18 Nov 2012
Collingwood – you've gotta be dreamin. It might be a surprising location for a cherished slice of contemporary Japanese culture, but you'll find The Japanese Bath House – Ofuro Ya, the only traditional public bath house in Australia, down a narrow backstreet in this well known Melbourne suburb.
There's three levels to The Japanese Bath House: men's bathing area on the ground floor; women's section on the first floor; and a level dedicated to shiatsu, a hands-on Japanese therapy that involves unlocking the flow of energy, on the second floor. It could be thought of as a healing centre.
Japanese bathing is steeped in tradition and considered a communal activity, a way to relax with others. "It's a Japanese version of a chat over dinner," said Mocca Masuoka, manager of The Japanese Bath House and daughter of the founder, Hiromi Masuoka.
Public bathing is a popular activity in Japan; however, the 'no bathers' policy means it's open to misunderstanding by newcomers to Japanese culture. For some, the mixture of nakedness, hot bath and tranquil setting can signal an experience of a different kind than the one intended.
"There were some difficulties when my mother first opened," said Mocca. The prominent sign in the dressing room warning against 'inappropriate behaviour' indicates there's still a little way to go until the nature of communal bathing is fully appreciated.
For the many regulars, it's no giggle or cause for anxiety. They believe that they've found a wonderful way to relax, and some regard it as an inexpensive alternative to the gym or complementary body therapies.
The Japanese Bath House – Ofuro Ya is the story of a family business. Hiromi Masuoka opened the bath house thirteen years ago to support her family. "My mother didn't want to open another Japanese restaurant and loved traditional bathing. We would often bathe together at home," said Mocca.
At nineteen, Mocca travelled to Japan and lived in Tokyo before returning to join the family business. "It wasn't easy at first," she said, but now, with years of experience, Mocca is clear about the future. "I want to keep to the original concept – a traditional public bathing experience; my mother or I will always be here to greet customers."
For newbies, the basics are as follows. Upon entering it's shoes off – an early reminder you're entering a traditional Japanese space. Mocca or Hiromi will be at the reception desk to welcome you and answer questions. Grab the bundle that's handed to you: loafer to scrub with, towel and traditional garb, and make your way to the change-room.
If you're modest, grab an extra towel, it may come in handy to carefully drape in front of you. It's very hot in the sauna, an extra towel can also be used to sit on.
You may be slightly less coherent after a good session, so remember where you put your valuables. "Some of our customers forget where they've left their jewellery," said Mocca.
Strip off -the lot – and go into the bathing area. Sit on one of the tiny stools, start to scrub and invigorate yourself by exfoliating the dead skin on your body. The hand-held shower nozzle will help you get completely clean- the idea is to get the muck off before you bathe.
Next, it's into the hot bath. The heat will begin its work of relaxing you. Try the sauna and then back to the shower. Wash your hair this time. Move between the hot bath and the sauna until you've had enough. Dry yourself and head back to the change room. You will probably be sweating, so take time to settle.
Recovery is an important part of the process. You can dress in the traditional robe and take a tea, sake, beer or other type of beverage in the Tatami Lounge, a pleasant area with Japanese straw matting designed for resting after a bathe.
If Mocca hears a customer say something like, "I don't want to face the real world" on the way out, she's happy. It means they've discovered the art of Japanese bathing. She believes that a decent session needs more than one hour as the secret to a memorable session is slowing down and allowing your senses to absorb the experience, treating it as if it were a ritual.
Melbourne is fortunate to have Ofuro Ya – the most stressful part of a visit may be finding a parking spot.
Story: Peter Dewar
The Japanese Bath House
59 Cromwell Street Collinwood
Phone: 9419 0268