All that aside, while the bath-loving Japanese regularly enjoy public bathhouses and hot springs, the Italians do no such thing. Most Japanese are familiar with the comic Thermae Romae, which depicts the bathing rituals of ancient Rome—but while the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla are a world-famous sightseeing destination, with visitors admiring the rich history of what was once a major entertainment complex (there were libraries, entertainment spaces, and other recreational facilities surrounding the large baths), modern Italians have all but lost the love for bathing that the Japanese have today.
This is evidenced by the fact that although there are still wonderful hot spring resorts scattered about Italy, most of them require bathing suits and aren’t enjoyed the way the Japanese enjoy their baths. In other words, men and women get in together. In Japan, the practice is the same whether people are at home or at a public bath or hot spring: you wash your body before soaking in the hot water. So if strangers are soaking in the same bath with you, it’s no problem at all. Everyone is enjoying a clean and relaxed body and mind. But at the hot springs in Italy, men and women are in together wearing bathing suits, and nobody’s soaped and washed from head to toe. They soak in tepid water, try out different kinds of saunas, or get in whirlpool baths. It’s more like relaxing at a spa, where people come to a facility that uses water to promote health. To me, it seems like people are typically there less to soak in the hot springs and more to drink the hot spring water for its curative effects.
With all of that, I expect that there are quite a few Italian tourists who are hesitant to go to a Japanese bathhouse or hot spring, and would rather avoid getting in a large public bath. The biggest thing they react negatively to is going somewhere where people they know –not to mention people they don’t know—are all naked in the bath together. They probably can’t imagine being that defenseless in front of others. Maybe that instinct to protect themselves is a holdover from the history of repeated invasion and conquest on the European continent.
So far though, even Italians who have sworn (without having ever tried it) that they’d never go in a public bath realize how wonderful the Japanese way of enjoying bathhouses and hot springs is once they experience it for themselves. Some end up completely enamored with it. It’s a wonderful thing, and the change brings a smile to my face.