Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Scrub a dub dub in a Japanese tub

Having reached the wise old age of 29 and 5/6ths, I'm sure no one would question the fact that I know how to take a bath. Sure, I've taken far more showers, but bathing is kinda like riding a bike, but with more bubbles. Oh, and a lot more nudity. But as I stood stark naked in a Japanese bathhouse amongst a dozen other naked ladies - it was quite clear that I am an amateur. I don't really know how to take a bath after all.

Onsen, as these hot springs/bath houses are called, seem to be about as prominent as post offices. There are literally thousands of them scattered throughout the country. A fixture in Japanese culture, it's not uncommon to take a soak in your birthday suit with a group of girls from the office (or guys, for you dudes out there) or step into the tub to discover the woman who filled your Slupee at the 7-11. A people known for their modesty, all rules (and undergarments) are thrown out the window when it comes to spending a few hours at an onsen. While some onsen are private, luxurious and spendy, set in picturesque locations, others are simple and cheap. A few are famous for the monkeys who soak in them.

Eager to experience the tradition, I hopped on a bus at Kanazawa station and 47 minutes later arrived at Yuwaku Hot Springs, located at the end of a small street, tucked into the mountainous outskirts of the city. I paid my ¥350 (about $3.88) entrance fee, left my shoes at the front door, and walked into the ladies room. As I watched the other women unload their towels and bottles of shampoo and soap from home, I immediately realized I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't bring a towel! Shampoo? I just showered at home! I just came to have a soak! I scurried out to the front desk and bought a teeny tiny ¥100 towel to dry off with.

I slowly and gingerly undressed, thinking about a story a friend told me about her onsen experience years ago. There was much pointing and laughing at the naked white girl. I was scared. Were there robes to change into? There were not. After what felt like a slow-motion strip tease, a sock here, a bra there, I was clothing free and ready for my bath. But apparently it wasn't that simple. I slid open the door and walked into the bath room.

The tiled walls of the steamy room are lined with faucets and women sit in front of them on what look like upside-down plastic trash cans. Some are dumping entire buckets of water over their heads. Others are digitally assaulting their scalps, creating white, foamy wigs of shampoo atop their heads. Tiny hunched over grannies, with sagging breasts, vigorously scrub their armpits with bars of pastel colored soap.

I saunter over to a faucet, feeling like a right pervert, accidentally feeling everyone up with my eyes as I try to figure out what the fuck I am supposed to be doing. I hunker down onto a bucket and stare at myself in the mirror, not sure what to do next. The older lady next to me smiles sweetly and motions for me to grab a bowl and fill it up with water. I do. She points to her shampoo and soap and asks me a question in Japanese that I interpret to mean: "Where's your soap, bozo? You think you're gonna put that tall, filthy, white body into our clean hot springs without a scrub? You crazy!" I explain to her that this is my first onsen experience. We both smile stupidly at each other, completely unaware of what each other is saying. Finally she nudges her bar of lavender soap in my direction and I dip my teeny tiny towel into the bowl (she made me! now what will I dry off with?!) and get scrubbing. She continues to chat me up, asking me questions in Japanese while ever-so-casually soaping up her cha-cha, then grabs the shower nozzle and sprays it into submission.

When I decide I'm suitably clean I bid her goodbye and walk into yet another room to take my bath. The tub is lined with stones and faces out to the green, wooded hillside. There are no glass windows, only large screens, which provide a much needed cool breeze. The water is startlingly hot so after boiling my body for 10 minutes, I punch modesty in the face and move up to the top step, my entire top-half exposed. I try and act natural, looking out at the hillside, pretending I do this all the time. Just sit around, silent and alone, with a bunch of naked strangers. But really I'm thinking "Am I supposed to sit up here? Should I keep my boobs under the water? I'm glad I shaved my legs! Damn, I guess no one waxes in Japan. Hey! That girl was on my bus! I wonder if someone will talk to me. What do I do now? Just sit here some more?" I try not to look down at my body, to check if I look skinny or to see how my boobs look - but I kind of can't help it. I also can't help checking everyone else out a little bit. What's the point of being naked with strangers if you don't take a little peak at what everyone else has going on.

After about half an hour I am thoroughly bathed, lobster red, and just a little bit bored. It's certainly relaxing, but how long can you sit in a hot tub without a glass of champagne and a gaggle of pals to gab with? Determined to stay at least as long as my bus ride, I put in another 15 minutes and call it good. Nobody pointed and laughed at me! Success. I buy another tiny ¥100 towel and pat my crimson body dry.



    Out-freaking standing! Never be ashamed of your skinny gaijin body. Those boobs are part of the country that bombed the crap out of Japan for the temerity of trying to bomb the crap out of us at Pearl Harbor. Your triumphant nudity is, I am confident history will record, the final triumph of the US of A and now...WW2 is over. A skinny Jewish girl has led the way! I can see the statue on the Mall in DC now!

    Seriously- good for you and great entry!


    XO- Glandy

  2. rachel.....OMG Aspen turned me on to your blog today. I had to put a big towel on my chair ..my bladder couldn't take it. I am afraid to go to sleep now. I just know that reading this will trigger my recurrent anxiety dream in which I am naked in the lunch line in fourth grade and I'm trying to cover up with two lunch trays and I can feel the cold breeze coming up from the boys locker room .........and the cute guy in sixth grade that rides on my bus is walking up the hall and the worst part is NOBODY NOTICES! Keep up the great work . can't wait for the Hanukkah stories. Kate (Aspen's Mother-in-law)

  3. Hello! I am so glad to see you enjoying Japan! I have been reading your blog religiously.

    I am so glad that no one out right poked and prodded you. They didn't point and laugh at me the scary yakuza lady just stood their smoking in the bath area while staring me down convinced me that I should be moving on now....

    I hope you don't mind that I clarify things that you experience in Japan?

    I believe you didn't go to an onsen (unless it specifically called itself an onsen) otherwise I think you when to a sento. A sento is a public local bath house. An onsen is basically a really expensive resort hotel with lots of hot water. Onsen are still everywhere in Japan. However sento sadly are dying out. As more people have private baths in their homes there is no need for a sento.

    Enjoy it while you can!!!

  4. Kate: I'm glad I am able to make you peepee on your chair! Thanks for reading! I'll bet you are excited for the little baby to pop out in a few weeks. Can't wait to see him/her!

    Rose: I didn't think it was technically an onsen either, but it said so on the sign! Signs are ALWAYS right. So, did you get a job with AEON?

  5. Yes I did!!!! I am excited to maybe see you soon in Japan!?!

    Hehehe even in Japan the land of cute signs lie often!