My undying love for onsen

I flew to Osaka from Shanghai on Thursday, August 10th.

In Japan, a convenient tool for foreigners is the Japan Rail Pass, different versions of which are basically a pass for all the Japan Rail trains, metros, etc. that go throughout Japan. When you get to Japan you can buy some of the regional passes, like the three-day Japan West pass or the Japan East pass, but if you want an all-Japan pass, you have to buy it outside of the country, and the bring your voucher to a JR station and exchange it for the pass. While in Shanghai (part of the reason why I hung around there for about a week), I ordered a JR pass and had the voucher express-shipped to my hostel in Osaka. It’s possible to buy a 7, 14, or 21 JR pass. I got the 21-day JR pass, which pretty much decided for me how long I was going to spend in Japan. (Sometimes you just gotta let the little things make decisions for you…)

After a quiet evening in Osaka, I got up early the next morning to get my JR pass and take a shinkansen (high-speed train) to Kyoto, which would be my first big stop in Japan.

The train from Osaka to Kyoto took under an hour. Both cities being a little bit more south, the weather was hot and a bit humid — though not nearly as bad as Shanghai and HK had been, so I felt okay. Still, lugging my back through the Arashiyama district, which is where I had booked a hostel for three nights, I was sweating pretty profusely by the time I arrived at the Musubi-an Arashiyama Guesthouse. This is when I first discovered how strict many hostels in Japan can be about their check-in and check-out hours. The guy at Musubi-an was very nice and let me drop off my bag early, but he literally carried it inside for me and I had to go somewhere else.

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Arashiyama

I decided somewhere else would be Funaoke Onsen, which I found on WikiTravel and which Google said was just 40 minutes away by various modes of transportation.

Funaoke Onsen was a small and very local place. By this I mean the patrons who frequent the onsen always bring their own towels, bath things, etc. Used to more touristy onsen, where towels are rentable and bath things like shampoo and conditioner are usually provided, I paid the fee and waltzed right into the onsen without realizing how I’d brought nothing with me except the clothes I was wearing and a small day pack including my water bottle.

But that later — onsen description now! In Japan, onsen are same-sex only. There’s a changing room where you can leave all of your clothes. In this onsen, there was a very hot bath, a moderately hot bath, and a cold bath. There was also a section with seats by jets, a section with smaller jets and a sign that read “electric bath do not enter if have heart problems“, and a small covered outdoor bath as well.

I love Japanese onsen. There’s something about soaking in a bunch of hot tubs in your birthday suit, surrounded by friendly and completely unselfconscious elderly Japanese ladies that is just so relaxing and comforting. Nudity is so completely sexualized in America that being anywhere except by yourself completely nude is taboo. Even female locker-rooms are bound to have at least one person changing awkwardly under their towel. Even with your closest female friends, there’s always that brief moment of, “Oh do you mind if I’m totally naked for a moment?” I don’t know what it’s like in guys’ locker rooms or among guy friends, but if TV sitcoms are any guide, it’s even more taboo.

In Japanese onsen, it doesn’t matter if you mind or not, because most times any type of clothing, including bathing suits, are banned from the baths. Some women have a wash cloth that they might drape over their front as they walk from bath to bath, but it’s never done with the awkward furtiveness that would happen in the US. Instead, you sit down in front of a long row of showers heads and spigots so that you can thoroughly wash yourself, and then you get to soak in a tub just enjoying the heat and the water.

Since the Funaoke Onsen was so local, and I went in the early afternoon, basically the only other people who were there were Japanese grannies who were having their daily wash. As as I wandered around the room, blind as a bat and trying to acquaint myself with the different pools (the signs were mostly in Japanese kanji, but since kanji are traditional Chinese characters, I can often understand what they mean — I just had to get very close to the placards ands squint at them), a handful of old ladies took me under their wing and lead me from bath to bath.

The jets were cool. The electric bath with the warning sign? Extremely strange — it was basically filled with a bunch of outlets and the electricity jolted you through the water. Interesting sensation, but I didn’t stick around in that pool for long.

Finally, I made my way to the cold pool and the sauna. One of the old ladies mimed filling a bowl with the cold water and dumping it over myself, picking up a mat from a shelf outside the sauna, and then taking it in. I shivered my way through the cold water, and brought a mat into the sauna. Once in there, another old lady pointed a spot for me to set down my mat so I could sit and enjoy the heat.

And oh boy. This sauna was possibly the hottest sauna I’ve ever been in. The heat was immediately overwhelming, and so intense that I could only breathe through my mouth — the air was so hot, it felt like it was scorching my nostrils if I breathed through my nose. So I sat there, completely still, while the old Japanese ladies watched news on the TV (I still have zero idea how the managed to get a TV working in a hot AF sauna, but Japan’s technology will never cease to amaze me, I suppose.) Finally, after about four minutes, which felt more like twenty, I picked up my mat and headed out. As soon as I left the sauna, some of the old ladies in the cold pool mimed pouring bowls of cold water over myself again. It felt amazing this time.

Totally relaxed and cooled off, I headed out of the baths room and into the changing room, where I realized I hadn’t brought a towel.

I did, however, have a lime-green bandana I’d used to wipe some sweat off my face after dropping my bag off at the Musubi-an guesthouse… So I wiped myself down with that, stood in front of the AC and fan and air-dried for a while, and then put my dress back on.

Successful day, if you ask me.