This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Juliette Wade discusses Bathing in Japan.
Before I actually went to Japan, I'd always been given the impression that Japanese families bathed together. And given my cultural background (and ignorance) I'd figured that was like what I did when I was really little, having baths with my mom or my baby brother. This is not how it works.
Let me start by saying there's a really terrific reason for taking baths in Japan, as opposed to showers. No Japanese home I have visited has had central heating; it's room by room. This means that when I was living with my first host family, I had days when I woke up in the morning with my nose hurting from being so cold; once I checked with a thermometer and discovered it was 3 degrees C in my bedroom. Unfortunately, this was also the period when I didn't feel comfortable with the Japanese way of bathing, and I froze myself silly by trying to take showers. After I moved in with a family that took time to explain things and be friendly, I was sane and used the bath. Still, I would wake to my alarm in the morning, lie still and calculate for several seconds the leap it would take to reach my kerosene heater before making the move and rolling immediately back under my futon cover (I'll do futons another day!).
Every house or apartment I've visited in Japan, no matter how small, has had a bathroom. The traditional Japanese bathroom is completely tiled (or at least water-friendly) and has water sources on the walls outside the bath itself. This means that the area with the sink is not actually in the bathroom. Nor is the toilet, but that too is a topic for another day. When going to bathe, the bather enters the bathroom, sits on a small plastic stool and washes head to toe in the general waterproof area, rinses off, and then at the very end steps into the bathwater, which is mostly for relaxing and warming up. If you've watched the movie My Neighbor Totoro you will have seen an old-fashioned version of this. It makes a lot more sense (at least to me as an American) for people to share the same bathwater when they're each getting clean first.
Some tubs have ways of keeping the water warm, and some don't. All the tubs are deep, though, because they're made for soaking, often up to the neck. High-tech modern tubs may have built-in heating elements, but the funniest thing that ever happened to us when my husband and I lived in Japan was that we got to use an old-style bath belonging to some friends who lived on a tiny island off the north coast of Honshu. In this bath, I was shocked to discover that the longer I sat, the hotter it seemed to get. I had no idea what to make of this, so I took a very quick bath; then my husband discovered the same thing. We had been told before going in to put lots and lots of water in, but because Japanese has a different word for "hot water" (oyu) from "cold water," (omizu) I missed which one had been used, and mistakenly assumed that it was like the US, where when the water gets too cold you add more hot water. Not likely in this case! When my husband and I emerged bright red and asked what was going on, we were told that there was a real fire burning underneath the bathtub! Now I know what a lobster feels like... To make this particular bath pleasant you had to keep pouring in loads of cold water. Little did we know. The family we were staying with laughed their heads off at us, which was great, because it made us feel welcome and like we'd been adopted into the family.
There are also public baths. Towns will have public baths which are relatively simple; resorts (onsen) will have more complicated ones with tubs of different temperatures, fancy waterfalls, etc. Public baths are mostly divided into men's and women's, but are not always. (In some natural hot springs you can even bathe with monkeys - now there's inclusiveness.) Many people will take a washcloth into the tub with them, to cover up critical areas, but in general I haven't noticed a great deal of embarrassment among the people who bathe together in this context. The Japanese people I have observed are more embarrassed about having someone see them in the process of getting undressed than see them naked. Thus, outside the common bath area you'll generally find curtained stalls for the undressing part.
People in a shared bath can in fact be very friendly. Once when we visited an inn near the temples of Mount Koya, I was adopted once by a group of elderly ladies who decided that as a foreigner I must not know how Japanese baths were supposed to work, and took it upon themselves to teach me. Because they were sweet and solicitous, I let them teach me even though I'd been through it a few times by then.
Not only do I find the details of Japanese bathing culturally interesting, I also think they show the degree of cultural difference that is possible surrounding a single activity. You see architectural differences in the bathroom; different shaped tubs; different ways of heating water; a separation of the function of the bathroom (washing) and the bath (soaking); different rules of behavior including gender separation, context for modesty, etc. This doesn't even include the rules about who gets to go first/next/last in the family bathtub. When I first arrived in Japan, I was subjected to strict instruction by my first host family about saying the proper words when I emerged from the bath. The phrase was, "Osaki deshita." At first I had no idea what it meant, but later I realized it was a way of humbly recognizing the fact that the other members of the family had allowed me to bathe before them. Literally it means, "I was foremost."
Of course, since I can't resist generalizing from tiny details of cultural practice, I recommend putting some thought into the details of daily activities in any alien or fantasy culture you're working with. Including a "bath scene" (I have a shower scene in chapter 2 of For Love, For Power) or a scene that shows another common daily activity gives you a terrific opportunity to deepen the culture you're sharing with the reader, to illuminate taboos and other general trends of the society through the use of closely observed detail.
Juliette Wade lived in Japan for a total of three+ years, spending a year with two host families in Kyoto, a year in a dormitory for foreign students in Tokyo, and a year and a half in an apartment in the Tokyo suburbs.