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Short Stories

The Japanese Sagas (Part 4)
by Kristin K. Trompeter

Bathing In My Birthday Suit

Bathing in Japan is different from bathing in most other parts of the world. You actually take a sit down shower. Basically, you sit down at a handheld shower nozzle that is about the height of your waist when standing and scrub yourself down, including washing your hair. When you are finished washing, you go on to have a good long soak in a large tub.

And soak is exactly what you do. Soak in water, no soap permitted, although maybe some flower petals or herbs may be added to mark changes of season or to celebrate a festival. In fact, after you are done soaking, which should take you anywhere from a half hour to an hour, you leave the water in the tub for the next person to soak in.

Almost every town in Japan has a public bathhouse. In Aizu, the public bath is also an onsen (hot spring).

There are private and public onsens. The difference is the price tag. I and my friend Akemi went to a public one, which is much cheaper.

The public onsen in Aizu is like a grand recreation center. There is a budget hotel with a restaurant, facilities for weddings, tennis courts in summer that serve as an ice rink in winter, and an arcade.

As Akemi and I entered the onsen area we bought our tickets from a vending machine. Akemi went first as everything was written in Japanese and I had no idea what buttons to push! Then we took off our shoes, of course, and went over to show the attendant the tickets we had purchased. Then we made our way barefoot to the appropriate dressing room (men and women bathe separately, thank goodness).

We entered the women’s disrobing room (like a locker room without lockers, just baskets on shelves where you leave your stuff, including all clothing!), disrobed, and with a white hand towel in hand (yes, in hand), we made our way to the washing place. They are individual shower stalls about waist level with a plastic bench where you sit in front of a mirror and wash yourself thoroughly so as not to contaminate the spring.

Using the soap provided and some special hair conditioner that Akemi kindly shared with me (she also gifted me with my white towel as I was clueless about this and only brought a bath towel for drying off at the end of the excursion), I did a ten minute self-cleaning. After we were finished, we headed off to one of the large pools of water nearby.

We elected to start with the one inside. It is like a heated pool, but the water is from the hot spring, so has many minerals in it and feels like silk as it slides over your body. Ummm.
After about 20 minutes of soaking and chatting, we decided to drift to the outside spring. This one is carved out of rock and it is quite stimulating as you have the cool breeze caressing your upper body as your lower half is submerged in hot water. There is a small waterfall and lots of flora and fauna around to enhance the experience.

Finally, duly relaxed and in harmony with the world, we passed next to the sauna. That only lasted about five minutes before we agreed that we had sweated enough of our sushi consumption out. Then I took a quick dip in the cold water pool. Akemi just watched in disbelief saying cold is not for her, thank you very much. After only one full body dip, I was suppressing interior shrieks of “Shit, that’s cold!”, so we headed back to the pool we started off in.

And the little white hand towels in all of this? Wet and sitting folded on top of our heads! No kidding. It can be used to cover your lower parts as you move from pool to pool, but when in the pool, it is on your head.

After a brief spell, we decided we were becoming waterlogged and it was time to get out and returned to the dressing room. Now this dressing room, in addition to the basket rows, has a long mirrored counter against the wall which is equipped with everything, including hairdryers.

Dry and dressed, we moved to the lounge area, gender mixed, where you can buy a drink from the various vending machines and chill out watching television, or make use of any of the various massage machines available (full-body massage chair, foot massage machine, etc).

After about a half hour more of hanging out chatting and watching the families around us, we decided it was time to head back to the real world. Except that we were so relaxed the real world consisted of nothing more than going home to watch a video and consume more food. Now that is what I call a great experience!

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