osm1_2win 52M
23 posts
7/28/2006 7:10 am

Last Read:
6/12/2011 1:40 am


Should I ever decide to pack it up and go back to the United States, there is one thing I would miss more than anything else. It won't be the food or the culture. Nor will it have anything to do with the cherry blossoms or sake.

I would miss taking baths with other men.


Hold it.

That doesn't sound right.

However, seriously... I mean it. It's true.

OK, allow me to explain. I'm talking about Japanese hot springs and the whole experience associated with them. Hot springs, or onsens, are heated pools of water that come up out of the ground. Japan is an island that essentially rests atop a volcano. It is said, that everyone in Japan could have their own onsen if they just dig down far enough. Go deep enough, and eventually they strike water and that water is hot. I am no geologist, but I think that this is true because Japan is literally filthy with places to get clean! I suspect that a lot of digging has been going on. This explains why there are so many holes here. These are abandoned hot spring attempts.

But the BIG thing about an onsen is that they have the tradition of being more or less public. This means everyone gets into the hot spring together...sans swim suit.

This sounds more titillating than it actually is.

I remember my first experience of going to an onsen. Every year, most Japanese people have something called a "bonenkai", or an end of the year party. Most offices simply rent out a hall, order in some raw fish and drink themselves silly. THIS particular year, someone got the bright idea of eating raw fish, drinking ourselves silly and then whipping off all of our clothes and jumping into a hot tub of water.

It vaguely sounded a lot like something I did back in college.

I had never BEEN to an onsen before and didn't even know what one was. When they started explaining it to me, I not only got worried, I actually backed up to a wall.

A public bath? A bath...in public? Together? Publicly?

Voluntarily dropping my drawers in front of other men with the expressed purpose of taking a bath with them was an idea that I did not under any circumstance wish to entertain. So when they started talking about these, "onsens", it wasn't difficult for me to conjure up evil images similar to prison bathhouses. You know the kind of place I mean. The kind of place mothers warned you about. The kind of place where if you DID go in, dropping something on the floor meant you would kick it over to a wall before picking it up. Fear swept through me. There was no WAY I was going to go. I never even took showers in high school after gym class. I always used to fake it by spritzing water on my head, wiping a towel across it and saying, "Ah".

But, they wooed me a bit when they started showing me these brochures filled with pictures of the baths themselves. They were also filled with strategically angled photos of naked Japanese babes in steamy hot water up to their necks.

They were actually quite pretty...the baths I mean. They were stylishly designed using rocks and small waterfalls and weren't anything at ALL like bathtubs. They were more like very large Jacuzzis, but without the bubbles. These waters were touted to have healing properties for both body and spirit. I personally don't know if this is all true or not, but that's what the brochures said. And any brochure that reported they had naked Japanese babes in steamy hot water up to their necks MUST be true.

Then I noticed the price. It was 15000 yen (about $150 American at the time) per person! Whoa! That was some major money! But, my co-workers pointed out, that the price included the onsen AND food! Not to mention the fact that it was a VERY famous place with REAL Japanese atmosphere, real Japanese architecture and...

...REAL naked Japanese babes in steamy hot water up to their necks.

Ok, sold. I'm THERE!

After doing a bit of research (this meant acquiring more brochures since this happened a few years BEFORE it was popular to use the Internet to find pictures of naked Japanese babes), I discovered that there are basically two kinds of onsens in Japan. There is the more traditional sort where everything LOOKS old, including the people working there. They have old buildings with dark wooden walls and flooring made from rice husks called tatami, not too dissimilar to the kind that Kwai Chang Kain was forced to sit on when learning to become a shaolin priest. These older looking places are sparse on furniture, but have great food and everyone wears something akin to a bathrobe and slippers. The more modern places also have the good food, robes and slippers, BUT are a bit closer to like being at Disneyland, complete with themed rooms such as the Italy Room, or the Egyptian Room, or the Holy Crap This Water is REALLY Cold Room.

But they ALL had something in common. Every single brochure had more than its fair share of those naked Japanese babes in steamy hot water up to their necks.

And so off we went to a small town famous for its onsens. The place we arrived indeed had that rustic feel of ancient Japan. It looked just the way I thought an onsen SHOULD look with wooden walls and paper doors and cloth curtains that hang down from the doors to stop just below your waist.
One of the traditions is to remove your shoes and walk around in slippers. Trust me when I say that NOTHING in Japan fits someone who is 6 foot 4 inches tall, INCLUDING slippers. These puppies barely fit over the front of my toes much less the whole foot. I pretty much abandoned this Japanese tradition within the first few minutes.

After much eating and drinking, it was time for "the bath". By this time, I was completely anesthetized by the sake, if not by the raw fish, so all of my base fears were pretty much out the window with the baby and the bathwater...to coin a phrase. It is a well-known biological fact that the more alcohol you consume the easier it is to take your clothes off.

I will not pursue this point any further.

But I was looking forward to slipping into the warm waters of the onsen. My fellow bathers did ask me why I kept rubbing my hands together and licking my lips. I didn't answer but I think they assumed that the raw fish must have been very good.

Much to my chagrin, however, the women and the men split and went into separate areas. This was completely against everything I had read about in the brochures. And I made no bones about pointing this fact out.

This is when I learned that the baths were NOT co-ed but rather were 'betsu betsu'. This translates as something like 'separate'. But I know the true meaning of it. It means, "Sorry, Bub, no babes for you. Here, have more sake".

We made our way into what could be construed as a locker room, except there were no lockers. In their places were little straw baskets into which we were supposed to place our personal items. I creatively delayed the removal of my clothing and let the others go on ahead of me. I had been given a small hand-towel, which barely covered my hand much less anything else.

I stripped down and holding only my towel, I slid open the glass door that led into the onsen area, and found the pools to be indeed steaming and hot and completely devoid of anything remotely resembling naked babes.

The whole idea of an onsen is to sit and relax. But, between you and me, I find it very difficult to relax surrounded by 15 or so naked, drunken men. However, I decided the best thing to do was to grin and bare it.

It is tradition to not just go jumping into the water feet first. You are supposed to shower first, keeping the pool itself nice and clean. There is an area to do this. You pull up a little chair, hold onto a little wooden bucket and take a little shower.

Once done, I turned around and slipped into a clear, clean pool of water that was inviting me, enticing me to join it.

The wonders of an onsen cannot in and of itself be described with mere words. It is an experience that tingles the toes only when recalled and remembered by the body and is not the stuff of intellectual prattle. It is a sensation more than anything else and any attempt I might make to describe it would only serve only to mortalize it.

It was...was...liberating! I didn't care if anyone saw me. I didn't care about the fact that if anyone in the United States ever found out I was bathing with other men, I would never be able to work in the educational industry again. I was proud of my body, from top to bottom! I was free.
We talked and laughed and joked. In many ways, it WAS better than I could have imagined.

After less than 30 minutes of sweltering water, I knew I had had enough and couldn't sit in there very much longer. Not only was my skin getting shriveled, but I think I was noticing the faint smell of broiled rump roast as well. The water was extremely hot, almost too hot for me. I noticed that the pool room had a doorway leading outside. There was another pool outside! Wow! Cool...an outdoor onsen!

The guys told me this was a "rotenburo". I went outside; open to the night air and let off some of the steam. The snow fell lightly on my head but I still was nice and toasty warm. I nonchalantly stood up once in awhile to appreciate feeling. I failed to notice until later that this "rotenburo" outside onsen was not too far from the some people's homes AND the open road! Fortunate passerbys might well have been able to better compare the nuances twixt Japanese males and American their American counterparts.

Since then, I have been to dozens of various onsens, some new and some over 700 years old. I have sat in onsens that were just hot water and others that had strange concoctions poured into them that smelled strangely of herb tea and Oreo cookies. But despite their differences, I have discovered that they all have similar rules. Allow me to pass along but a few of the ones I have learned. I must apologize that I only know the rules concerning the MEN'S side of the onsen. Since I have never "officially" been over to the ladies' section, I really don't know any of THEIR rules.

1) It is considered rude to put the hand-towel in the water.
2) Do not swim around the pool, this includes the breaststroke.
3) Do not take your camera.
4) You are not SUPPOSED to take any of the shampoo or body soap that the onsen provides into the pools... or home with you.
5) Do not play Submarines and Destroyers
6) It is OK to put the hand-towel on your head, but not the bucket.
7) Do not sink down into the water until only your eyes show and glare at the other people.
8 ) Do not blow bubbles, of ANY kind.
9) This includes bubble bath.
10) Do NOT do the 'Dead Man Floating in the Water' routine.

As bad as this may sound, I am no longer nervous to get undressed in front of other men. In fact, I have been stripped completely of that fear and am proud of my body, from top to bottom. So someday, when I am asked what I miss most about Japan, I will say that it is not the food or the culture or the language. I will smile, nod knowingly and say, "Gosh, I really miss those brochures of naked Japanese babes in steamy hot water up to their necks."


Without a doubt.

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