media and a back up battery in the bag. You would not want to miss a picture of your baby's first few minutes. A still camera with extra media and a back up battery is a must have as well.If you are enjoying the benefits of an epidural, something to pass the time is important. This may be friends and family to cheer you on through the peaks of contractions or a magazine or book if you are progressing slowly.If the hospital policy allows for music (and most major hospitals now supply CD players in the delivery suites) a special CD or compilation will help keep your mind busy and may serve as a soundtrack that will always bring back memories of the most courageous, beautiful and miraculous experience you may ever have.You will need socks for your entire stay so pack several pairs. Most people forget the socks and the hospital offers little help for cold feet. Skip the pricey cashmere versions just in case you cannot imagine parting ways with socks that have been through the ringer in the hospital.Post delivery the nurses will be tending to your physical recovery so this is when the comforts of home become necessary. No doubt you will have visitors and even though everyone will be celebrating the arrival of the baby, your friends and family will congratulate you on your magnificent accomplishment. Why not look your best? You don't need a full face of make up and blow out to look good. A hairbrush, toothbrush, a face towel and some lipgloss will make you feel amazing. Speaking of blow out, if you need a hairdryer make sure to bring one with you. Bring a special set of pajamas and a robe (prepare in advance if you plan to breastfeed as there are special clothes, including bras, designed to make breastfeeding simple to do without completely disrobing every time). Whether you deliver the old fashion way or via c-section, you should pack some large pads. If you plan to recover for several days at the hospital, do not forget shampoo, conditioner and lotion. The hospital can certainly be nice, but it is not the Four Seasons.Between feedings and visits you may have time to call or email friends and family. Pack along important contact names and numbers. Have a calling card ready just in case cell phones are prohibited and the phones are for local calls only.Dads or partners should bring along essentials that include a change of clothes for day and night, a kit with hygiene necessities, cell phone, a laptop if the hospital allows, snacks and cameras. Most hospitals allow for the partner to spend the entire time with the recovering mother, but they offer few amenities.You will need to prepare very few things for your new baby. The hospital supplies many of the necessities you need so take advantage of those items. However, nothing is more important than a car seat for the drive home. The car seat should be installed correctly and adjusted to fit the new baby. You will also need a few outfits and some soft receiving blankets. If you plan to bottle feed, bring along pre-mixed formula in the brand you prefer.For your trip home you should have a comfortable set of clothes. Since your body will change very little from birth to the ride home it is safe to use maternity clothes for the trip. Bringing pre-pregnancy clothes is simply unrealistic not to mention discouraging.You may have other creature comforts not mentioned here, but be judicious about what you pack. Again, pack early and keep a suitcase in the car at all times. Being prepared could remove unneeded stress during this wonderfully life changing event.
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