Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Public nakedness

It's about time that I talk about one of my favourite hobbies in Japan - onsenning. I'm not sure if you can make "onsen" into a verb, but I just did., so there. Anyway, I'm talking about getting naked and getting wet in a room full of other men.

If you don't know what I'm on about, I'll explain: an onsen is a Japanese public bath, which, strictly speaking, must use natural spring water. If it uses water other than spring water, it's called a "sento". In fact, there's been quite a few scandals recently where places which claimed they were "onsens" were actually pumping tap water into their baths and then adding minerals later - a crime considered very serious in Japan.

Going to the onsen for the first time was a strange experience. My first impressions were that it was a lot like the showers after football practice - only a lot more civilised, and with a lot less towel whipping. Bathing requires complete nakedness - swimming trunks are most definitely not allowed. Most people take in a little "modesty towel" with them, but hardly anyone actually uses it to cover their modesty. Mostly it just gets used as a makeshift pillow, or sometimes as a dashing piece of headwear.

There are some strict rules to follow when "onsenning". Firstly, you have to completely clean your body before you get in. Which makes sense really. Japanese people think that westerners are completely crazy for not washing before they get in the bath - they think it's peculiar that we like to sit and wallow in our own filth. Before you get in the bath you sit down on a little plastic stool and shower yourself from head to toe using the soap and shampoo provided (or you can bring your own).

Secondly, no splashing. This isn't a swimming pool.

Thirdly, no swimming. This isn't a swimming pool.

Fourthly, tattoos are frowned upon. Tattoos are rare in Japan, and if a Japanese person has a tattoo, it generally means that he or she is a member of the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia). Such people are usually turned away, but the owners generally turn a blind eye to tattooed foreigners.

I really love my trips to the onsen - I usually go with a few other JETs on Monday nights, and it's a great way to unwind after a long day at school. It's also just a good place to sit and chat about life in general. There's great variety between onsens too - we've visited several baths in the area, and each has its own peculiar quirks. There are usually several different pools to try in each onsen, including outdoor pools, jacuzzis, scented pools, and one onsen even has an electric pool - there are these things underwater which send an electric current through you if you go near them. Which is about as pleasant as it sounds, ie, not very. There's also a variety of temperatures - the coolest pool is usually about 38 degrees centigrade, whilst the hottest is about 42 degrees, but I've been in ones which are even hotter than that.

After about an hour of wallowing I usually get dressed and head off to the massage chairs in the lounge (check out the pictures below). These things are brilliant - I'd buy one for my house, but they cost over a thousand pounds each, and I have to buy boring things like food.

Anyway, if you're ever in Japan I thoroughly recommend you visit an onsen at least once - you owe it to your body.



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