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.