I’ve traveled around the world quite a bit, and I’ve observed that much of what we do in travel is what is called “sightseeing” – we go places to see sights. Often they are sights we have read about and only seen in photos and movies, so it is exciting to see them up close and in person – the Grand Canyon, the Great Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower. But I have found that what is more memorable about travel is not places and things that one sees, but experiences one has along the way.
So when I traveled to Kyoto, Japan, several years ago, I decided that I wanted to experience going to a Japanese public bath. I knew from reading about those baths that they are done in groups in the nude. In the past, men and women bathed together, but nowadays they bathe separately. I also understood that since multiple people use the same bath, it is mandatory that one scrub and rinse scrupulously before actually entering the water.
I found out that there was a local public bath a short distance from my hotel in Kyoto. So I screwed up my courage and walked into the main entrance of the bathhouse, at once realizing that it was very important that I go in the men’s entrance and not the women’s. I did not want to make a mistake and have the next day’s local headline read, “American Tourist Arrested for Indecent Exposure.”
I paid the modest fee and was given a key to a locker, a small towel and a bar of soap. Having undressed in the locker room, I took a deep breath and ventured through a steamed-up glass door into the bath area.
Inside was a large ceramic tiled room with six men and three pools of water. I found a low stool and a wooden bucket in front of a spigot. I soaped and rinsed thoroughly, maybe even a bit ostentatiously. None of the men seemed to be paying any attention to me, but I realized that, of course, they were secretly watching my every move. As a Caucasian, I was about as inconspicuous as if a great white whale had been washed up onto the tiled floor of the bath.
Clean as a whistle, I sauntered as casually as I could to check out the three pools of water, each of which was about 12 feet square. I dipped my hand into the first pool and it was so scalding hot that I realized it would transform me from a white whale into a large red lobster. Pool two was hot but bearable, and pool three was rather cool. Feeling a bit like Goldilocks, I decided that the first pool was too hot, the third pool was too cool, and the second pool was just right. I soaked in the middle pool for about 20 minutes, and emerged onto the street feeling very clean and relaxed, with my dignity mostly intact.
Looking back on this experience, I realize that I could have held myself back from going to the public bath out of fear that I would be embarrassed. And I was embarrassed. But, in spite of people saying they could have “died of embarrassment,” I have found that it is rarely fatal. So the next time you hesitate doing something out of the fear of being embarrassed, picture the foolish American tourist making his way naked, conspicuous and uncertain in a Japanese public bath. Then just go ahead and do what it is you want to do.
A wise person once said that our life is not a dress rehearsal; it is the only one we have. So don’t hold yourself back – live it.