Ready, set: let’s enter an opulent resort in the dark of late afternoon, as Japan’s early sunset blunts the green of surrounding hills. We’re in the North – not quite Hokkaido but climbing that way; it’s cold. The town’s name is Sakunuma, in Miyagi prefecture. About half an hour outside Sendai – the only big city for miles – the air here feels a domesticated wilderness.
Like many grand hotels on this island nation, our current locale contains an onsen – a Japanese hot spring – the most private of public places. This is where we go. All onsen with their simmering pools host only naked folk, at every level that implies. I won’t make you work for this, I’m telling you straight up; in the onsen – Japan’s last bastion of relaxation for the masses – the country’s polite veneer one appreciates and fears, this flakes away like paint in steam, bit by bit until bare wall remains.
Opening before us is a bright yellow lobby, holding smiles from the young ladies manning the front desk. They each shout greetings when anyone enters through the automatic doors, but the 'Irashaimasé!' cry doesn’t reach your consciousness anymore; you’re used to it. Instead attention is focused on absorbing the lush interior designed to seem an outdoor landscape.
Made entirely of wood glazed by infinite layers of wax, the lobby is decorated with dried fruit still on stalks, dried peppers, dried flowers which give the illusion they emanate incense drifting through the air. Bowed bamboo shoots are green at the base gliding up to brown, with orange tissue-thin bell-shaped vegetable shells hanging off them. From every angle lanterns of paper – yellow and white and intensely Eastern – shine brightly upon the bucolic scene orchestrated below. In the center, a fountain flows into a pool and winds off doing a perfect impression of a creek, flowing over smooth white stones no larger than a child’s fist. It gurgles contentedly.
Peopling the scene are kimonoed ladies laughing relaxed laughs, mothers teaching daughters while grandmothers gossip and observe all. Everyone is happy; life moves in lapping waves. Until they catch sight of us – hushed tension now – gaijin.
In Japan, everyone has a reaction to foreigners. It need not be negative, but something always changes. Some may freeze and stare, unaware of their gaze. Others might pretend not to notice, but glance often. Some just register your presence – ‘And how do I feel? Oh yes, indifferent.’ Many are overjoyed and come running up to practice whatever English they know, even if merely “Hello” repeated. Almost all are unsure what to do or think, but if you shoot over a grin, they return it – relieved, happy, chatty. And only a very few look with hate and recrimination, You Shot My Husband or You Steal Our Women, You are Loud and Rude and there are Too Many As It Is. Hopefully we will not meet many bitter ones today.
When we enter the light lobby the women sitting around the fountain go quiet. A voice coughs. The looks of shock pass quickly – some give us warm smiles while others self-consciously resume their movements begun moments ago. Children let out wide-eyed giggles and point. A man heading for the central clearing stops and turns back towards his room – ‘I forgot something!’ his body language tries to lie. Don’t worry – none of this has a thing to do with the true you.
One friend – a Venezuelan named Jean who has lived in Japan 4 years – converses with the ladies behind the desk. He says the best pool – the largest one which looks over a river flowing below – this place is in women’s hours until late. Fine; the smaller ones will do. 1300 yen apiece (almost $11) which is expensive for an onsen, but we’re at a posh one.
We move to the lockers on the right. They are tiny but that is expected, as they are for shoes, removed when we first entered this oasis. Inside the cubbies are generic slippers, every pair identical. American hiking boots defy the allotted space, and require exertion, shoving.
Insert 100 yen and remove your numbered key. Exchange this for a rubber numbered bracelet taken out of a teeny leetle key cubicle behind our collective concierge. Now climb up the winding carpeted spiral circling a large crystal chandelier.
Upstairs take off your slippers and leave them in the little pit at the entrance to the men’s locker room. Again everything is wood – it is as one imagines the inside of upper-crust clubhouses. Approach your numbered cabinet and – after discovering the small key tucked in the plastic folds of your bracelet – open the door to find a towel and fresh yukata waiting. Get naked and get used to it as now is not the time for shyness. Once changed into your wonderfully elegant and simple cotton robe (the yukata) pick any slippers out of the multitude laying in the pit. Let’s head to the opposite side of the carpeted landing above the lobby, where an elevator takes us to the basement.
Turning left we’ll find, just before the curtain with the kanji for “male,” open shelving for the slippers. Remove them, and ascend two inches to another cheery pine floor which leads to a behemoth room, sinks and toiletries cluttering the near end and open cubbies at the far side for yukata and towels. This is a tremendous open space, more striking given the generally cramped quarters of Japan. Benches made of pine slats line the white walls with foot massagers placed every 5 meters or so. There is a large window to the right that looks in upon the shower room, also the home of an indoor onsen. There we go.
Wash before entering the water – all pools are shared and not for bathing, but for soaking – it would be rude to defy this edict. Lining the two near walls are open stools. Don’t slip on the slick cherry wood underfoot before plopping onto your low seat, and adjust the temperature of the water leaving the closest shower head. While perched on the stool you find shampoo, conditioner, and body soap bottles nearby. They are labeled in English and English exclusively. Look one way; now the other; no, our group contains the only foreigners. Like every other onsen this is not so much a place for gaijin.
The water is warm and the nasty natural odor from under your arms is soon overcome by sweet fragrances. A hairy body – to the Japanese, every gaijin is hairy – makes for easy lather and you are clean in little time, but wash again since it is so pleasant.
Descend to the onsen in the center of the room. Mineraled water fills the large shallow pool, only a meter deep and steaming. Behind us is the window looking in on the large room with its benches blow dryers and complimentary accoutrements; before us a glass wall looks out onto a hillside jungle with plants lit from below. As the warmth of the water penetrates your bones it mellows away any disappointments, acridness melts and the antagonism we occasionally feel from this reserved county – which, outside large cities, defies the stereotypes of loose sexuality – it all washes away.
Jean loves this world, he laps it like his personal heaven of bubbling brooks flowing with lilting life. Our other companion though – American Daniel married and divorced and hateful of the people and racism he faces here – he cannot stand the heat of onsen water that he decided long ago he would never like. He squats on a stool and continues to wash, bored already while you relax. Go ahead, feel pity for him, but realize as you sit against the thick bloated horizontal post that this spot is only the beginning. Help the American awaken; let’s grab our yukata; onward ho.
Outside the huge room turn left past some massage chairs and down a corridor. Windows line the wood hall we walk, and they afford glimpses of spotlit scenes, all implanted, gardens and trees and stone stepping paths, stone decorations.
After going up and down numerous small stairs take a sharp right and descend rapidly past bamboo shoot curtains and more wood wood wood to a stone floor cold and sopping with the overflow from the onsen below. A Japanese man watches from inside as we remove slippers and put yukata in the plastic bins provided – laundry baskets – and when we crawl into the water he gets out. The American grumbles about ostracism while Jean lies back saying “Of course but this is just the way it is” the words escaping ever so slowly though his widest and sleepiest of grins. Not here to change the country but to absorb its culture, you agree with our South American friend and join him, immerse in the onsen and lay upon the soaked hard pulpy planks. It is much shallower than the previous pool, a half meter at most. The water is cooler – still hot of course, but with a deeper harmony.
Above is a ceiling, yet this is an outdoor bath house – 4 thin stilts are all that obstruct your view. Now black the night seeps in holy and humming with the insects of autumn. The thrum is quiet as summer cicadas are gone and peace rules. Pine beams high above are bright against the fallen dusk and the Venezuelan talks about how he wishes to find a cheap little house somewhere in Asia and build a room. Just. Like. This. Even Daniel dips in and enjoys the mellow water for a bit.
After time unmeasured we rise and robe, climb stairs and proceed right down the cedar corridor. Coming to an entranceway we see a courtyard beyond – finally, completely outside. There are geta (wooden platform sandals) lined up at the base of the door which are for wearing across the stone walkway. Being gaijin we can get away with foregoing them, and everyone does – though for different reasons. Me, I just like the cold of the stone when all else is hot. That, and if we are to be treated differently, we may as well take advantage of the latitude, act differently as well.
Behind a little doorway is a small changing room in the shape of a hut. It has the ubiquitous cubbies and again we’re naked. In front is an opening leading to a large pool of rock, a bamboo spout pouring the hottest liquid yet into the center. The shape is more oval than circle. There are large flat stones underwater acting as benches and three generations of a family sit on one side and hush the littlest one as we get in.
The water simmers and before long you feel your heart pounding powerfully (there is a posted warning for those with medical conditions). The porch of the hut goes up to the onsen’s edge, and overhangs in places. When the onsen has reddened him Jean takes breaks lying up there. In front is a floodlit cliff, part of one of the many mountains of central Japan. Water bleeds out of spots green with moss and mildew that thrive on just this sort of faintly sulfuric heated oasis. Skinny trees improbably cling to the side of the mountain and grow perpendicular to it – their height is horizontal, they canopy above our heads. There is a large fence above, presumably to catch stones falling from precarious perches, and though you normally hate such signs of humanity when viewing nature let’s excuse it this time – both because all is already touched here, and because the mood is too sweet for such negative swells.
One leaf descends poetically into the pool. In a few weeks all the leaves will have changed to every color of a rusty rainbow, but for now they remain green. There is a perfect spiderweb – not symmetrical, no, but perfect nonetheless – that glistens with the mist sticking to it after rising off the pool, and off your body as well.
The eldest man in the Japanese family complains about something to the Venezuelan, ostensibly about emerging from the water without a towel to hide behind. Really, he just feels the need to show the gaijin he doesn’t belong. The grandfather gets tense from seeing one, all the moreso when naked and exposed. Onsens are for relaxing, and with foreigners around it is not so easy. His histrionics are unnatural; a local man would never reprimand a fellow native like this. Confrontation is not the way. You feel sadness watching the elders corral the small one, who wishes to study us, to play and discover. Still, this isn’t so bad.
Out in the deep country – which is where we are now – gaijin remain an oddity, something unknown and read about. When one approaches, the interruption to normal flow is more one of wonder than resentment, like if a hawk flew through a veranda. There is a little fear – these things can hurt you – and the stereotype of enhanced size strength and danger is often emphasized when the Japanese encounter a foreigner bouncing around. However, mostly it is curiosity. Onsens are a little more intense – like dropping a ferret in your public pool. Still, it really isn’t too bad. Some people get a kick out of it.
Jean shows you exactly how to take it. When the elder lectures him, he says I’m sorry, Excuse me, and gets a towel. He takes none of it personally, as none of it is. The American fumes and he has a right to be angry, but likewise Jean realizes these are small things and it is easiest to acquiesce. You are just traveling, not fighting.
One reason to come, anyway, is to experience exactly this. Long a member of the dominant sex and race, it is healthy to try life from the other side, feel a minority. Truth be told we’ve got it very easy. Being Western in rural Japan is akin to being celebrity.
After exiting the last onsen everyone heads back to the wash room, where you and Jean fall onto the stools and take cold cold showers. Crouching there, the chill awakens your senses. Most Japanese no longer hold to this tradition, instead preferring to drink a few beers before the vending machine and nap. The American also balks at an icy ending, his lukewarm night finishing in like fashion. Aaa, splash him. You are zinging and zung, no energy lost to drowsiness we instead achieve a heightened sense of reality, fully at ease but completely awake.
On the way to the exit you sit in one of the massage chairs and let it roll upon your body, not as good as the masseuse upstairs but the seats come free with the entrance fee. It firmly works away any remaining knots.
After changing and leaving our yukata in the used bin, we head down to the lobby and exchange the bracelet keys for the ones to the shoe cabinets. Unlock the cubby; the original 100 yen coin plops backs into your hand. There is rain outside closer to fine mist as we climb the hill heading to the grated metal of the strange loud parking lot that pops like a loose manhole as tires run along it. We have slipped back into the anonymous black outside the lights of permed nature. For a brief dark lucid moment, it doesn’t matter who we are.