Monday, September 7, 2009

Come here often?

In addition to earthquakes and typhoons, Japan also enjoys being volcanically active. As compensation for the fact that you may be swept away at any moment by a steaming river of burning lava, the country is dotted with hot springs or onsens and bathing in them is a central part of Japanese culture.

My first experience of a Japanese onsen was (and I quote) a "hot springs amusement park" in Hakone, just outside Tokyo. The description, while crude, is rather accurate since the baths were divided into two sections: the "amusement park" section and the traditional baths. In the former, there were a series of medium sized public hot pools that took on a variety of flavours. You could bath in red wine, green tea, sake, charcoal, salt or (rather unpleasantly after the hot water) iced candy. In each case, the baths contained diluted forms of their theme and at certain hours were topped up with their main product. We saw a huge wine bottle being tipped into the red wine bath but just missed seeing the coffee added to the one next door.

After dipping ourselves in all available ingredients, we moved to the traditional section of the baths. These were relaxing, low lit areas with a number of plain hot baths both inside and out.

You were also entirely naked.

In fact, I expected to feel far less comfortable than I did. These traditional onsen are single sex and since they are the most common kind in Japan, no one makes a big deal about the lack of a bathing suit. In Japanese culture, such places are supposed to be ideal for breaking down class barriers, since you could be bathing next to a business executive or a truck driver, there is no way to know.

Upon entering the onsen, you shower and carry a small hand towel (almost completely useless for women, incidentally, since we have two disconnected areas one would ideally like to cover) which you place on your head (or somehow out of the water) when you enter the bath.

Tatoos are also completed banned at onsen, so unless you can cover it up, you can't bath if you've got ink. A friend mentioned to me that this is likely due to the affiliation between tattoos and the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

Naturally, being Japan, even a naked bath has to contain a level of futuristic technology. In this case, it was in the form of wrist bands which open your locker with one swipe near its detector, lock it again with another and can be used to buy food, drink (apparently milk is the way to go after the baths), massages, fish-that-eat-your-feet and so on, while you are in the onsen. Afterward, you drop the wristband into a machine which detects how much you owe and provides you with an exit card to swipe on your way out.

Who'd have guessed even a naked bath in a naturally heated pool could be upgraded?

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