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Posts Tagged ‘onsen’

(image courtesy of spaworld.co.jp)

First-time visitors to Japanese bath houses will usually be presented with a litany of rules and customs, most of which are obvious (don’t use soap and shampoo in the communal tub, no bathing suits, no horseplay). But after years of using and singing the praises of bath houses, I realized one all-important tip that gets left off that list: if you’re nearsighted, be sure to bring your contact lenses.

Navigating a new cultural experience, especially one that involves being naked with strangers, can be daunting. Navigating it while being unable to see clearly can be downright scary.

Somehow I’d managed to make it through dozens of bath house experiences without ever worrying about my near-blindness. But Osaka’s Spa World was a different story. If the typical Japanese bath house is like a neighborhood park, Spa World is like Disneyland.

Or maybe the Disney World Showcase. The naked version.

Spa World is an eight-story complex of bathing bliss where all of the bathing areas are modeled after different countries. There’s a replica of a hammam that looks like the interior of a mosque, a Taiwanese tea bath with walls covered in Chinese textiles, and a couple of pools surrounded by an aquarium that’s supposed to represent Atlantis. I’m not sure if they had bath houses in Atlantis. But if they did, sure, they’d have been surrounded by fish.

I found myself in Osaka Spa World after two days of exploring Osaka and Nara in very cold weather. I was eager for a soak in hot water, and a little blindness wasn’t going to stop me. I put my clothes in the locker, picked up my tiny modesty towel, and wandered through the glass doors of the Europe Zone (the Asia Zone, on the sixth floor, was for men only—they switch them every month). I left my glasses in the locker as well, feeling fairly certain that they would fog up the instant I entered the bathing areas. I essentially walked into a very steamy acid trip.

The first thing I saw was an enormous pool that appeared to be modeled after the Trevi fountain. There were people—at least I think they were people, I really am that blind without my glasses—soaking in it. But I couldn’t see any of the usual shower areas that usually precede a public bath house tub, so I didn’t soak in that one.

I wandered into the next room, which was dark, with blue lights shining from the walls and the ceiling. I squinted to see the writing at the entrance, which said “Finland.” In the middle of the room was a replica of a log cabin. When I squinted really hard at the odd shapes on the roof I realized that they were rather realistic-looking wolves.

I wandered into another room and started to become genuinely concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find my way out of this place, that I’ll be condemned to wander naked from bath to bath, sort of like a bath house version of No Exit. Something about having to ask for directions from a stranger while naked AND blind was just too overwhelming.

The next room contained a replica of a grotto. The water inside was milky and lit from beneath with blue lights. Children were splashing around inside and poking their heads through the holes in the cave “rock.”

After finally finding a shower area and giving myself a good cleaning, I spent a few minutes in a herb-scented bath in the “Taiwan” section. As I got out of the tub, a woman standing in front of another room made a gesture of rubbing her arms. “You want scrub?” she asked slowly, gesturing inside where people were being scrubbed down. I told her that I spoke Japanese. “You want skurabu?” she said.

By now I was over the blindness-nervousness phase and was just enjoying the indulgence of being warm. The weather had been bitterly cold—the day before in Nara it had snowed , which was romantic and picturesque for a few minutes, then it was just cold. But in Osaka Spa World I could momentarily believe I was in the tropics. So of course I wanted ice cream.

Luckily there was a place where I could get some. In the complex itself. While still naked.

Other hot spring complexes have lounging-after-the-bath areas where everyone relaxes in bathrobes and eats ice cream and drinks beer, but to actually eat ice cream IN the bath area…that’s special.

Still squinting, it took me a few seconds to realize that the little counter in the back of the Germanium bath—a replica of a small Spanish town where people sit naked at counters and soak their feet in hot, scented water—was selling ice cream. I immediately wondered how the fully-clothed attendant behind the counter must feel, serving food to naked people all day.

I ordered a cone of vanilla-chocolate soft-serve and sat on my towel at the counter with several older women drinking tea and eating fried pumpkin. There was a variety show on the old TV in front of us. As we ate we all rubbed our feet against the small rocks in the germanium bath.

Amazingly, I managed to make it through the whole cone without dropping any ice cream on myself–or worse, dropping it into the bath at my feet. Ice cream never tasted so good.

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In the early nineteenth century Shikitei Sanba wrote Ukiyoburo (The Bathhouse of the Floating World), a collection of humorous stories taking place in a public bath.  In the introduction he had this to say:  

“There is, one realizes on careful reflection, no shortcut to moral learning like the public bath. It is, after all, the way of Nature, and of Heaven and Earth, that all are naked when they bathe—the wise and the foolish, the crooked and the straight, the poor and the rich, the high and the low . . . While a man of feeling may have his private thoughts, the unfeeling bath affords no privacy” (Sanba 1809-1813, p. 137).

I remember feeling the same way during the many visits I made to Japanese onsen (hot springs) and sento (public bath houses) over the years I spent in Tokyo.  In the steamy rooms of the baths–some run-down but clean, some incredibly posh–all of the preconceptions about what constitutes female beauty could be thrown out the window.  Ancient women whose breasts sagged to their waists, women in their twenties with perfect curves, skinny girls with no breasts or hips to speak of, tan girls, pale girls, mothers with infants–the bath made them all strangely similar, none more or less attractive than the other.  It was a joyful parade of flesh in all its forms. 

One of the first questions that Japanese friends and acquaintances would often ask was, “Weren’t you self-conscious being naked with so many strangers?”  Which is a rational question, I suppose, given that contemporary North American society doesn’t really have a tradition of public bathing.  Maybe I was mildly self-conscious at first, but I don’t remember ever feeling that way.  Granted, I never experienced a mixed bathing situation (rarer and rarer in Japan), and some of my male friends seemed a little less enamoured of the bath house than my female friends.  Still, there never seemed any reason to be self-conscious.  People weren’t there to stare, they were there to bathe.

Well, there WAS that one time when I went to the outdoor onsen in Tottori prefecture, with its baths perched on a hill overlooking the ocean.  I opened the sliding glass door to very quickly discover that the bamboo “privacy wall” only came up to my waist–and the shore was lined with fishermen.  Might have felt a little embarrassed as I quickly dropped to the ground. 

I miss bath houses a lot.  I miss having an excuse to just loll around in hot water and feel pampered for an hour, but I also miss the idea of a place where arbitrary standards of beauty don’t apply.  Where fat bodies, thin bodies, old bodies, young bodies, pale bodies, dark bodies, and scarred bodies can move around proudly without covering up.  “The wise and the foolish, the crooked and the straight, the poor and the rich, the high and the low”–we need more places where all of them can be, literally and figuratively, naked.

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Thoughts on life after the PhD

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