An image from a 1811 guidebook to the Hakone hot springs. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Desi Anwar: Culture of Cleanliness


MARCH 06, 2015

An image from a 1811 guidebook to the Hakone hot springs. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I can't say the idea of being naked in front of a bunch of strangers and sharing a communal bath is something that I relish. As a matter of fact, just thinking about it gives me the creeps.

Finding myself in Myoko, Japan, and staying in a pension near the ski resort with only tatami mats in the room and no en suite bathroom, however, gives me no choice. The only bathroom available is a shared one in the basement with two plastic stools and handheld showers. As there's no lock in the door, who is to say that someone wouldn't come in and deposit herself next to me as I'm in the middle of my ablutions.

The only solution to give my body a good wash is to go to a local onsen or natural spring water public bath ten minutes away from the modest pension.

I am told that my flowery bikini would be superfluous. It's not as if we're going for a relaxing swim. Though I am assured that there will be towels available.

The place is actually more like a club where Japanese young and old come for their après ski to chill, surf the Internet, read books, shoot pool, karaoke and of course, soak themselves in the hot sulphuric water for a few hours after a day on the slopes.

As it turns out, my ickiness about being in close proximity to public washrooms, not to mention being exposed to a lot of bodies en naturelle, is unfounded. The Japanese, and I don't know how they do it, are fastidious people and obsessively clean.

Here, in Indonesia, despite our show of godliness, cleanliness is certainly not part of it. Loos have to be smelly, dirty and horrible, preferably with filthy seats and flimsy doors hanging off their hinges. The more public the toilet, the more pungent the reek of the urine.

I can testify however, that public toilets in Japan are not only squeaky clean, but a place of joy in which to linger and rest one's weary bottom. Entering a public toilet off the toll road on the way back from Myoko to Tokyo (where their counterpart in Indonesia will be guaranteed to be malodorous with no loo paper and wet toilet seats), I find a beautifully designed Ladies room complete with a powder room, a big vase full of carefully arranged flowers and toilets so clean you can eat off the floor.

Setting myself down on the toilet gingerly, I'm always surprised and delighted to feel the warm seat touching my naked flesh where I expect a much colder welcome. And then there are the many buttons on the wall next to the loo, offering different types of bottom washing sprays of your choice. I press them all.

Including one which, for those concerned about the tinkling noises made while doing one's business, if you press, will emit a flushing sound that saves you and others nearby from the mortification of hearing them.

If the Japanese are embarrassed about hearing bodily noises, however, they certainly have no qualms about showing heir bodies.

There is no changing room at the onsen, and I quickly learn that the only way to wrap myself in a towel, is to do what everybody else is doing, which is strip off and hope nobody pays attention. After struggling with my modesty and my little towel which barely covers anything, I give up trying to make a spectacle of myself and pretend that prancing around in my birthday suit is what I do everyday.

In the nude, these ladies go into the bath area where there is a long row of wooden stools in front of handheld showers belly-button high, and proceed to wash and scrub themselves with the soaps and shampoos provided. I recall such scenes in Japanese films but never thought I would take part in one.

After ensuring they're thoroughly washed, it is only then they dip themselves in the hot pool. For more zing in the experience, there's also an outdoor pool where you can be in the hot water while surrounded by snow and the cold evening air.

I also discover what the little towel is for. It is to put on top of your head and keep it sulphur free as you sink your body and allow yourself to pretend that you're one with nature.

What bliss.

Desi Anwar is a senior anchor at Metro TV. She can be reached at or