Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Stealing the butterfly from the sky, we also steal the sky from the butterfly."

Even though an onsen is one of those integrally Japanese experiences that I wanted to have, I'd hesitated to go for a few reasons. Foreigners in Japanese hot springs have an uneasy history. There were places where onsen owners evidently had so much trouble with rowdy Russian fishermen that they started forbidding anyone who looked foreign. Never mind if they'd been living in Japan all their lives, never mind if they were better behaved than some of the Japanese salarymen I've encountered. This of course eventually led to a lawsuit against discrimination, which probably only gave the onsen owners more reason to dread foreign guests.

The difficulty is, like everything in Japan, onsen is a delicate ritual that requires knowledge of the etiquette. And yet I couldn't figure out the details - one washes oneself off before entering the water, but how thoroughly? Wearing a towel is forbidden into the water, except in mixed pools? Are there even mixed pools, or am I as a foolish foreigner just barging in where I am not allowed? If I am meant to be towelless, I would have done without the experience at all. While I have no problem with other people being nude, I consider it a form of psychological torture to inflict my own naked body upon others. Add in the fraughtness already described and it sounded like the least relaxing situation to be in.

But I was going with my coworker A. and her aunt from the Philippines - the latter who had onsen'ed before - and her boyfriend. I had hopes that going in the company of a Japanese man, he would be able to stop me before committing some heinous act. (Everyone warns you about the same things in a new country - it's the ones they don't mention that get you in the end.) Plus I've been a mess of aches and pains lately. So I said, let's go. And this is the account I wrote up about last weekend:

It was snowing in town, but it'd stopped when we left city limits - it always does that, I think the city is cursed - or blessed. We were up in the mountains, though, so it was freezing - I got out of the car and thought, there is no way I'm getting naked in this. The approach was down a long flight of uneven stone steps and ended at the men's only pool, where one man sat with hs leg decorously raised. We had to walk right past him to get to the women's only pool and changing room. And by room I mean one wall to guard it from peeping eyes. Nothing to stop the freezing wind. I kept my towel tied tight around me, but it was from the hundred yen store so it was very thin and pretty much transparent when wet.

After a little while in our girls bower we ventured down to the mixed area so the boyfriend wouldn't be lonely. He kept a very small towel over his front but it didn't help much as he walked *in front* of us down the path. There were evidently other pools with stronger sulfur content, but I liked the simple ones - and can do without the smell. I can't even eat eggs, I certainly don't want to smell like one. We went back and forth a few times between a very deep very hot pool and a shallow lukewarm one inside a cave.

It's an incredible feeling, being in an onsen, and if you get a chance you should definitely go. Which means when you visit me <3 I could stand waist deep with the freezing wind blowing on my shoulders and not mind because it's nothing but a refreshing counterpoint to my lower half being gently boiled. There was a huge rock face I pressed my back against when I got too hot, and its ancientness and strength and coolness I could have leaned against all day. The hot-cold-hot-cold and the climbing steps really wore me out, though. And it was a beautiful location - you saw the pictures, it's like a special stage meant for relaxing the eyes as well as body.

Perhaps my favorite picture, however, came at the end. Various other visitors had came as we soaked ourselves for a couple of hours. Some nice little obaachan and nice little ojiichan, and there was also a guy maybe in his late thirties. While we were in the deep pool with our heads below ground level, he trotted by a few times. He had a small towel in his hand - but his hand was at his side so it wasn't providing much cover. I thought this was just normal onsen behavior, and we were the deviants for our towels, but the Japanese boyfriend said, "That's strange, in front of women you must cover up or turn away." And then he stopped to talk to us - you try having a conversation with a naked man when you're at an angle below his feet. I think I almost strained my neck trying to look up and over at his face and not anything - in between. A. gave up and just kept her head down. I'm not sure whether he was showing off or playing with the notoriously body-shy foreigners.

We stayed a bit longer, then got ready to go to lunch. We took a few pictures in front of the beautiful scenery - us girls and the aunt, then us and the boyfriend, every possible combination - except one. We heard a crowing voice offering to take one of all four. It was, of course, our good friend Naked!Man, who had abandoned all pretense and left his towel draped on a distant rock. The boyfriend accepted politely while we women stood there in various stages of amused and embarrassed.

Our group photographer stood there with his legs in a wide stance and the camera raised. "Where do I look?" A. whispered to me frantically. "I can't look at the camera!" She adopted a, "Ooh, look at that bird up in the sky!" pose, as the photo would later show, while the aunt had a disturbed expression and I was giggling and the boyfriend - well, despite offering a picture of "all four of us" the boyfriend was somehow barely in the shot as it was centered on the female persons. As we got the camera back and walked away, the boyfriend muttered solemnly, "That man is brave." I wasn't about to argue.

I probably won't put that picture up here since it shows people who aren't me - but it will definitely go down in history as one of the most amusing images in my photo album. Not for what's shown in the picture, but for what was behind the camera at the moment it was taken.

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