Helena and I take all of our clothes off and we’re ready for action. We are at the onsen in separate changing rooms, it’s not that kind of blog. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring communal bathing facility; Japan being a volcanically active country has thousands of them. Think Roman Baths, without the Romans. I walk through the changing room into the single sex onsen and sit down on the little stool to shower and wash myself before entering the onsen baths. Following protocol, I give myself a good scrubbing, using the shampoo, conditioner and body wash that is provided.
After a good rinsing, I make my way to the first bath that looks like a jacuzzi and I quickly notice that everyone has modesty towels with them, apart from me. I’m walking around butt naked and wondering if I’m doing it all wrong. I get in the first bath and the two people already in it get out, just a coincidence let’s hope.
There are signs everywhere saying “Cameras and filming equipment are prohibited”. I wonder, if they didn’t have these signs would people be walking around taking selfies and filming others. Maybe the signs had to be installed after an overzealous instagrammer had paid a visit.
My fingers are starting to resemble a prune in the warm water, so I move to the natural hot spring bath outside and join three others in the pool. This time they don’t get out, so maybe I’m not committing such a faux pas. The snow is falling heavily now and steam is rising from the circular pool.
There’s a sign above the hot spring showing a long list of ailments that the hot spring water treats, of which here are few:
- Sensitivity to cold – if sensitivity to heat is your thing, this probably isn’t the place for you, as we get slowly boiled alive
- Cuts, menstrual disorders, gastroenteritis – the water is pretty murky, but I keep telling myself this must be good for me
- Chronic female disorders – unfortunate if you’re a male and your health is in a bad way
- Sickly child – not sure if this is for children who are currently sick or for those adults who were sick as a child. I once told another kid at school that I played golf (very middle class ha!), and he asked ‘What is your handicap?’. I replied ‘I have asthma.’ I’m all well now, thanks for your concern and to the golf handicap question, I now respond with a number between 1 and 36
A Japanese man climbs into the pool and loses his footing; I have a vision of him falling and landing in the lap of the man opposite. That would be awkward and something I’d expect from a Gaijin (non-Asian person) rather than a Japanese onsen master. He manages to recover himself and takes a seat, he then places the modesty towel on top of his head before relaxing into the bath. It’s bad etiquette to get the modesty towel in the pool. At least I don’t have that problem to worry about. I’m starting to feel that I might be relaxed, but I haven’t quite decided yet. All the while I’m unsure, I probably could be more at ease.
My Dad played rugby in his 20s during which time he met my Mum; some of his best friends are still the people he played with back then. Mum once said that the thing he enjoyed most about it was the team bath afterwards and I presume the banter that came with it. Well Dad you should get yourself out here. Not sure what the Japanese banter is like, but team baths are all the rage across the country.
I walk into a final pool, which is freezing cold and well appreciated by this point. I then decide I’ve had enough hot and cold water shock therapy and make my way back to the changing room. As I’m getting changed, a female cleaner comes walking through the changing room with her mop. She whispers “sumimasen” (excuse me) as she navigates the room of men in varying states of nakedness. One of the perks of the job I guess, depending on your point of view.
I say to Helena ‘How was it for you?’ as we meet at the massage chairs in the unisex area, now fully clothed.
‘Interesting’ she says, ‘blimey you’re red!’ I think all the heat in my body moved to my head as I sat in the final cold bath. She continues ‘I got undressed and almost went into the pool area, before quickly realising the onsen was upstairs.’ Whoops.
We’re back at Hopi Hills in the evening discussing our first onsen trip. A lot of the other workers are seasoned onsen bathers already. When they discover that Helena has been sitting on the onsen bucket, that one should use to wash themselves, it amuses them quite a lot. ‘The stool that they give you is tiny!!’ Helena comes back with. She is breaking thousands of years of tradition, but maybe it’s the consultant in her that sees the process could be changed.
We have lost our onsen virginity and maybe the next time we go will be less of an experience and more of a relaxing endeavour as it is intended to be. Maybe