I Was A Foreigner In A Tokyo Bathhouse


I emerged from the subway station in Ueno with a throbbing headache. Desperate for a nap, I asked around for a cheap hotel. A group of Japanese teenagers were kind enough to lead me to a building that I wouldn’t have guessed was a hotel. They told me it was nice and cheap, and that was exactly what I needed. I waved goodbye to them and headed inside.

Room 5128 on the 6th floor of the building was actually a Japanese sleeping capsule. It felt as claustrophobic as a coffin. It had a little hatch with a retractable bamboo curtain on one end where you wiggle your way in and sleep for the night. It had everything I needed: It was cheap (Y4000), it had a pillow, a thin mattress, and even a small television. With my headache not going away, I decided to take a rest.

At 10PM, I woke up and walked around town in search for a hot bowl of ramen. The streets and alleyways filled with pedestrians earlier were now empty except for a few stragglers. Most of the businesses were already closed, but there were still a few shops open, including a few restaurants serving their last customers.

I walked into a tiny ramen bar and headed straight toward a vending machine near the door. I dropped several Y100 coins for an order of tonkatsu ramen and waited by the counter. It didn’t take long before a lanky waiter brought a steaming bowl to me, which I slurped in a matter of minutes. For the first time in that trip, I felt satisfied.

On my way back to the hotel, I was hassled by a man holding a clear vinyl umbrella outside the entrance. “Hey, man!” He yelled at me in a heavy Japanese accent. He approached me with a colorful catalog full of half-naked women. “Massage? Massage?” he asked me while making obscene gestures in the air. Not knowing how to say “I’d rather sleep” in Japanese, I just stuck my palms together, tilted my head, made a sleeping gesture, and walked away.

As I headed back to my room, I noticed a lot of nude ads on the walls. There was even a TV guide inside my own capsule with nothing but softcore pay-per-view channels. All the nudity around me made me curious about the place I was in, but I felt too tired to investigate. I put my pillow under my head and went to sleep again.

At around 4 a.m., I woke up with another massive headache. I badly needed a shower so I went to the concierge and asked where the shower rooms were. “7th floh. Massage, shower 9th floh.” they told me. It was yet another offer for a massage. With a headache that just wouldn’t go away, it actually started to sound like a good idea. But what kind of massage did they offer?

The place where I was staying clearly wasn’t some soapland or a love hotel—popular in Japan for those who seek carnal adventures. For obvious reasons, the capsules simply weren’t purpose-built for intimate affairs involving more than a single occupant. Yet I couldn’t help but think about all the naked ads on the wall and the shady guy that hassled me outside my building. What were they all about?

Perhaps 9th floor had special rooms filled with girls bouncing around in skimpy school uniforms. But then again, they could just be old women in boring bleach-white uniforms hiding behind musty curtains. I wanted to avoid any surprises so I thought about asking. But for a non-Japanese speaker like me, using hand gestures to inquire about what type of massage the hotel offered was not exactly a good option.

I returned to my pod, grabbed fresh clothes, and climbed the stairs to 7th floor. Three old female employees greeted me. I didn’t know what to reply so I just bowed and smiled awkwardly. While one of the women was handing me a bunch of towels and a bathrobe, I saw a naked man walk out of the shower to grab his phone from one of the lockers.

Confused, I asked the women again: “Is this 7th floor?”

“7th floh shower, massage 9th floh,” the old ladies told me.

As I cautiously made my way to the shower area, the women shouted at me, “Noooo! Nooo!”

I stopped and turned around. They giggled and gestured to take off my clothes. The woman kept their eyes on me as I slowly stripped off every single garment I had on. When I walked into what looked like a bathhouse, I saw at least a dozen nude men showering on tiny stools. There was a vacant stool where I could quickly shower, but I didn’t want to be in close proximity to anybody naked. So I waited.

After a good number of bathers had left, I walked back into the shower area. As soon as I sat on my stool, more naked bathers quickly occupied the vacant spots and now I was stuck in the middle of two nude middle-aged men.

It was imperative to do my business quickly. I turned on the shower hose and immediately rubbed soap all over my body. For some silly reason, I decided to look at the man next to me and observed his rituals. His badly receding hairline made him look like some shady character in a samurai movie. I couldn’t help but look at the tiny patch of hair on top of his head and I was quite perplexed at how rigorously he shampooed what was left of it. “Why doesn’t he just shave it all off?” I thought to myself. The man suddenly looked at me with a rather vicious stare. I quickly rinsed the soap off my body and left.

I put on my bathrobe and quickly headed to the smoking lobby. I anxiously lit a cigarette to calm myself down. Tokyo looked absolutely beautiful from the lobby’s window. The mesmerizing city lights were starting to calm me down when I noticed a balding man in a bathrobe walking in my direction—and the small patch of hair on his head looked familiar.

As the man finally reached the lobby, I stiffened up and took another drag from my cigarette. He sat down and leaned his balding head against the wall, blowing a white plume of smoke in the air as he observed me out of the corner of his eye. Not knowing how to say “Good morning” in Japanese, I tried to acknowledge him by nodding and smiling at him, but all I got in return was a rather hostile stare. I simply didn’t know what to make of his strange look.

Our robes made us look like a honeymooning couple smoking our post-coital cigarettes, and the man’s look was that of an unsatisfied partner. I was beginning to imagine ugly thoughts when I realized I had been staring at him for too long. I immediately wiped the awkward smirk off my face and looked away.

The Japanese call people like me Gaikokujin—a “foreign country person”—and Tokyo definitely has its own peculiar ways of reminding you of that.