Week 3: Communal Bathing & Other Cultural Curiosities

As I mentioned in my previous post, NORTHSTAR is a very international lodge with different nationalities working together. It is easy to forget that I am actually in Japan when the way we do a lot of things seems relatively normal. Japan is undoubtedly a modern nation, but Japan’s rich history goes so far back that tradition is a staple. After all, the Japanese have had thousands of years to figure out the best way to do things. Many of the houses in Japan are built with the traditional look, high roof and creased and pointed corners. At the entrance to just about every Japanese establishment there is a step up into the house. To step up and into the house with your outside shoes still on is considered very rude and dishonorable. At first for me it was not a big deal, just a small inconvenience. I took the time to tie and untie my shoes every time I walked between my dorm and the lodge. I learned very quickly how time consuming it was to go through every action and learned to just slip on some flip flops. But wait, there is more! Every time you go into the kitchen you have to wear shoes designated to the kitchen. They are communal, Croc styles shoes shared by whoever is working in the kitchen. And then there are special shoes for the bathroom as well! I was so fed up with changing shoes all the time. Totally unnecessary. But as I thought about it I realized how nice it was to not have to worry about grit inside and know that the areas were being kept free from outside dirt. Now it comes as second nature to quickly slip shoes on and off depending on where I am.

The Japanese have a deeply seated sense of politeness. It is very important to keep the boat from rocking, and is communicated through body language, actions, and the Japanese language. The Japanese have customs for everything to be polite, down to paying for something. When I paid for my ice cream the other day I forgot that the polite thing to do is set the money on the table and allow the cashier to pick it up. Money is considered “dirty” so should not be handed. I promptly dropped the coins into the cashier’s hands without a second thought. It seems inconsequential to Westerners. The French, Americans, and Mexicans have no such customs so it seems unnecessary. But when in Japan...

Speaking of Japan, one of the most popular things to do in Japan is to visit an onsen, a hot spring. Japan is full of volcanoes making hot springs plentiful, especially up in the mountains where NORTHSTAR is located. On Monday, our day off, ten of us took a drive over the mountain to a nearby village to visit a really nice onsen. It is part of a hotel and restaurant with delicious food. Coming from the Americas where privacy is valued I knew I would have to get over some discomfort when it came to bathing like the Japanese do. At this onsen the men bathe separately from the women. There is a changing room to leave your clothes and a shower room. Everyone must shower and wash before getting into the hot spring tubs. Then you just get in and talk with people. The French guys and the full time staff had experienced an onsen before, but for me it was a totally new experience. Of course you have to get over some discomfort but it was a very enjoyable experience. I felt refreshed and very relaxed, a wonderful way to end a very busy time here in Norikura!