Japan: Cultural shifts in spa etiquette

By , Correspondent

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    Private, open-air spa at the Hakone Suishoen hotel.
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A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

HAKONE, JAPAN – Dipping in a hot spring is a Japanese obsession. In summer, many people head for a spa resort like this mountain town, 50 miles southwest of Tokyo, to relax in a communal bath.

A spa bath may accommodate 30 or even 100. Japanese people say they get therapeutic benefits and indulge in chatting with strangers in a bath.

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Japanese have a long tradition of same-sex bathing with everyone in the nude, a concept called hadaka no tsukiai (naked association), says Teruyuki Murase, an official at the Gero-Spa association, a major hot spring region in central Japan. “We take it for granted since our childhood.”

That’s changing, however. Since most hot springs only have single-sex bathing areas, some families and couples want a private bath in a hotel room or a reserved bath to enjoy together, say hotel mangers.

To meet this demand, hotels have been adding guest rooms with a private open-air hot-spring bath attached. Some new hotels, like Hakone Suishoen, have such baths in every room. They are reaping a windfall even amid recession as they also attract non-Japanese tourists.

“We have an increasing number of visitors from the US and Asia,” says Yayoi Naka, a manager at Hakone Suishoen. “Our overseas guests give priority to a spa in a room.”

A growing number of foreign tourists want to experience Japanese hot springs, says Mr. Murase. But “Westerners hesitate to be naked in the presence of others. Naked association is not Western culture.”

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