A Visit to a Japanese Bathhouse

by J.P. McNally
Lately there has been so much discussion of the trade and business relations between the United States and Japan. While the American company I work for does significant business in Japan, this article is not about money management and politics. Instead I have chosen to write about a common Japanese experience, the bathhouse.

On a recent trip to Japan I decided to go to the Tokyo Station onsen or bathhouse. The director of our affiliate in Tokyo, Watanabe-san, recommended this bathhouse to me. If you get to Tokyo you have to go here. Not only will you enjoy the bath, but you will see a fascinating slice of modern Japanese life. However, I have to tell you that the Tokyo Station onsen, like many bathhouses in Tokyo, is for men only. Sorry ladies. It is kind of the Japanese equivalent to the American menís club.

Just finding the bathhouse is an adventure in itself. Located in the Tokyo Station, you can get there from just about anywhere in the city via the subway. Tokyo Station is a big place where the subway, Japan railroad (J.R. Line), and the bullet trains (Shinkasa) all converge. It is also very busy and easy to become confused.

I quickly learned that very few people in Tokyo actually speak a lot of English. But I was undaunted. I finally figured out that the subway station at Tokyo Station was just a part of the big picture and I first had to go to the street level.
Watanabe-san had told me that the onsen was on the opposite side of the Tokyo Station from the subway near the Shinkasa bullet train line. Ok, but how do I get there? I wandered from hallway to hallway trying to get through. No luck. It was looking as if I would have to buy a bullet train ticket just to get to the other side of the station. I just could not bring myself to spend $125 for a hot soak.

Finally, I resorted to asking people in (very bad) Japanese "Tookyoo onsen doko deska?" Literally, "Tokyo bathhouse where is?" Eventually a communal effort of several Japanese got me the (equally bad) English response, "You take the free passage." Ah, the free passage(way). But "Where is this?", I gestured. "Over there" was the reply in more sign language.

I wandered and found an obscure hallway that looked more like a service shaft than anything else. I followed it as it twisted and turned. Suddenly I was in the Shinkasa section of the Tokyo Station. Success! But now what?

I spent the next twenty minutes wandering back and forth hoping to spot a few letters of Romaji (Japanese words written using English letters) that could help me. No luck. I wandered in and out of the station.

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