Tuesday, 23 January 2018

🌏 VISITS — ONSEN

"So... onsen?" Michiko said. An awkward shifty silence filled the room as we looked at each other and giggled. We replied that we really wanted to go to an onsen but it was scary for English people to get naked with other people. We had moved on from Honshu, taking the ferry across the icy channel to the frozen winter island of Hokkaido and into Siberian temperatures where snow coated everything and Russia was just on the doorstep.

"You want to go to the onsen? We can go now?" our host Michiko was gentle and smart and she knew that she had to push us to go. We scuffled around upstairs getting towels and clothes together in a panic. What would we need?

On the way to the onsen the car crunched along corridors of thick snow that had been falling for weeks before our arrival on the island. The town felt like a homely place despite the bleak winter. The onsen appeared in our sights, wooden and glowing with warmth.

Stuck to the doors at the entrance, stern posters advertising jobs in the Japanese Self Defence Force welcomed us and made it clear that this wasn’t an onsen used by tourists. Michiko told us to take our shoes off and put them in a special shoe locker and then showed us how to pay using a vending machine. There were buttons for all different types of treatments. We put coins in, pressed a button and our change and ticket came clinking out. We then had to hand the ticket to a man perched a foot away, behind a wooden panelled counter.

A big round clock sat above the entrance between two doors: men through one, women through the next. A time was confirmed for meeting up and we split off into two groups. This was it. Time to get naked. We were scared.

Walking into the onsen changing room was like walking into a swimming pool changing room, there were lockers and hairdryers and mirrors, mothers brushing their daughters' hair, old ladies, young ladies, fat, thin, wrinkly, pubescent. All types of females were there getting changed and so we got changed too. Feeling rather pink and out of place, tall and stupidly western I walked through the curtains and into the main onsen with a towel wrapped around me to hide my modesty.

Michiko told me to sit on one of the small stools and wash. There were ladies sat in rows, crouched on these small plastic stools looking into mirrors. In front of me were taps and a shower head and a plastic bowl to use for washing. I was blindingly out of place, crouched on my stool with my little towel attempting to cover the good bits. I looked for cues from Michiko out of the corner of my eye, she washed her hair and her body, I copied her. I was mindful of the ladies around me, watching in the reflection of the mirror women shaving their legs, cleaning their ears with cotton buds and brushing their teeth. This was all a ritual of cleaning; spending time making sure your body was clean and looked after and reminded me of the process of washing hands and mouth before visiting a shrine. After the cleaning it was time for the onsen itself.

My towel was off and I walked naked and very self-consciously across from the new safety of my small stool and swiftly slipped into the first pool. Nobody was staring at the Western girl in their onsen; everyone was simply enjoying their own time. Two older ladies sat at one end speaking slowly with towels wrapped up on their hair. Another lady had her child and a small baby floating around with her. The baby wailed as it was dipped in and out of the bath water.

We moved on to the next pool, this one was outside in the snow. I hot-footed it, naked and brave, into the icy cold Hokkaido night and sunk deep into the hot dark waters of the pool. This hot spring was much warmer. Heat and energy rushed through me from the exhilaration of the temperature change and the cold air on my cheeks.

I laid my head back and looked into the ink of the night, steam plumed out of the water and up high into the cold of the icy air. I could see a river of steam rising from over the fence on the men's side of the onsen. Snow started falling and twirling from the blackness and landing on my face but I wasn’t cold. The waters filled my skin as, feeling much more relaxed, I floated and chatted with Michiko. We spoke for a long time. Other ladies did the same, in family groups or friends. People relaxed alone and children played. It was a social scene with health benefits.

Michiko invited me to try the hottest pool. A group of three teenage girls were hogging it in a gossip session but we got in anyway. It was really hot. So hot that we could only stand it for five minutes, and then back into the other pool. We sipped water that streamed from a bamboo pipe. I looked around at the different women and felt at ease, at home almost. When everyone is naked, I supposed, everyone is the same.

Our time was up so we got out, showered off in clean cool water and went back to the changing room to get dressed. As liberating as it was to bathe naked with other people I was happy to be getting dressed again.

We congregated in the main communal area, where people sat around chatting in armchairs or reclining on tatami smoking lazily and watching dramatisations of manga on television. We were buzzing with excitement. The onsen was invigorating, enjoyable and relaxing. Taking time to just be and to float in the hot spring water and to appreciate the company of the person you are with.

Michiko drove us back to sit in the dimmed lights of her closed cafe. The blackness of the winter's night seeped heavily through the large cafe windows. We were all really, really thirsty, Michko must have known this was a side effect of the onsen as poured us a glass of cool beer each. We glugged at it insatiably. We felt incredible, full of energy and a peaceful relaxation. I was so happy to have been brave enough to go and so thankful to Michiko for pushing us to try the onsen. We were so happy in fact that we asked if she could take us again the next night and we went again. This was the start of our onsen addiction in Japan.


REBECCA ALICE SAUNDERS
@yesnotravel

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