13th November 2009
*Warning: contains scenes of nudity that may offend/horrify some readers.
At 6.49pm Kyoto time today, I somehow found myself sitting on an upside-down bucket, being scrubbed down by a very small, very old, very naked Japanese woman. She was trying valiantly to teach me Japanese but, being that she didn’t speak any english and that my entire grounding in her language consists of exactly three words, that panned out to be a much more arduous task than removing all those layers of dead skin from my back.
Are you confused? Vaguely aroused? I had better start from the start then. Today we had our first onsen, a Japanese public bath that is traditionally located in a natural hot spring but is reproduced artificially in cities across the country. Much like the Hungarian equivalent, this means a combination of various baths – from hot to cold and everything in between. and much like all other Japanese traditions, attending an onsen is an event with a lot of very specific rituals around it.
Before today I had a lot of preconceived notions about what it was to take a bath. For one, I thought that the purpose of a bath was to clean oneself. Wrong. Bathing is apparently what you do after you are clean.
The ritual begins when you walk through the door. Like everywhere else in Japan your shoes come off at the door. After paying and, if you are not properly equipped, buying a wash cloth and soap, you head for the changing room where men and women are separated and the rate of undressing accelerates. Here you leave all your clothes and walk naked with your washcloth and soap (trying desperately to cover yourself with 5 square inches of cloth) into the onsen, collecting a basin as you go.
Now comes phase one. Sitting on an upside-down bucket you scrub every inch of your body until you are red raw, trying desperately to keep your bare bum on the bucket as you get slippier and slippier. If you are a westerner, a quick glance around you at this point will make two things clear – 1. You are the only person who is having difficulty staying on their bucket and 2. You have a captive audience who are, at this stage, supressing their giggles. Plant your two feet firmly on the floor and get on with it. Two bruised bum cheeks and several bars of soap later, you are now permitted to choose a bath and dive in.
For us, the choice was endless in Funaoka Onsen, with simple cold and hot pools, a jacuzzi, a sauna and, best of all, an outdoor pool – a sheltered, heated bath made of the softest, smoothest wood with a bamboo trunk for a tap. It was utter bliss until it got crowded with naked octogenarians and I was forced to dash inside for the sauna, followed by a dunk in the ice cold pool – strangely enough, that one was empty.
Now pretty confident with my new fleshy look, I plucked up the courage to swagger over to the more adventurous pools. First off was the herbal pool which was a vivid shade of orange and approximately half a degree below boiling point. Gary says that this bit made him feel a little stoned but I just got bored and started to worry about coming out looking like a Cheesy Wotsit.
Finally I tried the electrical pool – distinguishable by the presence of a series of plug sockets at around knee height. I’m not certain how that was supposed to feel but I had the sensation that all of my joints were dislocating themselves. Let’s just say that I won’t be hopping into my tub with a hairdryer any time soon.
Just in case the seven pools, sauna and various hosing downs don’t leave you squeaky clean, the last step to onsen-fresh skin is another vigorous scrub down using liberal amounts of soap and a rough cloth. Apparently I wasn’t quite up to scratch on my vigorous scrubbing skills however, as the aforementioned old woman was forced to take over with her scrubbing brush and organic soap (without a word of warning, might I add).
As clean as a whistle, I floated outside to meet Gary who, after an hour and a half with dozens of naked Asian men, had a new found confidence and a swagger in his step.
As we were unable to take a camera into the Onsen (for obvious reasons) the pictures used in this post are courtesy of Google Images.