Japanese Onsen Swimming
Ah Japan, the land of the rising sun, or as I like to call it that utterly fascinating country of Olympic proportioned randomness. Cat cafés, robot bars, vending machine parlours and ninja photo booths are just some of the eye boggling delights I sampled on my recent trip. And with that randomness comes contradiction, like you have never witnessed before.
This is a country obsessed with safety, hygiene, knee high socks and above all doing the ‘right’ thing. Example one; while visiting one of Tokyo’s high end department stores shoppers are urged to hold onto the handrails when travelling the escalators. Fast forward to the ski fields and the majority of chairlifts on our first day skiing have no safety bar.
Example two; Tokyo is a fabulous futuristic, style conscious city like no other. High end fashion and pointy nosed architecture is a national sport. Most women strolling the streets of fashionable Ginza can be seen in top-to-toe Issey Miyake, Comme des Garcon or Miu Miu. Yet, outfit choices are commonly offset by the eyesore of a cheap white paper surgical mask covering most of the face to protect against unwanted coughs and sneezes. I’m just saying, they didn’t match their handbags.
But probably the greatest contradiction of all is the Japanese relationship with the human body. The sexualisation of school girls seemed to be fair game for business men after 10pm but don’t even think about making hand contact with a shop assistant when paying for a bottle of water.
So it was with this knowledge that I approached my first Japanese swim assignment with an extreme case of cultural anxiety. Onsen, (Japanese baths), are a cultural icon, as Japanese as 24/7 sushi and sake in a karaoke booth duet with a sumo wrestler. Onsen’s are about capital B ‘bathing’, no clothing is allowed, single sex only and cleanliness is paramount.
Skiing in the Hakuba region, around four hours from Tokyo, surrounded by fresh mountain air and powdery snow, this seemed like the perfect place to take the onsen plunge.
Out the back of our Swiss style chalet, behind an innocuous brown door, hid a cultural mind-field dressed up as a hot tub. After a few ‘Lost in translation’ moments with the hotel staff I ascertained it was not necessary to walk naked through the snow to the tub. It was typical to change in the bathhouse, and as I later worked out, wear some sort of footwear that resembled terracotta crocs.
From the hours of 5-6pm and 8-9pm the onsen catered for ladies only. The evening hours in between were for the blokes. Helpfully inside the onsen was a large clock to avoid any additional embarrassment.
Shuffling through the snow, I walked towards the sound of running water and took a punt on the first brown door I could see. Success. Sliding the door open I walked through a black curtain which unveiled a small changing area below wooden steps that lead up to the tub.
Recalling the onsen for dummies article I had just read in a tourist brochure I steadied my panic, and attempted to undress calmly in the open-roofed below 10 degrees wooden shed. Point two of the article highlighted the need to always wash before entry. Scoping the shed there appeared to be no shower or tap.
I attempted to play it cool. Casually I climbed the steps up to the onsen. An older woman who was already in the tub threw me a wooden ladle and seemed to be blocking me from entering before I washed myself. I casually dunked the ladle and threw water over myself, trying to conceal the fact that I was frozen, starkers and clueless what to do next.
I repeated the ladle routine a few times until she seemed to lose interest, or perhaps nodded off from heat exhaustion. Point three of onsen for dummies told me it was customary to exclaim loudly on entry. No rehearsal required. The water was so scalding I shrieked as I slowly entered the tub.
My helpful neighbor was difficult to see over the mist of the onsen. She started to make chat with me, and tried to explain something about the onsen being a giant miso pot. Or she could have been recommending to be me where to have dinner, my Japanese needs work.
After a few minutes I began to acclimatize and the swirl of the steam from the hot springs became completely hypnotic. I stayed in the pool until I was suitablly prune like and the clock reminded me it was soon to be boys night.
Not far from our chalet was a popular tourist attraction, the Japanese snow monkeys. These pink faced little guys spend their entire days just soaking in the tub while crazy tourists take photos of them going about their business. Considering there’s a no photo policy in the onsen I really feel for the monkey’s modesty. But a monkey that spends all day lounging in a hot tub, forget climbing trees, that animal has my vote.