Ever since I arrived in Japan, one of my goals has been to visit an onsen, or Japanese hot spring. I often regaled my students with tales of my beloved Miette Hot Springs back home, so I was quite often given recommendations as to nearby places to visit. (Although one student advised me that the better ones are up north in Hokkaido.) So, when one of my fellow foreign teachers started putting a day at an onsen together for the entire staff, I readily signed on board. But, there was one thing holding me back. There was one tiny thing giving me a slight reservation about going along. For you see, tradition dictates that one goes into an onsen naked.
At first I thought that I’d be OK with this. After all, I had seen Sailor Moon and Lina Inverse visit onsens. You get a towel to wrap around yourself. But then, some of my coworkers began educating me. “Well, you know,” they said, “The towel is really tiny, no bigger than a washcloth. If you had any plans to use it to wrap yourself up, you may as well forget about it.” I was thinking about backing out, but then, after looking at the larger picture, I wondered what all I had to worry about. After all, once I hit the water, everything would be nicely obscured below the waterline. All I really had to worry about was the few seconds as I dashed from the locker room into the pool. In the grand scheme, I felt I should be able to let it all hang out just for a few seconds. I decided to stick by my original decision to go along. We were to leave at 7:30 am on Sunday morning.
My alarm clock went off at 6 am on Sunday morning, so I promptly hit snooze and rolled over and went back to bed. At 6:30, the alarm went off again, and this time I rolled out of bed. I absent-mindedly turned on the TV for a little background noise, and made the startling discovery that Sailor Moon is on Sunday mornings at 6:30. As I watched the Sailor Scouts fighting for love and justice, I scrounged around for some clean underwear. With the forces of the Negaverse once again vanquished, I knew it was time to head out to the meeting place. First thing I had to do though was grab a towel. I was told that we should bring our own. I just grabbed whichever big ol’ bath towel was handy, and rolled it up under my arm. It was just like heading out to the swimming pool!
We were going to meet at the Kumagaya Station, and as with all early morning road trips, I resolved to get breakfast on the road. I resolved to use this as an excuse to get one of my rare and special treats in life. Yes, it was breakfast at McDonald’s! I arrived at the McDonald’s across from the station and was elated to discover that they have Egg McMuffins in Japan. I got myself a typical breakfast-on-the-road-breakfast-combo, which was the Sausage & Egg McMuffin with a side of hash browns and a big glass of milk. I found myself a window seat and could clearly see where I was scheduled to meet the gang across the street. Once breakfast was safely in my belly, I headed out to meet the gang, and ran into one of them getting a cup of McDonald’s coffee for the road. We marched across the street to where our chariot awaited. For this adventure, we had all pooled our money and rented a minivan. We were off on our road trip!
We cruised down the streets of Kumagaya until we reached the outskirts. We were hitting the highway, and this was a new experience for me. It turns out the highway was a toll road. I had never driven on a toll road before as there are none in Canada. Well, I think there’s a few in Ontario. Anyway, they’re a rare thing back home, and so this one was my first. We pulled up to the tollbooth and took our ticket. All public transportation, including toll roads as it turns out, are “pay for as far as you’ve gone,” so you take a ticket at the place you start and pay at the end. Nice and simple, and soon we were on the highway.
After cruising down the toll road for a while, it was decided to stop at a service area. One of my Japanese coworkers began explaining the concept of the service area to me. In order to keep these toll roads from becoming congested, every few kilometres they have these service areas where you can stop, take a rest, grab a meal, use the restroom and fill up with gas. After he had explained this all to me, I just nodded my head and said, “Oh! It’s a truck stop!” I was thrilled. I was going to see my first Japanese truck stop.
We took the next exit and we all piled out. At first, it didn’t strike me as a truck stop. If I had to draw a comparison to something back home, I would have to say that it resembled more of these new tourist rest area complexes being built in the mountains. There was a massive parking lot with lots of room for tour buses and trucks pulling trailers. Like most of our group, I piled out to investigate this place. I went inside and found a convenience store, a restaurant, a tourist information booth, and restrooms. Yup, it was a truck stop alright. A little cleaner, though. I bought myself a Pepsi for the road, and soon we were once again cruising down the turnpike.
The trip was long and sleep-inducing. That is, if I could sleep in a moving vehicle. We rolled down the highway, looking at the windows at the amazing Japanese scenery and the looming Japanese mountains. We got off the toll road and continued down some winding mountain roads. I do so love the mountains. There’s nothing like going through the mountains by train, and quite often I’d look up to see a railway sliced onto a mountain ledge. I’d look at those and think, “What I’d give to be on that.” What a difference a few feet make. We stopped at a few viewpoints to check out the view, and a convenience store for a break, and kept on driving through the mountains.
A few more twisty, windy, mountain roads later, and we had arrived. It was a small town in nearby Gooma Prefecture, the name of which I’ve already forgotten. We found a parking spot and began heading out to the hot springs.
The town we went to (whose name I’ve already forgotten) was a real tourist town. Every corner held another gift shop. But what was really most spectacular was when we made it to the town square. Here was where we saw the hot spring itself. It manifested itself as this massive, steaming pond. The outside temperatures were already dipping down to the 0 point, so there was quite a bit of steam coming off of the pond. The pond itself was dammed off at one end, and the hot spring water was directed down this series of incredibly long troughs, and each one was line with some thin material. The material looked kind of like wax paper. I asked what this elaborate set up was for. I was informed that the as the water ran down the troughs, all of the wonderful minerals that were in the spring water were deposited on this wax paperish material. Then, the minerals are harvested, bagged, and sold for $5 a bag so you can mix it in with your bath water and have the hot spring experience at home. And sure enough, all around this central pond & trough complex, there were at least 5 vendors selling bags of the spring’s minerals. It looked just like sulphur to me. At the end of the troughs, the water poured back out into a little pond, and from there, down a man-made waterfall and unceremoniously into the town’s sewer system. You could stand at the base of this waterfall and pose for a picture, but that was difficult as the steam rising off of the falls kept them obscured for 90% of the time. Steam rose from every sewer grate as the hot spring water rushed through it.
Also at various stations around this complex were smaller springs. The water bubbled up into a little concrete cistern, where you could reach in and feel the hot water coming up from the volcanic depths. I reached my hand in to discover that it was pleasingly warm. Out of this cistern, the water flowed into a much larger pool lined with benches. Several people had taken off their shoes and socks and were soaking their feet in the pool. It was set up for this purpose; to give weary hikers and walkers a relaxing foot-soak before continuing on their journey. None of us were up for a little foot dip, though, wanting instead to get the real experience. We left this pond and started heading up the actual hot spring itself.
The path to the hot spring was a small mountain path, following the banks of a stream. This stream was also hot spring water, and small puffs of steam occasionally drifted up from the swift waters. It was a rather shallow stream, and many people were walking down close to its banks for a closer look. I had seem similar many times in my youth in the Rocky Mountains, so I wasn’t finding it too impressive. I was, however, enjoying my time in the Japanese wilderness. It was the first time in a long time to be in a forested area, and so I was looking at the trees and just enjoying being in nature again. Here I was, in the mountains of Japan, walking next to a mountain stream, and about to enjoy the soothing hot mineral waters. It seemed like a perfect day. And soon, we were there, at the gates to the spring. Those of us who were going in paid our 500 yen for one hour. Those who weren’t going in (for fear of catching a cold or being seen naked in public) opted to stay out and explore the mountain paths. I decided that I had come this far, and I was going to go all the way.
We men who chose to enter went into the locker room and began to remove our clothes. We got one communal locker to hold the valuables, and then we all claimed a cubicle on the wall to hold our clothes. Seeing as to how they are the only pair I own, I removed my glasses and put them in the valuables locker. With my glasses off, everything around me was reduced to a fuzzy blur. At least I would be spared the vision of hundreds of naked men, but I’d all be in focus to them. I stripped down until I was wearing nothing but my underwear. I knew had I reached the point of no return. I took a deep breath, bent down, and pushed my underwear to my ankles. With a bit of a flourish, I kicked my underwear off of my feet so it flew up to chest height. I grabbed them out of the air and thrust them into my cubicle. I draped my towel around my shoulders and asked my comrades to lead me to the pool. Without my glasses, I’m nearly blind after all.
I walked outside into the very cool air and felt it all over my body. It was starting to be a very cold day. There were some buckets sitting next to the side of the pool. I was told to take one, fill it up, and scrub down before jumping in. It was similar to taking a shower before diving into a swimming pool. I filled up a bucket, squatted on the ground, and began pouring the water over myself. When I was sufficiently scrubbed, I took my first steps into the pool. The pool itself was designed to look like an actual, natural hot spring. That meant that the pool was lined with rocky outcroppings; that there were large mountain boulders in the middle of it, and that the pool’s floor was uneven with mountain stones. I’m sure the uneven ground was difficult for most, but even more so for me as I couldn’t see where I was stepping next. I followed my friends to a secluded corner, and we all sat down to begin enjoying the hot water. The pool itself was shallow enough that we just sat on the floor, thus submerging ourselves to neck level.
We all sat down and began to relax. I, too, was starting to enjoy myself. Now, with everything safely hidden under the water, there was really nothing to worry about. I laid back and tried to make small talk with my friends. Things were all rather peaceful. Here we were, just a group of friends, chilling in a hot tub, shooting the breeze. There was really nothing to worry about. I began to feel relaxed. I began to feel at ease. I began to feel…pain.
Halloween was just a few weeks earlier, and I had some sort of allergic reaction to my Halloween costume. As such, my arms and legs were covered with some sort of rash. After soaking in the water for about 10 minutes, the water began to irritate the rash. It were as though a thousand needles were being driven into my skin. The pain and itching was getting unbearable. As it is unhealthy to sit in unheated water for long periods of time, I decided to hop out and sit on the pool’s deck for a while. Sadly, though, with the lowering temperatures in the air, the shock of the cold made the rash hurt even more. And, since it was so cold, I was shivering quite a bit. My friends naturally asked me why I was wincing in pain and shivering in shock, so I revealed to them my somewhat embarrassing problem. (Embarrassing because the worst place for the rash was between my legs right close to my…yeah, there.)
So the remainder of my hour at the hot spring was spent in agony. I was either in the hot water, with the minerals irritating my skin, or out in the cold air, where the shock was irritating it twice as much. Eventually, I resolved to spend the maximum amount of time in the water, as in there the pain was less and I was keeping warm. The hour flew by, and I found that public nudity was no longer an issue as long as I focused on my pain.
The pain in my legs was so unbearable that I had difficulty walking to the locker room. I sat down and very gently patted my legs dry with my towel. I very slowly put on my pants, lest the rubbing of the fabric against my legs make things worse. I walked funny out of the locker room, and I was still in a lot of pain and shivering quite a bit. I was also feeling dehydrated, so I hit a vending machine to get something to drink. That was at least one problem I could deal with it. Although it embarrassed me more, some of my friends shared my problem with the women in our group, now that we were reunited. Well, I guess they had to tell them something when they saw me walking funny and shaking like a leaf and they asked, “What’s wrong with Mark?” One of the women in our group then opened up her backpack and presented all kinds of pain relievers and ointments and said that if I needed any kind of medication, she had it. I thanked her for this offer, but I learned how to deal with pain from my mother’s example: save the medicine for those who truly need it, and I am the one who always needs it the least. So, I waddled down the mountain in a perpetual state of pain.
We took a breather in the town square to begin plotting our next move. There were several hot springs in the area, and there was talk of heading to another one. In fact, we began making our plans at the front steps to a free hot spring, so one in our group said, “See you later!” and headed into that one. The rest of us started flipping through the hot spring guide, and soon found three magic words: mixed hot spring. Now, as I’m sure you’ve been able to figure out, because you go into a hot spring nude, it is segregated into a boys’ pool and a girls’ pool. A mixed hot spring meant that there is (gasp!) a co-ed pool, where men and women can soak together. Two of the men in the group said that they wanted to check that out. I, however, was conflicted. True, I could quite possibly glimpse some naked women, but was worth going through all the pain again? I was at a loss of what to do, and I obsessed over this decision quite loudly, much to the chagrin of the women in the group. Naked women vs. intense pain. An eternal debate. Ultimately, though, I decided not to go. As exciting as it would have been, it would have not been worth the pain. So, those of us who opted out of another hot spring experience gathered in a local coffee house.
I was through with hot springs for the day, and was ready to kick back and let my legs heal. I’ve always been a firm believer in the healing power of hot springs, so I hope the intense pain was a sign of some serious healing action going on. And, in the end, the whole public nudity debate was a lot of hubbub. Once you’re in the water, there’s nothing left to do but kick back, relax, and have a good time. We’re all human there for one purpose: relaxing. Besides, everything’s underwater. There was nothing to it, and I’ll definitely be going back someday.
(Oh, and afterwards, I was told that there was no one at the mixed hot spring but some wrinkled old men. Although, I personally think I was lied to so my feelings would be spared.)