On and on and onsen

Posted by on Sep 17, 2011 in Niigata, Travel Volunteer Journey | One Comment
On and on and onsen

There is some fatal flaw in the British psyche that often leaves us paralysed with embarrassment. I think a lot of it come from some out-dated state of mind about things being “proper”. Frequently we seem to find ourselves scandalised and muttering into our chests. Hugh Grant does it a lot on camera.

We are a very self-conscious people. You see it a lot in bars around the country, where folk need to be blind drunk before they’re willing to stand up in front of a crowd or sing karaoke. We don’t like to draw attention to ourselves.
It goes beyond the waking world too: I used to have a reoccurring nightmare when I was a teenager, where I’d be a on a school trip, then suddenly find myself naked on the bus, unable to get off, with everyone staring at me. In other words, the idea of, say, walking naked into a room full of strangers has plagued me for a long time. (Katy never used to have this dream, but is still terrified by the prospect of naked strangers.)

Unfortunately, that is precisely the idea behind the Japanese onsen.

We’ve been to many spas before, but none have had this all-naked policy. Nor have they generally frowned upon tattoos. The first time we tried to visit an onsen I was politely told that because of my tattoos (I have four, none of them are good) perhaps it would be better if I didn’t go in. It seems that here in Japan tattoos have a strong, negative association with gangsters.

In my case, I couldn’t look less like a gangster: I have my nickname with a tribal symbol that looks unfortunately like a barbeque; a band around my arm that looks like two slugs crawling towards each other; a declaration of brotherly love that arrived in a drunken haze; and a Japanese symbol that roughly translates as “ogre” (as a 17-year-old I thought it looked cool without knowing the meaning). As I said: not good.

So in the end, being turned away was a bit of relief.

Thankfully, though, when we arrived in Niemonya last night in Toyama prefecture, we both got to enjoy our first proper Japanese spa experience. Although we were on separate floors (men and women are kept apart) we both had to fend off a strong desire to make a mad dash to run into the water; onsens are peaceful places and seeing a pink blur sprinting through the steam is unlikely to easy anyone’s troubled mind.

So with gritted teeth and tense shoulders we both managed to wash ourselves publicly. For Katy, there was something of a romance from the old world about sitting down to bathe herself, rather than the slap-dash shower of modern times. Soaking in the soothing warm water wasn’t bad, either.

And now that we’ve done it once, there’s no turning back. As I write now, Katy is off enjoying another one, here at Hananogi on Sado Island.

At this rate, by next week naked could well be the new black.


イギリス人は、子供のころから刷り込まれた指導により、ついいろいろなことを躊躇してしまう。そして恥をかきそうになると、胸の中でぶつぶつと不平を言うのだ。そうそう、まさにヒュー・グラントが映画の中で見せる姿のように。

イギリス人は往々にして自意識が高く、そして注目を集める事を苦手とする。多くのバーでみられるように、人々は意識を失う程に酔いつぶれてからステージの上でのカラオケを楽しもうとする。それはまさにその典型だ。

それは夢の中でも同じだ。私は以前よくこんな悪夢にうなされていた。それは学校の修学旅行での事。突然自分がバスの中で真っ裸になっていて、逃げる事もできず、みんなの冷ややかな視線を浴びてしまう。だから人まで真っ裸になり、知らない人ばかりがいる部屋に入って行くなど考えられない事なのだ。(ちなみにケイティーはそんな夢は見たことないらしいが、やはり知らない人の前で裸になるなど考えただけでぞっとすると言っている)

が、これが日本の温泉ではこれは全く普通のことなのだ・・・

私達は今まで多くのスパ(公共浴場)に行ってきたが、真っ裸にならなくてはならないという決まりがあったところは一つもなかった。もちろんタトゥー(ファッション刺青)に眉をひそめられる事もなかった。日本に来て初めて温泉に入ろうと思った時、とても丁寧に“タトゥーがあるなら温泉には入らないほうがよい”と告げられてしまったので、これは諦めるしかないのだろうと思っていた。ここ日本ではタトゥーは即“やくざ”というイメージにつながり、歓迎されないものらしい・・・

自分で言うのもなんだか、私自身“やくざ”に見えるとは思えないし、残念ながら4つのタトゥーは自分の出身地でのニックネーム、2匹のナメクジが腕に巻きついているかのようなデザインのもの、酔っぱらって意識もうろうとした中で交わした友情のあかし、そして“鬼”という漢字(17歳の頃、意味も分からずこれがかっこいいと思っていたのだ・・・)と、どれもものすごくかっこ悪いものばかり・・・。
だからそんなかっこ悪いタトゥーを見られなくて済むと思うとある意味ほっとしたりもしていた。

そんなこんなで温泉は諦めていたのだが、ありがたい事に昨日お世話になった魚津の仁衛門家さんで温泉初体験を果たす事ができた。もちろん女風呂・男風呂と分かれてはいたものの、私達は共に心休まる至福のひとときを楽しんだ。

ということで人前でのお風呂に入るという緊張の体験をしたのだが、ケイティーは今時のシャワーよりも、お風呂に座って体を洗い、ゆっくり湯船につかるという昔ながらのスタイルにある種の憧れを抱いていたようで、大満足の様子だった。

1度体験したらもう怖いものはない!ということで、今私はここでこのブログを書いているが、ケイティーは本日お世話になっている佐渡島の花の木旅館さんで、また至福の温泉タイムを満喫している。
きっと来週の今頃には、人前で裸になり温泉に入る事は私達の中で“トレンド”になっている事だろう!

1 Comment

  1. Lesley
    September 19, 2011

    Jamie! Naked is absolutely the new black!

    I really loved going to the onsen when I was in Japan, in fact, it was probably one of my very most favourite parts of Japanese culture. I’ve thought a bit about why I enjoyed it so much and have decided that the experience of being naked around strangers was a positive one, totally lacking from our culture.

    In Britain, we do almost naked all the time. Geordie girls with mini skirts and bare arms in Jaunary, builders’ bums, bare chested football fans, you know all those very British stereotypes that are linked by a showing of flesh. But people are never ever totally naked around others.

    It’s really different in Japan of course. The onsen are so secluded and private and serene, which is quite a feat considering how busy and bustling most of Japan is. Also, there’s absolutely nothing showy or brazen about bodies in the onsen. Quite the opposite really, it’s very dignified. I found it liberating to be around lots of other women with no clothes on. I saw all shapes and sizes of bodies, all just equally naked. Skinny wee pre-pubescent girls and wrinkly, ancient grandmothers, friends, sisters, mums-to-be with ripe round bellies, really all sorts. And it felt really nice because there was just no judgment. Everyone’s got the same bits and bobs. For young women, you get quite used to feeling like you need to look a certain way, the way women look in magazines, but then, at the onsen, you remember that most people don’t really look like that, that you’re not that fat actually, and nobody there really cares what you look like anyway.

    I went lots of times by myself, with my friends and also with my mum when she came over to visit. For me, there was a lovely communal feeling of being sort of just all women together with no barriers, especially when I was used to feeling very foreign and different and not understanding much of what was going on around me in Japan. Washing in a public bath is such a simple pleasure, and also really timeless, you could just imagine lying back in the same hot water pool in imperial Japan centuries ago – and that it wouldn’t be much different.

    The closest I get here to feeling the same liberating, communal spirit is the changing rooms in Topshop, which, yeah, isn’t quite the same….