The onsen

‘So. Now for the surprise. Right here, at the airport, is an onsen. The Japanese hot baths. What we’re going to do now is …’

I felt myself go pale. You know the feeling. All the blood in your body drains away … into your ankles and through the soles of your feet into the shifting ground beneath you.

We had arrived at Nagoya, Japan, the night before. We had wandered the length and breadth of the airport – a massive, sparkling clean, glass enclosed, marble tiled shopping centre – for hours, waiting for our fellow travellers to arrive.  

The group leader, a wispy-pony-tailed hippie from Oaklands, California, dressed quite ridiculously in a beige, embroidered, fashionably creased and generously sized Ecuadorian wedding shirt, and unflattering, voluminous black Japanese construction worker’s pants, had arrived first. Came strolling towards us, his fluffy, grubby looking socks and enormous trainers leading the way, bearing large white carrier bags,  a backpack and an effuse Californian smile. Without a single thought forming inside my head, I could feel the negative charges bouncing off between us. The road through Japan was not going to be smooth. I also sensed that he was the hugging-of-total-strangers type and that, if he so much as spread his arms in my direction, I would be on the next plane out of Nagoya, straight back to Cape Town, without having taken my first sip of green tea.

So there we stood: three Westerners – two South Africans and one Californian – each with two weeks of luggage, in the middle of the arrivals lounge of Nagoya airport, waiting for the other two members of our group to walk through the arrivals gate. Even as not very tall people, we were conspicuous amongst the mass of more slightly built, reserved Japanese people moving through the thoroughfare. The Japanese people are quite incredible: neat, contained, impassive, with a graceful economy of movement. Fully aware of themselves and the space they each fill. Quite unlike the loud, large and klutzy group we formed. 

Then they bustled through the gate: beady-eyed, beaky, purse-lipped Anne from Washington DC and slightly goofy, vacant and very young John from San Francisco. Both tired from an eleven-hour flight but smiling expectantly, excited about being in Japan for the first time, and ready to absorb any new experience. This was going to be so cool. They were going to be such interesting people after this experience! Oh, the stories they will tell!

img_5122.jpgOur large, loud Western circle increased in size, colour, volume and spectacle. Our Californian hippie wasted no time in introducing us to a Californian hippie ritual. ‘Right, everyone! Give a thumbs-up!’ Obediently, albeit embarrassedly, we each stretched out an arm to the centre of the circle, the clenched fist at the end of each bearing an upturned thumb. ‘Okay. Now turn your thumb over to the left and clasp the thumb of the person to your right …’ ‘If the talking stick comes out, that’s it. I’m out of here,’ I thought as we each arched our hitch hiker’s thumbs over to the left and unclasped our pinkies to receive the thumb of the person to our right.  

‘Okay,’ he rumbled in his counsellor’s voice – that special voice only the deeply insincere adopt when trying to sound as if they’re, like, fully there for you. ‘That’s your circle of support.’

A deep and meaningful ritual, indeed. Warming the thumb of a total stranger in the palm of my sweaty hand, in an airport in Japan was not likely to bind me to him in any way, I thought. Clearly an open mind is required here.

‘So what we’re going to do now is take our luggage upstairs to the baths and have our first truly Japanese experience. Let’s make a noise.’ 

‘Noooo …,’ I heard my voice calling. It had been as if for the last few minutes only my snowy white fingertips had kept me from slipping off the cliff and into the deep, dark abyss below. Now I had lost my feeble grip and all I could hear was the faint sound of my protestation as the air rushed past my ears. ‘Please let’s not make a noise,’ I say, pleading desperation painfully visible in my eyes, even to the most fanatic charismatic.

‘Okay, we won’t make a noise,’ he says, in a generous moment.

And then we head off to the Japanese baths. All five of us, wheeling our luggage behind us, exploding with the excitement: we’re in Japan! For the very first time! We push and stumble our way through the crowded space. Up escalators, through narrow passageways, past the Japanese crackers shop, past the crafts, past the restaurants to the onsen, where we are introduced to the first, and one of the most important Japanese rituals: removing your shoes when you step up to a higher level.

Each Japanese interior has a clearly demarcated area for which you are required to remove your shoes. The area is most commonly demarcated by a low step. If there is no step, a strip of wood or a change in flooring will indicate that you need to exchange your outside shoes for a pair of house slippers.What a herd of wildebeest we were. Loud, ungraceful, confused, disorganised, conspicuous and out of place though we were, we managed to remove our shoes, store them in the lockers, bundle our luggage in the office, and each take cautious ownership of a small, salmon pink drawstring bag before being directed through separate doorways, ‘red for women and blue for men’, as signalled by the short curtains hanging in each.

Once on the other side of the red curtain, it was as if having been pushed through a portal into another world. Suddenly it was quiet. The smells, the light, the temperature were all different. We had stepped into the changing room. A mirror and vanity lined the one wall, where two fully clothed women were drying their hair with hairdryers. In the centre of the all-beige room, starkly lit by fluorescent lights, were the lockers. Behind them a large industrial looking scale. To the right, next to a bench, a whirring fan. Sitting on the bench, with a vacant, somewhat exhausted expression on her face, was a middle-aged Japanese woman. Completely naked. And not in the least bit bothered by her creases, folds, rolls and girth. Beyond the completely naked, middle-aged woman drying herself in the fan’s breeze was the steamed-up glass door leading to the baths.

There we stood: three women, complete strangers to one another. Nina and I had been acquainted for many years but we had never so much as peed in adjoining cubicles. Let alone stood naked in front of each other. Why can’t these things happen when you’re in shape? Neither of us had ever clapped eyes on Anne before. I figured before I slipped into a nice hot bath with a stranger, I would have liked to, at least, have drunk a little too much wine.  

‘Come on, girls. We’ve all seen it before,’ was Anne’s prosaic comment before shoving her clothes into the locker and pulling her towel from the salmon-pink drawstring bag. What unfurled from the bag was quite ludicrous: an almost opaque, 30 centimetre by 60 centimetre piece of towelling, useful for concealing no more than one offensive body part at a time. This is no fluffy white spa towel, designed to decorously envelop your abundance and pay homage to your white middleclass right to privacy. This is a purely functional item. You soak it in icy cold water, wring it out and mop your face and neck while you parboil yourself in steaming hot, bubbling and churning spring water. Once you’re completely squeaky clean, the wet cloth is wrung out some more and used to dry your whole body. And it works. Really. Once you’ve used one, you’ll never look the same way at the flokati rugs you use dry yourself with at home.

I don’t think I have ever been more conscious of the size of my butt or the hailstone damage to my thighs or the condition of my sagging belly and boobs and my jiggly upper arms than I was in those moments, walking the few steps from the change room, through the misted glass doors and into the bathing area. Nor have I ever been more conscious of not fitting in and not knowing at all what to do.  

Tea ceremonyThere’s a certain protocol to be followed when using an onsen. First you take a shower. I gathered that one does not use soap during this fully exposed first rinse. There you stand, not knowing where to put your towel or what to do while waiting for a shower to become available, while polite, reserved Japanese women cast sidelong glances at you. They don’t openly stare – well, not always – but you know you’re being looked at. After the shower, you pick a bath. There are usually at least two to choose from but some have more, and there is always one icy cold one (you don’t want to hop into this one first!). The additional options do nothing to help you feel more at ease. The baths are usually the size of a small swimming pool and so hot that at least 40 centimetres of steam hovers above them. Most of them have Jacuzzi-like jets and bubbles of some kind.

Getting into one for the first time is quite a shock to the system: the heat is intense and, for me, unbearable the first few times I tried to give over to the experience. After floating in one bath after another, interspersed by plunges into the icy cold water, you eventually have your proper wash: under a shower and with soap. This, again, is in close proximity to your fellow women. Low against the wall, rows of handsets and taps are set above small mirrors. Here the well-boiled women sit next to one another on small plastic stools, washing their hair, shaving their legs and brushing their teeth and chatting as if they’re out to lunch. Nothing is private. Once I even saw a woman shaving her face. Often they have small, always very well-behaved and very, very cute, children with them. The little ones are quite independent, and work the baths in the same way as the adults do, followed by a thorough, business-like scrub-down from their mothers. The onsen at Nagoya airport has large windows through which one can see the aeroplanes taking off and landing. Others have beautiful outside baths in addition to the enclosed ones. There are water features, fountains, plants and sculptures. Sitting under the stars in the outside bath in Kyoto, water spewing down from the mouth of a beautifully carved stone dragon, would be one of my fond memories of my trip to Japan. But here, at Nagoya airport, sitting with a Yank and a South African, each with a folded square of bathtowel on their head, I have never felt so foreign and so uncomfortable.

Once I managed to lower myself into the steaming water, I slithered away from them to the other side of the bath and settled into a bubbling niche and waited for the jets of water to pummel the stress from my back and shoulders. ‘Ahhhh …,’ I thought, and lifted my legs to brace myself against the low wall in front of me. ‘Hah!’ I exclaimed as I jerked my knees towards my chest. Pinpricks of electric shocks had shot through the soles of my feet. Yet another relaxing feature of a Japanese bath house: electricity and water.

John, fellow travellerI had had enough. My first bath house experience had lasted all of ten minutes. I skulked towards the soaping-off area, had a quick wash and left.  I did not enjoy my introduction to this Japanese tradition. Not at all. As the days went by, though, I started to really enjoy it. In Kyoto I went to the bath house shortly before midnight, on my own, and learnt how the experience can become quite addictive. It’s almost meditative being their on your own. After a while of being immersed in the hot water, your head clears. You have almost no thoughts at all. Moving from the hot water into the cold and then back into the hot has almost a narcotic effect on the brain. And it was here that I felt most comfortable with other women. We may have nodded and smiled at one another, someone may have offered some assistance when I looked a bit lost, but mostly we were just alone together. Comfortably. Walking out into the cold night air after an hour or two in the onsen, I felt more invigorated than if I had hiked up a mountain to a waterfall. The experience was good. Very good. Liberating. It became clear why the tradition has lasted for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. What had been probably my most uncomfortable experience in Japan would be the one I would think of, and long for, most often once I was back in Cape Town.   


~ by ReluctantRunner on February 6, 2008.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: