“Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If the caveman had known how to laugh, history would have been different.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Hope my friends in New England are surviving the snow alright. How about those four seasons? You’ve got to love New England’s four seasons, one of which will literally launch your car off the road and into a snowy embankment outside of Dunkin Donuts if you’re not careful. That being said, I miss New England and all of you.
After being in Japan for all this time, I’m really disappointed in myself for not writing more about onsens. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring where people gather and nudely submerge their bodies into scalding hot water. It’s usually more relaxing than my description made it sound, but in my opinion it can either be an amazing experience or a nightmare. I’ve encountered both.
Last weekend some friends and I drove up north to Zao in Yamagata. The company was great, the weather was perfect, and the weekend was filled with skiing beautiful trails that overlooked Zao’s famous snow monsters and the countless mountains of Yamagata. After day one on the slopes (whenever I say “the slopes” I picture a man skiing on two by fours latched to his 1982 Flock of Seagulls Edition ski boots and wearing jeans over a leotard. He has long, bleached blond hair and some of those really clown-esque rainbow lens sunglasses, swinging his hips violently from side to side as he runs into children and listens to Depeche Mode on his walkman) we drove over to our cool little Japanese style hotel. Zao is famous for its onsen and after rumor of there being one in the very basement of our hotel, we had to check it out. And we did. And it was fantastic. The whole place smelled like cedar, and we had the onsen to ourselves. A few minutes in the onsen completely relieved any soreness felt after a day of skiing. Keep in mind that you only stay in for short periods at a time, or else you’ll pass out and eventually come to as a shriveled, helpless version of the person you once were.
That particular event would be categorized under an amazing experience. Now allow me to inform you of a nightmare. A few weeks ago, Sensei and I were on our way back from a business trip in Tokyo. We were tired and decided it might be nice to try and find an onsen on our way home. Let me precede this story by defending the Japanese onsen because what we ended up going to was not technically an onsen. It was a sento, which is essentially a Japanese bathhouse. Sento have been declining in Japan ever since people got their own bathtubs. At the train station we found an information desk. Sensei asked if there was anywhere around there where a couple of dudes could take a bath. The women looked horrified at the question. She told us there was a sento nearby, and described is as an “old, dirty bathhouse”, and was visibly uncomfortable when what she had thought to be an obvious warning of not to go somewhere was met by two vigorously nodding heads asking her how to get there. She drew us a map and bid us farewell, forever.
On the way there we stopped to look at the map and a man asked us if we needed help. We asked him where the sento was and he said that if we followed him he would take us there. He was our sento guardian angel, and went about ten minutes out of his way to make sure that we had the experience that was coming to us. We entered the sento through a door that was clearly marked for males, and were greeted by an old women sitting on what ironically resembled a judge’s bench in front of a wall that divided the male side from the female side. All rise for the honorable Judge Sento. We paid her the sento toll and she gave us tiny towels. We quickly realized we were the youngest attendees by roughly 83 years. The woman at the information desk was right. This sento was both old and dirty, but Sensei and I never back down in any situation, because one of us always uses guilt to prevent the other from doing so. This time it was Sensei.
I hesitantly undressed in front of the old woman, feeling as though I had paid 400 yen to violate myself. Sensei oddly seemed be in good spirits, stripping down and prancing around like he owned the place. Prior to this, our experiences in the natural hot springs of Japan had been delightful. But this was not natural hot spring water. This was more like rain water collected in a barrel and placed over a giant stove. Before we entered the “bath” we had to shower, as is customary. I sat and doused myself in water from the showerhead, and when I squirted a little soap into my hand, I was berated by several men who were already lounging in the bath. I could not understand what they were saying, given my lack of knowledge for bathhouse Japanese, and so I bowed awkwardly and continued to soap myself but was again scolded until the men lost their patience and came at us, naked and in full force. My view of sensei was obstructed by dangling extremities as the men rummaged through their bags to get us some soap. I was kindly handed a bar and it was then that I understood what was happening. In onsens, soap is traditionally provided, but it is different in sentos. Sentos are BYOS, and Sensei and I hadn’t received the memo. When I caught sight of Sensei again he was soaping up his hair while an older man worked on his back. He screamed in glee as several naked, old men tossed buckets of hot water on him.
After we were bathed we got into the tub. The men asked us if we were too hot and turned on the cold tap to accommodate us. While the uniqueness of the situation had initially caused me to be uneasy, the nightmare dissolved and all that was left were some nice old dudes who went out of their way to help a couple of clown foreigners that had stumbled awkwardly into a sento. We were on their turf. They didn’t need to accept us, but they did and we really had a blast because of it. We said thank you, got dressed, and when we left I could have sworn that the old woman on the judge’s bench winked at me. There had been some judging going on after all.
Things are good in Japan. I’ve been running the blog and social media for the Tochigi ALT Network and working on a few pieces; other than that, just work and traveling. The end of this month and March are looking good: rug-cutting in Osaka, Incubus in Tokyo, and some climbing in Thailand. Bound to be a few stories in there somewhere, but we’ll see what happens in the next post.
If the towel is too small, don’t bother to wear it.