December 06, 2003

Japan 6: Ichi ban onsen

So this may disrupt the strict chronology that I've been following so far, but that's pretty much because I've just been writing about it as it happened (or rather, I did while I was in Japan, and now that I'm back I've been writing it up online from my diary). Now I have a little catch up to do, and some things jump out as needing to be written about now. I'll fill in the gaps later. And one of those things is the Onsen Jon and I went to last night.

Wow!! What an experience. How glad am I that Jon is a local? The Onsen is the local bathhouses. Nothing like getting naked with the locals. So my tattoo was a minor issue, as apparently there's a fair amount of stigma attached to tattoos in Japan (probably more so outside Tokyo) associated with a combination of tattoos being closely related to the Yakuza, tattoos being thought of as dirty in a communal bathing context, and having a slightly thuggish association. So we weren't able to go to the original bathhouse that Jon had in mind, and instead went to a slightly larger one that was a little further away.

So you take a large towel for drying yourself at the end, a smaller towel which doubles as your scrubbing cloth for cleaning yourself and your modesty enhancer for covering the family jewels as you wander around if you're into that. Public nakedness is not a problem in Japan (actually there is a whole different definition of personal/private space versus public space, as well as an unfamiliar definition of modesty - peeing in the street is a lot more acceptable for men, and many public toilets have urinals that are in full view of the bustling streets) although at this place it was separated by sex. Mostly. There were a few cleaning women (clothed) who would be going about their business as we wandered around starkers.

Anyway, the procedure is this. You bring your own little wash kit with soap, shampoo, conditioner and whatever else you want in the way of cleaning products. Having paid and then declothed, as you enter the actual washhouse, you grab a bowl and a bucket (both plastic). The bowl is to douse yourself with water, and to wet the smaller towel for scrubbing yourself with, and the upturned bucket is for sitting on.

You begin by sitting on it in front of a set of hot and cold taps and a low shower head. Using those, the bowl, and your collection of cleaning products, you scrub yourself all over til you shine. And then you do it again. It kind of doubles as self massage, and half an hour later, you're cleaner than you've ever been, and ready to get started.

There's a series of hot pools, dry saunas, steam saunas, plunge pools, massage jet-type reclining chairs within pools, and even a slightly freaky electrical current area where they pulse electricity through part of one of the hot pools - apparently it has some restorative qualities on your muscles, but personally I'm sticking with the belief that mixing water and electricity shouldn't be encouraged.

Our general sequence was hot tub, extra hot pool, cold plunge pool, dry sauna, cold plunge pool, steam sauna, cold plunge pool, reclining jets, cold water douse. Fantastic. And to finish it off, we had a quick chair massage in the pseudo-lobby area (clothed again), accompanied by a cold one from the vending machine. And as we're sipping a beer, an old geezer next to us lights up. Definitely a strange mix with what in the West would be considered a health pursuit, but here in Japan is more of a communal ritual. We're not in California anymore, Dorothy.

Posted by mthaddon at December 6, 2003 08:59 PM