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January 10, 2011

The Onsen

When the bus stopped at the end of the long bridge over the deep ravine, and the driver said that the Fuigo Spa was down the steep drive to the left and we would have to walk, I knew that knowing Japanese would really be an asset on this trip. Unfortunately, it was an asset I didn't have.

“But that is a spa onsen, and we are looking for a simple country inn, the Fuigo Inn, not the spa,” I said.

“This is it. The road is too steep for the bus, you will have to walk.“

“Are you sure? We are not looking for the spa (nor, I thought can we afford to pay for a spa as we are barely making the budget last as it is). We are looking for the inn.”

“Fuigo Spa,” the driver said emphatically, gesticulating towards a road sign I could not read. “Walk-ee!”

“Did you call? Did he call them,” I asked Elena, my colleague the art historian who as it happens does speak a bit of Japanese.

“He says we are here. I will ask him to call the inn.”

I looked down into the ravine. The oval roof of a Japanese bath house, steam escaping from a roof vent, sat cuddled between the steep tree covered hillsides. It was dark and we couldn't see much, but there was a red-roofed building attached to the onsen, clearly it was a very nice place. Clearly, there was a mistake.

“They are sending a van to come and take us and our bags. He says to take the bags out of the bus.”

It was getting cold and we were high up in the mountains, far from a real town. My internal clock was still a bit jagged, and we were all tired after the long trip over from the US and two intense days of sight-seeing in Osaka and on Awaji Island. Normally, this kind of adventure turns me on, but with 19 college students, my head was full of the repercussions of a night trying to find the right inn after being abandoned on the side of the road.

When we descended to the onsen and asked to remove our shoes at the door before entering, my queasiness did not disappear. Wouldn't it seem normal for a group to show up for a bath, without the question of hotel rooms being broached? A few halting conversations between Elena and the innkeeper, more of a non-conversation it seemed to me, where not much was actually communicated even though both parties seemed eager to exchange information (I really envisioned a long night ahead) - and then, like a magic bottle opening, we were simply handed keys and told to be at dinner at 7.

“Please take a bath before dinner.”

I guess this is where we had reserved. Wow!! A week at a rural onsen, what could be better?

In case you haven't had the pleasure of visiting a Japanese public bath, known as an onsen, let me explain. As Americans we are driven (I might say obsessed) by an overall pursuit of everything individual. By that I mean we want what we want, when we want it, and how we want it. No personal request is ever out of line, no individual pursuit is ever denied. The “I's” have it. We download our lives to watch alone from our rooms, ears covered by buds not hearing those around us. We text under the table or brazenly out in the open, clearly projecting our desire to be elsewhere and with other people. We like it that way, it corresponds to our sense of individual entitlement. We request any number of ingredient changes in restaurants, we eat on our own schedules, we make our own friends. Though it may seem completely normal for an American to live this way, it would be unthinkable in many other cultures to posit the self as the center of life. In France or Italy the family often comes first and no one complains, and friends tend to also be friends of the family. In Japan where privacy is a place in your head more often than actually being alone, everything seems to be about the group, not the individual, and being a good member of a group is de rigeur.

Consider: in the US, the higher you pay for a hotel room, the nicer the private bathroom is. A motel might have a press molded plastic shower with a moldy curtain. A four star hotel had better have marble floors in the bathroom and two sinks, so that husband and wife can each have their own, otherwise you are perfectly in your rights to demand a better room. In Japan, however, the nicer the hotel, the nicer the public bath facilities. I have been in several hotels at a variety of prices ranges in Japan, from rural to the most urban, and I can tell you that a wonderful hotel will have a superlative public bath. A smaller hotel will have a simpler public bath. Guests at both hotels will bathe in public before dinner.

So what's so special about a Japanese bath? After many visits in many towns and cities, I find that the most striking aspect of these baths is a palpable sense of community. Though getting clean is what you do, communing with your neighbors is why you go back often. Here at the Fuigo Spa, in rural Tokushima province, many many miles from anything that might resemble a city, in a bamboo covered hollow surrounded by floating rice paddies and neighborhood Buddhist temples, these two steamy rooms, the male and female public baths, are the public square. I don't know about the women's side, for obvious reasons, but on the men's side, there is constant chatter, the ring out of ohio gozimus in the morning and kon bon wa when someone enters in the afternoon. Call me a romantic, but I assume that many of these men have known each other their whole lives, growing up in this town, working, marrying, and raising children all within the confines of this idyllic valley. The bath is not just the place with the best hot water and cleanest hot tub; it is in fact the city square, the coffee shop, the park bench, or the church basement, and these men come here for community. And for the children that come with their parents, or the young adults, it is the playground and the hang out.

As with many things Japanese, taking a bath in a Japanese onsen has rituals that must be observed. For one, you cannot wear a bathing suit; this will prompt someone, almost anyone, to ask you to leave. However, one does not simply strip bare and plunge into the steamy hot waters and admire the view. (Out the very large curved wall of windows of our onsen is the small pools of the river complete with a tumbling waterfall and the wonderful vermillion steel bridge which soars overhead reminding me that I am in the country of Hokusai and Hiroshige.) When you pass the indigo stained banners that serve as a gateway entrance, there is a dressing room, with small square lockers and plastic baskets for your clothes. You bring only a tiny towel for washing in with you to the actual bathing room. Beyond the sliding doors, the inner sanctum, noticeably warmer, divides into two sections. On the right, there is an area of very low plastic stools each paired with a plastic bucket, in front of mirrors, spigots and shower hoses. Next to each set up is a tray with shampoo as well as cake soap. The first ritual, without fail, is to perch yourself on the little stool in front of a mirror and wash your whole body, and I mean really thoroughly wash yourself using the soap, the towel, and the shower hose. I have seen men sit before these mirrors for over fifteen minutes washing. You can shave if you want to or brush your teeth if you need to.

Onsen locker room
Onsen locker room
Onsen soaking pool
Onsen soaking pool
Only when you are completely squeaky clean do you go over to the hot tub for a good long and relaxing soak. It feels so good and should not be rushed. No one rushes this part, though I have wanted to as by this time I am thinking about getting to dinner. In our tub, there are two special areas: one with bubbles that rise from the floor and another with strong jets that massage your back if you sit in front of them. The water says, let go, take this moment and be here now, relax. Heaven on earth.

To the left from the entrance there is another small area containing a sauna - too hot for me - often as not filled with a few chatty old men. There is also a shower that throws down two powerful jets, so that when you stand under it, your shoulders get a good massage. Opposite is a row of chairs for sitting and chatting, and between the massage shower and the main bath is a smaller round tub, with very cold water. I have taken the plunge twice, and that is about enough for this trip, I think. The last ritual, of course, is to dry off and get dressed, but here, as with everything else, there is a special Japanese twist. For those who live nearby, they simply dress and leave, often stopping in the TV lounge area on their way out. For hotel guests however, there is no need to re-dress in street clothes. Each guest is given a long blue and white cotton robe and a with a fabric belt, as well as a pair of socks for walking in the hotel and a dark blue over coat, a sort of mix between a shawl and a robe, that ties in the front. Many of the guests wear this outfit for the rest of the evening, while dining in the hotel restaurant, or sitting around smoking or talking. For me, I go as far as wearing this outfit on the walk to and from my room, where I will change back to ordinary clothes for dinner. Still, it is fun to walk around in this get up - a bit like a pajama party with people you don't know.

So if there is a better place to land for the nights after long hours beating mulberry branches into fibers for paper making, I can't think of it. We simply lucked out.

 view fromOnsen soaking pool
View from Onsen soaking pool