One of my favorite things about Japan are onsens. I was introduced to onsens on my first visit here, before I decided to relocate. I came to visit my friend and stayed with him for a couple of weeks. During that time he, his girlfriend (now his wife), a friend of hers and I went out to Saitama to a town called Chichibu and made papier-mache at a paper factory, picked grapes in a vineyard and spent the night at a hotel with an indoor onsen. The paper making and grape picking was a little provincial for my taste but the hotel and the onsen were all that! Turns out, it was a fateful night. Laying in the soft embracing warmth of the futons laid out on the tatami floor mats, feeling all squeaky clean with sulfur and other minerals coursing through my body and tingling my skin, I thought to myself, “I could do this…live in Japan for a spell.”
Well, that spell is five years and counting…
My friend John had explained to me at the time that you must wash yourself thoroughly before getting into the onsen because other people were going to use it and who wants to bathe in your scum?
“Wash before you bathe…ok, I’m with you.” Made sense to me. Like when you go to the swimming pool.
“Not wash…wash thoroughly!”
Well, I didn’t think I needed anyone telling me how to wash my own ass. Until the first time I watched Japanese washing their asses. Like surgeons before surgery, only their entire friggin’ bodies.
“Come on, man. Won’t a shower with soap and water suffice?”
“Not in Japan.”
“I don’t have to use antiseptics and disinfectants and shit, do I?”
“Nah, just soap and water.”
So, that night I took my first Japanese pre-bath bath. I stood near the door to the onsen and watched a Japanese guy do it first. He got a kick out of being watched by a jolly black giant, I gotta tell ya. He sat on the stool and used a large ladle to pour water on his hair, then used the liquid soap and washed his hair. Then he used the ladle again, pouring the water over his hair to remove the soap. Then he repeated this ladle-soap-ladle thing for every part of his body until I had to restrain myself for grabbing the shower head that was right in front of him and hosing him down.
Then he stepped over to the onsen and eased himself into it without a grimace.
OK, I can do this. John was on the opposite side of the washroom doing it like a pro. He’d been living in Japan for a couple of years at that point. The stool looked bigger when the other guy had been sitting on it. He looked absolutely relaxed and comfortable, and he wasn’t short. But, when I sat on it -after hosing off his hiney juice cuz he had been butt naked sitting on it a few seconds ago- I concluded that unless you were a midget, a dwarf, a child or some kind of contortionist, comfort on this stool was not an option. It was clearly for people accustomed to squatting or resting on one’s haunches. And though I’m a quarter Jamaican, and they squat a lot too, I wasn’t feeling this position at all.
I repeated what I had seen as well as I could, standing up every couple of minutes to stretch my legs. John had finished and had gone and got in the onsen. I sat there feeling all awkward trying to ladle water to reach the soap in the crack of my ass. I had to be doing it incorrectly. I envisioned soap bubbling to the surface once I got in the onsen. Once I was satisfied I’d reached every nook and cranny I walked over to the onsen. And, the guy who’d been my bathing role model decided it was time to go.
I eased myself into it, step by step. It eventually felt wonderful! I’d kind of felt like Ken Norton in Mandingo for a few
minutes (he was a fighting slave whose master had boiled him in oil to toughen up his skin) but it got better little by little.
“Yo, what’s with the ladle?” I asked John. “Why can’t we just use the shower head?”
“How the hell am I supposed to know? I’m not Japanese.”
5 years later, I still don’t get the ladle…I guess it’s like those people who still use matches to light their cigarettes.
I’ve now been to onsens all over Kanto. Izu, Atami, Gunma, Saitama, Nikko, Hakone, Kusatsu, etc… But, my favorite is in Kusatsu. Wanna know why? Bliss, baby! (see pics below)
The entire river is an onsen and it’s located in a valley surrounded by snowy cliffs. Ahhh… Any of you asking why I’m still here, onsens would be high on that list. They make (almost) everything else worthwhile.
I joined a rather expensive gym not far from my house for two reasons: It has a basketball court and an onsen. They actually import onsenized water from an onsen in Nikko! So, after I work up a sweat in the gym, I can take a dip in the waters of a natural hot spring…
That is, after I make a show of washing my ass before all of the Japanese men made anxious by my presence in their midst.
It’s a show because I refuse to go to the area to the side of the onsen and straddle that stool and ladle water all over myself. That shit is played. And, generally, it’s from that direction that people enter the onsen. When I come from the other direction, where the showers are located, how can they be sure that every crack and crevice of my body has been de-gaijinized?
So, here’s what i do, for their benefit: I enter the rather large room and make a big show of stretching like it’s my pre-shower Gaijin Hygiene routine. Give everyone in the joint enough time to catch a glimpse of me, especially the gentlemen already bathing in the Onsen…it doesn’t take long, trust m. Even after having been a member for over a year now, and even having made a couple of member friends, I am still a Mack truck on the sidewalk up in there, people diving out of my way.
Once I’m sure everyone has peeped me and are then wondering what the hell am I doing stretching in the bathing area when there’s a whole 3 floors of gym outside the locker room designated for that, I make a beeline for the shower room. While I’m in there I whistle Rakim’s “Move the crowd” while I wash my ass oh so thoroughly. Only then do I make my way to the onsen.
They still look extremely ill at ease sometimes but they don’t head for the doors as soon as I arrive as often as they used to.
i guess that’s something…