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New York Times

In a Bathhouse, Sisters Under the Skin

July 11, 1999
By BLAIR TINDALL;  BLAIR TINDALL is the solo oboist of the "Les Miserables" orchestra on Broadway.

THWACK. Splat. Dainty Japanese women pummeled, slapped and kneaded flesh in every corner of the room. Bodies smeared with Vaseline and pureed cucumber lay everywhere. Across the steamy bathhouse an attendant in a black lace bikini poured milk over a female torso. Nearby, my friend bore closer resemblance to a swamp thing than to the elegant flutist who had performed a concert earlier. I didn't, indeed couldn't, laugh. My facial muscles were frozen by the green goo.

Hours earlier, four American musicians had conferred backstage with Yoko, our Japanese guide. She had confirmed our reservation at Ruby Palace, a Tokyo bathhouse offering full Eastern spa services for women only. Jean, Sheryl, Kathy and I had been performing at full tilt with our colleagues on a New York Pops Orchestra tour last winter. We wanted some relaxation.

On tour, performance focus is elusive as jet lag casts shadows across the brain. Different climates and altitudes cause instruments to malfunction. Oboe reeds misbehave and new ones must be crafted. Strings break, violin bridges fall and cello seams open up. Hotel rooms are not the best places to practice. Musicians planning to call home couldn't figure out the new phone card system. Hardly anyone slept for days and the beds were a little too short. Tempers flared. Children screamed. We all felt a bit like throwing up. Ruby Palace was just the ticket, Yoko beamed, handing us a map.

Bushwhacking through twisting alleys marked with kanji symbols, we were soon lost. Our well-rehearsed question, "Ruby Palace wa doko desu ka?" had little effect on pedestrians. It was late. Persistence led to a fortuitous series of wrong turns, and Ruby Palace's pink neon beacon glowed from a deserted cul-de-sac.

Inside, our lot improved. We may have been babbling aliens on the street, but here we were women first, and gaijin (foreigners) second. The proprietors of Ruby Palace welcomed us into their inner sanctum. Discarding robes and modesty, we entered the communal bathing area. Gaijin fever swept the room. We towered over the sea of perhaps 30 tiny Japanese women, four relatively enormous, naked New Yorkers. Coy glances were stolen at us at every chance.

The steamy multipurpose room included rows of stools with individual showers and mirrors, toiletries, an icy plunge pool, an ofuru (communal hot tub) and doors leading to sauna and steam rooms. On 15 sturdy massage tables, attendants scrubbed and massaged limp Asian bodies. The attendants' black bikini uniforms were perpetually soaked as they sprayed water, soap and detritus into a trough that drained around the edge of the room. Women were draped over stools, tables, at the edge of a tub, leaning against pillars, scrubbing away, soaking, stretching.

It was the voluptuous scene of self-indulgence I had imagined as a child upon seeing the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. We were led by the hand, positioned in a corner and hosed down like patio furniture. Nothing was left to chance with these filthy Americans.

And filthy we were. Placing us on massage tables, they scrubbed every inch of skin harshly with mitts resembling Brillo, our limbs forcefully pulled this way and that to expose delicate patches. My scrubber, Micki, proudly held up a bottle and exclaimed "baby oil." I displayed my equivalent language expertise by identifying the milk poured on me as miruku. The communication problem eliminated, Micki, two-thirds my size, moved me about with the aplomb of a stevedore.

Ten minutes into the procedure, I noticed mounds of a natural-looking substance on the table beside my arm. A fancy exfoliation cream, perhaps? It was not on any Japanese woman's table. It was my skin. Heaps of 38-year-old skin. We must have seemed repulsively fascinating.
Private conversations marveled at the Amazonian stature of our 6-foot-1 companion, gestures indicated awe over arm hair, pierced ears (though a violinist and violist with a navel ring and tattoo had preceded us by a day) and hair color. Exhaustive discussions ensued. What good fortune to see foreign biology right here in Ruby Palace. Each time I turned my head during the 45-minute scrub, another huddle of women was exclaiming, pointing, giggling or quietly staring at feet hanging over the end of the tables.

I WATCHED Jean's blissful visage turn to alarm as her shampoo became so vigorous it seemed she would be jerked upright by her ponytail to dry. Released, she punctuated expeditions to the sauna and steam room by plunging into hot and icy pools.

The sauna was all business, women applying lotion, pumicing feet and gossiping, an enigmatic game show blaring on television. The mist of the steam room was exotically perfumed by bamboo. Gawking and smiles were ubiquitous. As I climbed into the ofuru, a gray-haired woman walloped me sharply on the head with her bathing bucket. Gales of laughter followed. An accident? An attendant leaving her shift squatted, rubbing her black lace uniform against the concrete floor, as if everything must be reduced to its original state, impurity erased.

"Scrubbofied and tubbofied," as Salman Rushdie would put it, we levitated to a serene room lined with rows of Naugahyde La-Z-Boy recliners. Another television droned quietly. Some patrons were tucked in for the night -- the Palace never closes. Tempting aromas wafted from the in-house restaurant. Women sprawled about the cafe in varying states of undress, cigarette smoke rising defiantly, picking languorously at plates of sushi, soba and other delicacies. I had never before seen Japanese women so at ease.

Regulars come alone or meet friends in a ritual that embraces Shinto traditions of purity while easing relentless lives. All ages were here at the late evening hour, though most were young professional women. The room is womblike, a place of peace, in the company only of women. After a nap, floating back to the Shinjuku subway station was a spiritual experience. Our three hours, at $125 a person, had been well spent.

Winding down in the rooftop bar of the Meridien Pacific Hotel, we spoke of being outsiders in Japan, unable to comprehend culture, language and customs. But now we celebrated the community of women, a borderless circle of grace that welcomed us to a foreign land.