call yourself a man? an experience of male bonding in a japanese bathhouse

Scottee explores the alienation of British masculinity, and the hot, steamy, naked and enlightening ritual of the Japanese onsen.

by Scottee Scottee
23 June 2015, 1:10am

I've been called many things in my time but the one slur I find most offensive is "man", in fact I detest being called a "gay man" - I feel like neither shoe fits and I'm not happy being associated with such loaded titles.

As a camp, mouthy extrovert who feels more comfortable in ASOS Curve than Topman I feel alienated from masculinity and its ideals - men are often threatened by my effeminacy, and so I'm either sidelined or ignored. So when the opportunity to get my kit off in front of 50 Japanese blokes in a hot spa arose I expected the worst.

An "onsen" is a Japanese bathhouse, and like most body endurance experiences they are gendered, built around a natural hot spring they're usually encased by an ornate public building - when I say ornate I mean the town hall version of ornate. 

I'm currently on an artist residency with four other show offs from the UK in Japan's 33rd largest city, Kanazawa. We collectively decided to spend our day off experiencing real Japan in that annoying way white people think getting on public transport means you're #winning.

En route I come clean and declare I may not take the plunge because of the aforementioned difficulties with relating to men, especially naked ones - my get out of jail card is in play.

A bike, train and bus ride later we arrive in Yamanaka, a small town in the Kaga region of Ishikawa. After a quick walk over a fuchsia coloured bridge otherwise known as the Ayatori-hashi, a quick bowl of soup and something that resembled an Artic roll, we made a bee line for the onsen.

We arrange to reconvene at 5.45pm giving us two hours of hot steamy fun - the women enter their building that of course is sidelined to the corner of the public square, I'm left outside the male building that has centre stage - I'm already hating the experience and wanting to write a thesis about gendered architecture.

It's do or die - do I wander around the town, eat more karaage and get lost or do I take the plunge and try something I'm afraid of? I turn to the only other cis-male on the residency; he's obviously having second thoughts too. I quickly realise my only fear is of feeling like an outsider and when you're an ethnic minority in a small town on a Japanese mountain there's nothing to loose - we convince each other it'll all be OK.

Someone that was either a really butch woman or a camp man with a bust welcomes us - I immediately feel a bit more relaxed. Like all good Japanese transactions, the onsen is operated by a vending machine, she/he/they help us navigate hiring a towel and buying soap. Smile, bow and a brief guided tour of pointing and miming and we're left to our own devices.

We go our separate ways - after all we're English. I'm naked in a wooden clad changing room unable to communicate with anyone - it's the stuff nightmares are made of.

I desperately try to remember the onsen etiquette I had Googled earlier, the rules are as complex as you'd expect from a Japanese social activity. You must be nude but not revel in your nudity; never revealing one's genitalia with a towel the size of a stamp is an art form in itself.

Suddenly I'm surrounded by older Japanese men who are clocking the fact I'm the only guijan (foreigner), they are not bothered I've opted for an experience off the tourist trail so I pretend I'm i-D's answer to Louis Theroux.

I enter the main room, which is similar to a Roman spa with stone pillars, a large pool in the middle with a fountain; men are washing themselves from trough like basins whilst sat on small plastic stools. A bloke comes behind me grabs a bowl, pulls up a pew and begins the ritualistic washing - I begin to copy everyone else without drawing attention to myself.

We wash ourselves in silence, lathering up in cheap white soap and washing ourselves down in hot soapy water. The bloke next to me rinses his seat and the area he was been washing in, I do the same - consideration for the next person to use something after you have is one of Japan's greatest attributes.

I choreograph the genital hiding routine and head for the side of the hot spring, as I sit on the edge of the large pool I remember a blog telling me to never contaminate the water with my towel or wipe my sweat, it's really fucking hot. An older man sits uncomfortably close "you, American?" "No, Japanese," I respond, he laughs.

After five minutes I think I'm going pass out so I opt for a cold shower and repeat the process of washing, towel dance and head back to the water. The older bloke is now with his two mates, he slaps my thigh and says "devu, hai?" - he's asking me if I'm fat, we smile - what in the UK could be misconstrued as rudeness is actually quite the opposite. In Japan my fatness has currency, people touch my belly or shout kawaii a lot, fat westerners are considered to be cute.

There is something wonderfully liberating about being naked with a group of men and the experience not being sexualised - in the west these sorts of environments are aggressive; abs, pubic hair and genitals scrutinised. No one was made to feel inadequate - this was functional and ritualistic, bonding and brotherhood.

After an hour of almost silent, steamy contemplation and whispered small talk in basic Japanese to my new Japanese mates I get out of the bath and the three wise men follow me. We collectively wash the area we had been sat in; they take my bowl and rinse it for me and we head to the drying area next to the changing room. We stand in front of the mirror and they begin to dry me, showing me how my stamp towel can be used to cool me down. They tell each other jokes, they laugh and even though I have no idea what they are saying I feel the joke isn't at my expense.

We sit down in front of a fan, drink cola and begin to get changed - we're enjoying each other's company. They gather their things and our friendship has come to an end, as the men leave they wave, I bow - it's our final cultural exchange.

As I leave the building extremely light headed, high off the camaraderie, sulphuric water and sugary drinks I'm left feeling as if I'd experienced something spiritual, I quickly abandon this idea as I know I'm being an overly poetic artist.

I'd just been a part of a positive masculine experience, sans bravado, no banter and not a Uni Lad meme insight - this is an experience I had never been welcomed into before.

Dissecting the afternoon further on the journey back to Kanazawa I realise that it's not masculinity I'm afraid of but it's the English version of masculinity that's afraid of me.

The Japanese believe onsen waters have curing abilities, perhaps Yamanaka-onsen has cured me of my fear of male dominated environments, perhaps it's opened my eyes to where the issue really lies - whatever the experience was I think I might be happy with being called a man now, but the gay bit I'm still working on.



Text Scottee

bath house