It is different, but good! The men get unlimited towels, the women's are rationed but sufficient (hmm, why are they unwilling to give the women control over how many towels they need?). Other than that the main difference is how popular it is! Gordon told me not to be afraid, there wouldn't be anyone there so I couldn't make a fool of myself. (My greatest fear was accidentally walking into the men's side because I couldn't read the signs. In fact, they are always on different floors of the building, so that would be pretty difficult!) Well, the men's side might be empty, but the women's side is hopping! Most times I've gone there were 15-20 people there. I get the feeling some people go just to hang out - do your exercise (there are a couple treadmills and exercise bikes, along with a television), have a shower, soak and gab in the baths, sweat and gab in the sauna, nap in the locker room. Someone had even brought their rice cooker the last time I went! The ladies come often, so they just leave their shower baskets there, as well as their athletic shoes.
People are extremely friendly and helpful... definitely expanding my comfort zone! For example, the first time I went I didn't have an exfoliating mitt. They're considered essential, so someone came over and insisted I use hers, as well as her soap. She also scrubbed my back for me! I've learned to bring an exfoliating mitt and soap and shampoo with me, but even this is not enough apparently - last time someone insisted that I use her loofah, and gave me conditioner as well when she discovered I had only brought shampoo! Every time I go someone offers to scrub my back for me. For those not fortunate enough to have someone offer, there is even a machine that will do it for you. However, this machine scares me and I don't think I'm ever going to use it.
I was guided to the choice shower (the one I had selected seemed fine... but they insisted!); they examined what I had brought and supplied anything they deemed missing. Someone was observing me shampoo and either a) didn't think I was going to end up clean enough to go in the communal baths (I hope not!), b) really wanted to touch blond hair (the kids try to pull it out, so entranced they are - all to cries of "Teacher! White fur!"), or c) was just trying to be helpful (I hope this was the case!). She grabbed my bottle of shampoo and proceeded to lather copious handfuls into my hair, spending at least five minutes working from my scalp down to the ends, falling to my hips these days. Just when I thought she was finished, she insisted on helping me rinse my hair (yes, this all felt kind of weird, but hey, why not!) and then condition it, which took about as long as the shampooing. My neck was getting a bit sore - like most of the women, she was about six inches shorter than me, so pulled down on my hair to reach my head! - but other than that, all was well. I don't think my hair has ever in my life been so clean and conditioned!
At last, I was ready for the baths. There are usually three, sometimes more in larger bath houses. One has warm, "bath temperature" water. One has hotter water. At our local bath house (less than a block away!), the hottest pool also has various herbs in the water. Sometimes there is a pool with green tea, also. All very nice! And last there is the cold pool, a bit bigger so you can almost swim, and bracingly chilly. At larger bath houses, they sometimes post the temperature above the pools so you know what you're in for, at the smaller ones, the taps are right there and you can add hot or cold water as you like (though, I dare not with such experienced women supervising!). Each pool can probably seat about eight women, though usually people are spread out among the different pools, the showers, and the sauna, so it doesn't get too crowded. I'm afraid I can't post any pictures, so you'll have to imagine!
My usual routine is to rotate through the pools every five or ten minutes, starting with warm, going to cold, then hot, then cold, and so on. It's extremely refreshing, especially the cold pool! Gordon teases me because I spend twice as long as he does at the bath house - but, I don't think he has quite the same shampooing experience as I do! Things are a bit different on the men's side, but you'll have to ask Gordon if you're wondering. :) It's quite the deal for only about $3!