Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Onsen ga daisuke

Lest you think that Japan is a crazy place filled with odd toilets that only locals can use and no beds anywhere, let me assure you that there are some advantages to living here that can’t be had even in America. One of those is the onsen.

Traditionally an onsen was an outside bath strategically placed over a hot springs. There are still plenty of “real” onsen around, but there are even more whose hot springs are merely hot water tanks, not that any of the many Japanese who flock to them mind. I know I don’t.

The basic principle is very simple. There is a hot tub, Jacuzzi, sauna or variations of all three. You must sit and bathe Japanese style before you get in, but that is no trouble. They provide little stalls and often there is complimentary shampoo, conditioner and body wash. You turn on the shower, sit on your stool, and get to work. If you are Japanese this takes a long time because you rinse, wash, and scrub everything at least two or three times. If you are me, you try to drag it out as long as possible so that no one thinks you are still dirty, but not so long that you spend more time in the bath than at the shower. The only small hurdle for an American girl like myself is that all of this is done naked and in full view of other naked people.

Now I’m not particularly modest, just as my roommate or anyone who lived in the dorms with me knows. More than once someone would knock on my door while I was drying my hair in nothing more than my underwear. (I have a lot of hair and I get hot blow drying it!)

“Oh, I thought I heard you say come in!” they would screech while covering their eyes.

“I did,” I would answer cheerfully and beckon them in. Some of the girls got used to it. Others learned not to knock when they heard the hairdryer going. My roommate, Stacey, was just happy that at least I put on underwear.

But stripping down in front of strangers still seemed daunting that first time and I’m still getting used to it. The only protection against immodesty is a small towel that you hold up over your privates while you walk from the locker room to the bathing area. Once you’re in however, the towel comes off and you’re completely exposed. Your only hope is that the steam is thick and that the other bathers are myopic.

Although the hot water of the baths quickly overrides any misgivings I may have about people seeing my cooter, (or me seeing theirs for that matter) and I am able to relax. It’s fun to move from one pool to another. One might have mineral water, another has Jacuzzi jets, while yet another is slightly carbonated. Other onsen have pools outside as well as inside. There are cool baths for after the sauna. Some even have baths with low level electrical currents running through the water! I have yet to brave any of those.

They have an onsen at the gym I joined and I have a feeling I will be exercising more often now that I know there is the option of a bath afterwards. Speaking of, I’m off to my own very large bathtub in my apartment. It’s not quite the same but at least there I am alone.

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