Splish Splash: How to Use a Modern Japanese Bath

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Photo by Becca Takano

One of the biggest challenges that foreign people can face in Japan is simply doing basic things. Suddenly, tasks that should be done without thinking — such as using the auto-lock on your front door, using the extractor fan in the kitchen or even setting up your TV — involve a slog through pages of badly translated kanji or pressing each button in turn, hoping that you haven’t done anything that can’t be reversed later.

One of the trickier ones for me when I first arrived was using the shower. I was used to my rotating British-style knob that I dialed left for cold water and right for hot. Instead, I was presented with an electronic panel covered with buttons and mysterious scribbles. Simply finding the correct one to turn on my hot water took a lot of trial and error. I remember fruitlessly jabbing at the controls, hoping that the one I stabbed would turn on the hot water — without scalding me.

Confusingly, the button I was looking for was marked うんてん. It was actually a word that I was familiar with in the verb 運転する (“to drive a car”). What I didn’t know then was that this word also means the operation of a device — in this case, my shower.

From there, I started to notice other buttons that I usually avoided using. For the first time, I realized that the button marked ぬるく was used to make the water in my bathtub lukewarm and / こうおん made the water hot.

If you don’t want your water to be either hot or warm, but somewhere in between, there is also another button marked ゆうせん that runs the water according to the user’s preferred settings. When I used this button along with the arrow keys I was able to select the exact temperature that I wanted.

Most baths these days are designed to require as little effort as possible. Therefore, there is often a button marked ()自動じどう on it. This button will do everything for you, keeping the bath at exactly the right temperature.

I remember fruitlessly jabbing at the controls, hoping that the one I stabbed would turn on the hot water — without scalding me.

If you live in a more modern apartment, you may get confused if you press these buttons and nothing happens. Often the 指し湯 / 高温 button has a little bit of small print as the word 長押ながおし may be written underneath. At first, this confused me at my new place, too, until I realized that this meant I should press the button for a long time.

I also finally worked out what the mysterious 追焚おいだき button did. This button is used for reheating the bath. It may not seem very useful until you have your partner stay over and they have spent so long luxuriating in your tub that the water has gone tepid!

Most bathrooms will also have a fan button (usually simply marked ファン). This is used to remove some of the moisture from the bathroom. It may be a button or it could be a cord that you pull or a switch on the outside of the bathroom.

The only thing to be very careful of is that many showers have a button marked し. This button has been the bane of many unsuspecting foreign people as it is primarily used as an emergency aid for seniors who got into the bath and can’t get up.

Hilariously, some 呼び出し, especially those in buildings targeted at the elderly, contact the 管理人かんりにん (manager) of your building if you press it. While this has (thankfully) never happened to me, I am convinced that there is nothing like having a conversation in broken Japanese with an old guy while completely naked to make sure that you learn the kanji for this button!

One of the advantages of learning these characters is that you will see them almost every day (or two or three times a day in these upcoming muggy months!). If you want to spend your time in the shower usefully, there are a lot worse ways to spend it than memorizing the kanji 呼び, 優先, 湯, 高温 and 運転 — all of which are necessary for the JLPT 2 and 3 qualification. Mastering kanji and getting the most out of bath time should be plenty of incentive to master your bathroom’s settings.

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