Chances are, I wouldn’t be a very good Japanese person. I understand taking my shoes off outside, but I don’t get the cultural reason behind shoe removal. The communal bath is not something I’d make habit a habit, and there are several bumps on my head from unintended encounters with low beams.
At some homes in Boulder we leave our shoes at the door. It has always seemed to me a good idea for keeping street dirt out of the house. But Willy the dog doesn’t much care about tracking dirt in the house. After a snow or rain, the wood floors look like we are running a dog hotel. Because we have Willy, we don’t bother to remove our shoes at The Creak House.
Apparently the Japanese view the world in terms of inside and outside. Shoes are for outside but not for inside. An extrapolation of this idea of outside and inside is the idea of dirty and clean; or to take the idea further, the profane and the sacred. But now I’m culturally in way over my head. All I can do here is observe and comment in a western context. To understand the Japanese mindset might just take a lifetime.
So I’m fine with the shoes outside thing, but then when I start hearing additional rules about outside things never touching inside things, I start scratching my head and possibly rolling my eyes. For example, I’m carrying a wonderful old Mountainsmith pack that has been with me for more than twenty years. It has been on the ground for hundreds of hours. I need to bring the pack inside the inn to get to my shaving kit and clean clothes. So where do I put the dirty pack in the clean room? I’m trying not to be a Philistine, so I leave the pack by the door to my room, but it was definitely a dirty thing in a clean place.
The gender-separate communal bath I tried was spotless. It wasn’t that I dislike communal baths, other than the fact that I’m soaking in someone else’s bathwater. It’s just that given the choice, I’d rather be with the girls than the boys.
Remember that in Japan it is about process. So there are these written instructions that tell you how to behave in a communal bath that start with an explanation of how to wash yourself before you get in the bath. I don’t know about you, but I’ve done an okay job of washing myself for about the same number of years as the candles on my birthday cake—less maybe three. That’s a lot of experience washing myself. I don’t need to be told how to do it.
Nonetheless, the instructions tell me to sit down on a stool that is about six inches off the ground. After multiple unintended encounters with the ground, hard snow, or boat gear, there are parts of my body that don’t bend well and are not operating at optimum design standards. This means that squatting on a stool six inches off the ground is awkward for me. Once down on the stool, I turned on the shower to wet myself down, and then scrubbed top to bottom, rinsed off the soap, shut off the water, and attempted to dry myself with a towel about half the size of a dishtowel. Then I eased myself into a large pool filled with hot water with a couple of other guys, all looking slightly embarrassed. Admittedly, the bath is relaxing; my old parts that were a tad sore from squatting in the shower just mellowed out in the heat. The sign near the pool reminded us that the towel must never touch the water. Rubber duckies and other bath toys are not allowed either. I lasted about fifteen minutes and called the communal bath experience good.
I’m sort of an average-size North American male at barely six feet tall. I’ve spent some wonderful time on small sailboats, and understand crouching in a cabin or ducking in the cockpit when the helmsman yells “Heads!” Here in Japan I bump my head on a beam about four times a day. The first time stuns me and really hurts. The second time is less of a surprise and by the third or fourth time I am mostly feeling glancing blows to my head. None of this does any more damage than has already been done over the years. But I have now developed a sort of sixth sense to be constantly looking up before leaving yet another impression on both an overhead beam and my skull. I suppose that when I get home I’ll spend a week or so watching out for low ceilings.
Someone tried to explain to me the concept of boxes in the Japanese way of thinking. Apparently, everything in life has a box, some quite large such as family, and some quite small such as car keys. So as an example, let’s take getting a cup of coffee at the inn. We’ll call this the coffee box example. There is one coffee machine in the reception area of the inn. The machine grinds the coffee, brews the coffee, and pours it into your cup very quickly when the green light is on and pressed. The red light means the machine needs additional water or coffee or whatever. It is available to guests at 7:00 am. It is 6:50 in the morning and I need a cup of coffee. I go to press the green button and the hotel manager says, ”no, no, no, no,” and points at his watch. Even though the coffee machine is ready, in his mind the coffee is not available until 7:00 am. Those are the rules for the coffee box.
I’ve just spent a couple of hundred words complaining about this country but here is what I have learned. In a highly structured society with rules for just about everything, I have become much more conscious of how my actions are perceived, and more perceptive about what may be an infraction of Japanese rules. In other words, I have become more mindful.
I’ve also learned to duck my head.
Alan Stark is traveling Japan with this Blue Eyed person. He will be sending irregular dispatches for the next several weeks.
Photos by (top) Mark Going/Courtesy Columbia Sportswear, (bottom) Alan Stark