Our two day train ride left Todd and I in a random Northern Japanese town called Asamushi. We had half a day before our next train would take us to Sapporo, so we decided to use the time to clean up. In Japan that means one thing: Onsen, or public baths.
We walked around in circles trying to find a bath. We could see stream of hot water running naturally through the town, so we followed it until it ran under a building. We'd found our onsen.
Some onsen are huge affairs with multiple baths, both indoor and outdoor, saunas, and cold plunge pools. Others, like this one, have just a single bath filled with water from a naturally occurring hot spring. Some are mixed sex, but most are segregated by gender.
We went into the changing room which was separated from the bathing room by a glass door. Were we supposed to wear bathing suits? Underwear? A towel? Nothing? Neither of us are particularly modest, but breaking Japanese etiquette always feels like the greatest offence one could commit, since they're such overwhelmingly polite people.
Along the wall were strange showers. Instead of having the spout above our heads, it was at crotch level. Curiously, there was a mirror there too. Was this some sort of ritual we didn't understand?
We stood there awkwardly trying to figure out what to do. Finally a Japanese businessman came in to use the onsen. We fidgeted around, pretending to be looking for things and folding our clothes while we watched him out of the corners of our eyes. It was probably quite creepy. Then we imitated every step he took, to make sure we followed protocol.
It turned out that the showers were sit down showers. The buckets nearby were to be flipped upside down and used as stools. After showering we soaked in the very hot water of the pool. You could feel the minerals on your skin and see them crystallized around the spigot that brought the water from the earth.
It was a simple but profound pleasure. Relaxing, cleansing, and authentic. I kept thinking about how nice it must have been when everyone bathed this way.
A week later we made it to a huge famous onsen that had many different pools, both indoor and outdoor, but it was closed by the time we got there.
In Japantown in San Francisco, there is a fairly authentic onsen called Kabuki Springs. My friends and I went last month, and have gone religiously every week.
Kabuki is pretty authentic, all the way down to the sit down showers, which I really prefer to regular showers now. They have a steam room, sauna, hot pool, and cold pool. The real draw, though, is the atmosphere. The rice paper screened lights are dim, the ceiling is made of dark cedar planks, and the floors in the waiting area are even woven straw like Japanese tatami mats.
It feels like a weekly escape to Japan. You leave feeling relaxed, squeaky clean, and happy. I found the quiet time to ponder and reflect that I didn't find at Vipassana.
My one complaint is that the only coed day is clothing mandatory. Who wants to bathe with their clothes on? Men only days, which are three days a week, have a gay pickup vibe to them. It is San Francisco, after all.
Anyway, the whole reason I'm writing this is to say this: check if there's a public bath near where you live, and go visit it. Bathing, which used to be a ritual and a luxury has become a chore we execute as quickly as possible. Spending and hour relaxing and getting clean is a great way to treat yourself like a King.
Last night I went to the Number 8 bathhouse in Beijing. It's really similar to what you describe, but with one added feature:
For an extra 50 Yuan you can get into a small round pool full of tiny fish. As soon as you enter, they swarm you and begin to bite your skin with their tiny mouths. The sensation tickles, and they'll get at any part of your body that's underwater... ANY part. They actually eat away the dead skin, leaving you silky smooth by the time you leave! If you ever get the chance to try it, I HIGHLY recommend it.
Are you still in Japan Tynan?
i'm living and going to school here now.
would be cool to do a one on one pick up bootcamp coaching if you are down.
Hopefully I will get a chance to visit my buddy in Osaka next year. Your posts make it hard to wait around not traveling.
Also, it never occurred to me before but bathing is definitely something we have learned to take for granted. Yet it can be so relaxing and envigourating when you take the time to enjoy it.
Cool, Water therapy is fun. I bathed in a tiny outdoor onsen in Japan after a scuba dive. It was an old boat perched high upon a cliff overlooking the bay with separate sections of different temperature mineral water.
I wanna check out Kabuki Springs.
Koreans have a similar spa setup in their towns. In America, Korean spas are in most major cities. In Dallas, there is King Spa, which I love. There are men and women areas where the hot and cold baths, showers and sauna/steam rooms are located. Then, in the common area, there are 7 or so various sauna rooms with dry heat and a variety of temperatures and crystal/herb walls (which smell nice and help "purify" the senses). Also in the common area is a Korean cafe, movie theater (free Korean movies, some with subtitles) and a kareoke room which is free for 1 hour (first come, first served). There is a King Spa in NJ and one coming to the Chicagoland area (I think Niles). When I go to Japan, I'll need to check these Onsens out!
You have such an amazing life, i have always wanted to go to japan although i don't know about public baths especially ones with "gay pickup vibes"
What a day. In an effort to totally avoid paying for hotels we have worked out an elaborate system of only taking night trains, where we can sleep as we travel.
Today that landed us in Aomori, a small city in Northern Japan. After spending two hours researching things to do there, I had found only one possibility: eat apples. The city is known for having good apples, and nothing else whatsoever.
With 14 hours before our next train to Sapporo, we had to find something else to do. To fuel our brainstorming we found a little trendy Italian restaurant called Piccolo. Even one-street towns in Japan have restaurants with beautiful interior design. It's important here. We lucked out - they use high quality ingredients, make their own sauces, and use extra virgin olive oil.
Relaxation. Isn’t that often one’s motive behind planning a vacation?
When finalizing a trip, you might imagine that a weeklong jaunt in another country will leave plenty of time to unwind. But with jam-packed itineraries, time-zone changes, and efforts made to acclimate yourself to a new culture, relaxation seems a near impossible feat. Let’s be honest – once flight time, transportation, and checking-in and out of your accommodations are calculated, you have already lost half a day on both ends of your trip.
Gain it back.
My advice? Take a bath.
Do not shy away from the fact that you wish to indulge such a selfish luxury, when you could instead be exploring the terrain. Take a bath!