"Take off your clothes."
Pity is an unknown concept to the tiny old lady. Even though we are towering over her, we are at her mercy. "Take off your clothes", she repeats. At least that's what we're guessing her words mean, since our Japanese abilities don't go beyond "arigatou", "konnichiwa" and "sumimasen" at this point.
It's a hot evening in August and we are standing in the locker room of a small public bathhouse in Nara. With every piece of clothing, we lose more of our resistance and dignity. When the eyes of our opponent (apparently a regular) and the stoically amused gaze of the reception lady fall upon my friend's She-Ra undies, both parties know the battle has long been decided.
And yet, we've had to complete our own little odyssey to even get here. We already wanted to refresh ourselves the night before, only to find out that, apparently, all the bathhouses in town are closed on Mondays. Surprised by that fact and without further ado, our Couchsurfing host led us to a friend's apartment where we were complimented straight into her bathroom. While we were still sweating over how to thank the shower's owner for this not at all trivial favor, she was already busy whipping up snacks accompanied by alcoholic beverages, apologizing for not treating us to something nicer. We quickly had to come to terms with the fact that resistance was futile, and spent the evening in the pleasant company of a few more friends who had been called over while we were busy trying to come up with ideas to pay her back.
Given that experience the night before, we should have known protest was useless. And yet, the idea of baring everything in front of strangers still frightened and embarrassed us.
But the old lady has won. We are as God made us. "Where are your towels?", she asks. Again we're using the imaginary translation program implanted in our brains. Timidly, we present our giant bath towels. She smiles, mildly and full of pity, then firmly shakes her head. "Not for drying off. For washing yourselves!" She picks up a small, white cloth, miming what we just guess-translated she said. We know. After some digging, my friend produces a washcloth from her bag. Eyebrows are raised, followed by reluctant approval. Looking at me, she asks, "What about you?" I look at my feet, slowly shaking my head, transported back to primary school and scolded by the teacher for forgetting my gym clothes in front of the entire class. But the old lady is taking pity on me, handing me an old, white cloth from her collection. Over the years, the washing machine has eaten itself through the fabric. Yet it's spotlessly clean. Blushing, I manage to stumble a weak "arigatou" when I bow and accept her gift. She smiles, taking a step back and letting us pass into the main bathing area.
When we return to Nara a few weeks later to say goodbye to our Couchsurfing friends, we cannot wait to go back to "our" first bathing house. Traveling from Fuji-san all the way down to Yakushima, we have become enchanted not only by Couchsurfing as our new preferred way of traveling, but also by Japanese bathing culture. Now seasoned veterans, not even the stoic glance of the (now male) reception clerk can stop us from gladly throwing away what we wear and enjoying the wonderful institution that are Japanese bathhouses.