Friday, April 12, 2013

Embarrasing Mistakes at Japanese Hot Springs

Japanese Kanji for Men's Bath
Japanese Kanji for Women's Bath
Every foreigner who has been to many Japanese onsens has at least one story of a very stupid or embarrassing mistake. The most common mistake is forgetting to take off the special sandals that are worn only when using the toilets. The word toilet is often written across the sandals. The foreigner usually walks across the onsen facilities for several minutes or more before realizing the mistake. I've done this several times. My worst mistake, though, only happened once, and I pray that it never happens again. The following is my foolish tale of woe, told in the hope that it can spare some other silly man the same shame.

My Most Embarrassing Japanese Hot Spring Experience

My Japanese in-laws will never let me forget the day I mistakenly wandered naked into the women’s empty bath area, soaked, and then napped spreadeagled with my family jewels on full display. In Japanese, they are called kintama, (金玉)、 which literally translates as gold precious stones.

Most onsen facilities have separate rooms for men and women. The baths, views, saunas, and greenery are not identical. To give everyone a chance to experience each side, the rooms are switched each day or each week.

A Japanese noren (door curtain) with the kanji for man (男) or woman (女) usually hangs in front of the bath areas. I had gone many times to the same hot spring and, by chance, had always bathed on the right side. That particular day, I just entered without paying attention to the kanji on the curtain.

As usual, the same comfortable steamy wooden bath greeted me as it had before. No one was in the room. After soaking for a long time, I lay face upwards on the floor and quickly drifted asleep. The surprised cry of a woman and a hastily closed door woke me. I had no idea who had screamed, but, of course, I realized that something was wrong, so I started washing up in preparation to leave. Suddenly, my wife walked in the room. Shocked, I stared curiously at her. Why had she walked into the men's room? It turned out that my visiting sister-in-law, who had walked into what was that day the women's bathroom, had partially opened the door and had seen just the bottom half of a naked man who she assumed was either dead or had fainted on the floor. My wife heard the story and, knowing my nature, had assumed it was me on the floor. After dressing and leaving the bathroom, I profusely apologized to my sister-in-law and other guests who had heard her scream. I felt like a fool, but with time this terribly embarrassing situation became an amusing story.

To prevent mistakes and to make sure that bathers have a safe experience, some hot springs have posted on their walls informative illustrations such as the one in this post.

If you have any entertaining onsen stories or recommendations for hot springs, please write a comment below.