Traditional Japanese Experiences – Baths and Karaoke
A lot of Japanese life seems to be set up to create greater privacy and to avoid intruding on others’ interactions. As I’ve written about previously, this suits me incredibly well. I am less exhausted by travel in Japan: because there is less required interaction, it takes less energy to get daily activities done (like finding food and shelter).
In India, every morning felt like a great escape from the hotel where we had spent the night. In the time that it took to unfold the bikes, attach our bags, and make any final wardrobe changes in preparation to ride (a process lasting 2-5 minutes) we would usually gather a crowd of at least a dozen onlookers – all of whom were standing well inside my comfort bubble. By contrast, it feels like a challenge to get anyone to stare at you here. Even in rural areas, riding around on our silly bikes, there is no staring. None. One of our friends, a Pakistani-American man married to a Japanese-Welsh woman, was initially shocked that he never gets stared at on the subway in Tokyo. He even tried to engage a toddler in a staring contest on the metro, and the kid would have none of it, demurely averting his gaze.
Japanese people don’t stare! But, as I first realized in the town of Matsuyama, that doesn’t mean they’re not watching you. Matsuyama, our second stop on the island of Shikoku, is a quick ride from Imabari, 50 km (30 miles) along a coast that felt like riding through the Pacific Northwest – but with even better cycling infrastructure. Our first stop in town was the Dogo Onsen,* a traditional Japanese hot-spring bath.
Traditional baths are available in most places, and are amazing for sore legs after long cycling days. Baths are also a very well-covered topic of Japanese etiquette for foreigners. And, because everyone is naked together, they are a space where people try even harder to avoid any semblance of staring, at least in theory. I have read numerous descriptions of what not to do in guide books, blogs, and onsen posters: No bathing suits, don’t let your towel touch the bath water, don’t stand up to shower (the horror!), but none of this mattered when I sat naked on my little stool, facing an unfamiliar shower mechanism with no idea how to make the water go. I must have been trying different levers/ buttons for no more than 10 seconds when, suddenly, a fellow bather swooped in and showed me how. For someone who definitely wasn’t staring, she knew exactly what was going on!
Dmitry had a similar experience. He had gone without me to a local, non-touristy bath in the port town of Tokushima (my sunburned arms and super hot water were not meant to mix). Most of the touristy baths we have visited provide soap and shampoo, so Dmitry neglected to bring any of his own. The gentleman washing next to him immediately understood his dilemma, and after a quick eye contact and nod, proceeded to pour a giant dollop of shampoo onto Dmitry’s head. That’s the thing: people do engage us, but only if engagement is necessary. If we are in need of help (or soap), someone will swiftly come to the rescue. But the rest of the time, we are left to our own devices.
There are places where Japanese privacy norms are set aside, and where interaction is both desired and expected. Unsurprisingly, these are often places where people drink. Karaoke – especially the small-bar/ no private room** version that we went out for our second night in Matsuyama – is the ultimate example of this. After wandering around Okaido Arcade, the nightlife area of Matsuyama, we found our way to Karaoke Bar Takako (named after its proprietress), a small, smoky room on the second floor of an unassuming building. There was a complicated all-you-can-sing/all-you-can-drink payment system, which Takako tried to explain and we tried to understand, but eventually we all gave up and Takako told us (using the translation app on her phone): “I give you cheap.” So we stayed.
Like many karaoke bars, the space at Takako’s was intimate and conducive to interaction – there are 8 seats around an L-shaped bar and another 8 seats on couches behind that. Our compatriots at the bar that evening included: two young women in their 20s, one of whom was a very friendly English-speaker; two very drunk gentlemen in their 30s celebrating a birthday who shared their champagne with us; and two gentlemen in their early 70s who presented us with their Lion’s Club business cards at the end of the night – one of whom proudly showed us that he only has three fingers on his right hand.
From what we’ve heard from others living in Japan – and what we’ve experienced ourselves – this is not an unusual crowd for Japanese karaoke. Unlike karaoke in NYC (the main karaoke I’ve previously participated in), the karaoke bars here are not limited to people in their 20s and 30s – instead it is quite common for older people to come out and sing together with the younger crowd. It felt egalitarian in a way that I could not picture happening in the US. We went from nostalgic Enka ballads sung by the Lion’s Club members, to Dmitry’s stirring rendition of Country Roads (made popular in Japan by the movie Whisper of the Heart), to Taylor Swift by our English-speaking friend (and this beautiful Japanese torch song by her friend), and local pop sung expertly by our hostess.
Also, this happened.
I’m not sure which part I like the best: the dancing? the maraca guy? the random shouting? the back scratches from the three-fingered-man? It was certainly my most epic performance of all time.
As we were leaving Takako to head back to our hotel, we had a rather non-traditional experience: witnessing a street fight between two rival groups. We came upon them at the end of the fight: three guys were on the ground, while three others stood over them and a fourth kicked his supine rival. Crime is very low in Japan, and this was the only violence we witnessed, but it was an interesting counter-point to the ideal of everyone minding their own business. The fight happened in a busy area, on a crowded street, but no one stopped, no one tried to help – no one even stared (except us). Everyone just continued on their way.***
**Japan has two distinct types of karaoke, so you can enjoy it whether or not you are in the mood for interaction. I’ve noticed a lot more establishments here devoted to private room karaoke, so your group does not interact with other patrons. In the US, this is switched – private room karaoke is quite rare and most karaoke bars are public/ shared spaces.
*** In what was possibly another sign of Japanese culture, it appeared as if the combatants had laid something down on the ground to catch his blood (and teeth) so they wouldn’t stain the pavement.