A revealing look at a Japanese tradition
by Sharon Stevenson
Some things in Japan will always be impenetrable to Westerners – electric toilets, geisha, sumo … and being in a room with 200 naked Japanese women.
An Onsen, or Japanese communal bathhouse, is an integral part of the Japanese culture that involves stripping to one’s birthday suit and soaking in the mineral hot waters that bubble out of the ground and are said to have numerous health-giving properties.
Traditionally, Onsen were used to ease the aching muscles of rice farmers following harvest time; today they are the perfect escape from a nation locked in a permanent state of rush-hour. Around 3,000 Onsen are dotted all over this crescent-shaped volcanic archipelago. This being Japan, there’s also a style to suit everyone – from an Onsen so high in the Alps it’s accessible only by walking for a day over high mountain peaks, to rural Onsen that have been around for centuries, and bathhouses that percolate up among the rocks on the coast and only exist at certain tidal times.
But we were in Tokyo, so we opted for the Oedo-Onsen Monogatari, a giant bathhouse located on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. Modelled on a traditional Edo-period town, this behemoth is chock full with indoor and outdoor baths, food halls and massage rooms – and, on the rainy night we visited, half the population of Tokyo. But that’s what happens when you shoe-horn 14 million people into a small space – they all have to go somewhere.
My Kiwi guide, Andrew, warned me to expect lots of ‘only in Japan moments’, and I wasn’t disappointed. The first came when I noticed people leading their designer-clad dogs into an adjoining building. An Onsen for dogs? Apparently so!
Because the baths are open almost round the clock, you can lose the better part of a day here. We were on a tight schedule, so we checked our footwear into lockers and chose from 18 different patterns of yukata, the cotton kimono worn by both men and women around the complex.
Storing my dignity along with my jeans, my first challenge came with simultaneously dressing in the yukata and not frightening the other women in the changing room with my acres of foreign flesh. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that tying a few knots would be easy? The woman at the locker next to mine gently tapped me on the shoulder and informed me I’d tied the yukata incorrectly – apparently in the style used to dress corpses. She spun me around, modestly averting her eyes, and wrapped it left over right. It was one of those unexpectedly kind moments that remind you of why you travel.
I was handed two towels, one to dry off with after bathing, and the smaller one to take into the women’s only pool area. The latter towel is called a furoshiki and is the size of a Post-it-Note. By now I was a little on the wrong side of nervous: do I use it to cover the top or the bottom half? And how far is it from the changing room to the baths?
As if by magic, my yukata guardian angel appeared and, sensing my discomfort, gestured for me to follow her. We entered a huge steamy room full of pools of varying shapes and sizes and immediately headed for the ‘cleanse area’. The only rule to remember at an Onsen is that the water in the baths is for soaking in, not washing, and pools should only be entered after you’ve washed your body. So I sat at one of the many cubicles and, imitating the women around me, started scrubbing myself using the toiletries provided. I rinsed, grabbed my furoshiki and hoped that my fellow bathers, all of whom have clearly never been troubled by cellulite, were not watching me make my way to the first bath.
The temperature gauge read 32 degrees, and lowering my body into the water was like being embalmed in heat. While all the pools are filled with natural hot spring water pumped in from 1,400m beneath Tokyo Bay, each is of a different temperature and the varying mix of sodium, chlorine and magnesium ions lends several a different colour, such as the ‘golden water’ pool and one filled with dazzlingly white water, both of which helped to disguise my nakedness. After about 10-minutes, I began to understand how a poached egg must feel.
By now, though, I’d mastered the Onsen etiquette: don’t immerse your head in the water, fold your furoshiki and place it on your head, and make a circuit from warm, to bubbling, to water so hot it almost requires a doctor’s note. Not surprisingly, the latter proved too much and after only 20-seconds in the angry heat, I conceded defeat and headed outside to the open air bath where the drizzle was like a salve to my scorched skin.
I certainly can’t claim to have attained the ultimate goal of Onsen junkies, yude-dako, which translates as ‘boiled octopus’ and basically means you’ve reached that state of Onsen nirvana achieveable after several hours of serious soaking. Still, by the time I rocked up for my Shiatsu massage, my skin felt silky smooth.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how good, bad or indifferent the 50-minute pummelling was, because I fell into a deep, coma- ike slumber and only awoke when the tiny Japanese masseuse gave me a few good prods. By now it was time for that fine Japanese past-time, eating, so I caught up with my guide Andrew. Sadly, his bathing experience wasn’t as positive as mine: he was stopped from entering the male baths because of his tattoo. The reason, apparently, is that yakuza, or Japanese Mafia, almost always sport tattoos so banning inked patrons is an indirect way of banning gangsters. He did, however, manage to slip past the massage police (probably because yukata are worn during the massage).
We retired to the enormous food hall and tried to pretend that going out to dinner in our dressing gowns is a regular occurrence. By the time two beers and a plate of odd-looking but tasty fishy snacks had worked their magic Andrew had recovered from the tattoo snub and was keen to hear about my bathing experience.
Certainly, Onsen aren’t for everyone, particularly if the idea of nudity is off-putting. And while a podgy foreigner should be eye candy for tiny Japanese women, they’re too polite to stare. Besides, the warm, soothing waters are such bliss they more than make up for any initial discomfort. Nor does the experience live up to Tokyo’s reputation for emptying a tourist’s wallet faster than you can say ‘Konichi Wa’. Considering you can spend almost 24 hours here, the 2,900 yen (approx NZ$45) entrance fee is probably one of the cheapest activities to be had in the Japanese capital.
Oedo-Onsen Monogatari, Telecom Centre, Tokyo (a two minute walk from the Telecom Centre Metro Station on the Yurikamome Line), www.ooedoonsen.jp
Sharon flew as a guest of air New Zealand who fly direct to Tokyo from Auckland. For more information and deals on flights, accommodation and travel insurance visit www.airnewzealand.co.nz, call 0800 737 000 or visit an Air New Zealand Holidays store.