Takaragawa Onsen, Minakami, Japan
Last Sunday found me gingerly tiptoeing across an icy bridge over a small mountain river…barefoot…and naked. It was one of those surreal Japan moments, an Alice in Wonderland trippy ‘Wow, what am I doing walking around in the snow at three in the afternoon with nothing but a thin towel I bought at the 100 yen shop?” type moments.
Before you go and get the wrong idea about me, I’d just like to make it clear that I was at an outdoor Onsen (think ‘spa’ but with natural volcanic hot springs instead of Jacuzzis) and in Japan, communal bathing sans clothing is how you roll.
So there I was, in this picturesque hot spring resort in the mountains, surrounded by snow and fir trees, a rushing river, cages of live black bears and…the very picturesque view of very fat, very naked, Japanese men.
Yes, I was at a mixed-gender Onsen, which roughly translates to “a few dozen men and four women sitting in a miniature swimming pool -sized bath tub. Outside. In the snow. Naked.”
And apparently there’s a sort of unspoken code of conduct for a mixed-gender Onsen, one that involves rules for appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Apparently, if you’re male, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit in the bath in your birthday suit or with a wash-cloth sized towel strategically placed across your lap. It’s inappropriate, however, for a female to do the same. If you’re female, you’re supposed to wrap a large towel around you and wear it mini-dress style wherever you go. Yes, even in the bath. Especially in the bath.
My Australian friend and I weren’t aware of these rules and weren’t even aware of our mistake until about 20 minutes after we’d settled into the bath, minus a towel, (dress size or otherwise). Most everyone I’ve told this story to have interrupted me at this point to exclaim incredulously: “How could you have not realized?!” But about 95% of the people in the Onsen were male and therefore towel-less and honestly, we spent most of that time trying very hard not to look at anyone and carry on a normal conversation, (as in “Ho hum, just another normal day, bathing outdoors in the middle of winter with a tub full of strangers.”).
It wasn’t until we noticed the creepy guy who was shadowing us, openly staring as we moved from bath to bath and the group of teenagers who kept darting over to our side of the bath, supposedly to admire the river view, that we realized something was amis.
These weren’t normal “Hey look at that foreign looking person” looks, they were leers. Where were all the other women? we wondered aloud. And then we noticed them, huddled close together and very conservatively, very self-consciously fully covered.
I swear, Japan needs to come with a handbook; some written instructions on how to survive here without making a complete ass of yourself.
The Immigration office gives you a watered down version of one when you apply for a visa. It’s this pamphlet of supposedly useful information that a newcomer to Japan might need to know. ‘What to do in the event of an Earthquake’, ‘How to Separate your Trash’, ‘Who to Call if You’re Feeling Suicidal’…that sort of thing. Not that any of that isn’t important, but what I would have loved to have received would’ve been a detailed booklet on the ‘do’s and don’t's’ of Japanese culture. Stuff that those overpriced guidebooks at Maruzen don’t cover. Like ‘Where to Buy 100 Yen beers in Tokyo’ or ‘How to Buy a Cellphone When You Don’t Have an Alien Registration Card’ or ‘How to Make a Tortilla Out of Japanese Supermarket Pancake Mix’. Important Stuff like that.
A friend and I were talking about writing a cookbook targeted towards Westerners living in Japan. It would feature recipes of Western food with substitute Japanese ingredients and what they are called and where you can find them. It was a joke thought up one drunken night when we tried to make a pie without an oven (there are no ovens here), but sometimes I think that we might have been on to something…
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