For many years after I experienced my first Japanese
It was the late 1990s, and I would perch, catlike, in the big window of my friend’s apartment overlooking Omotesando, one of western Tokyo’s main thoroughfares. The foot traffic in Harajuku was ceaseless and varied: young ladies who lunch, with their soft
Japan might be the only industrialized nation in which virtually every citizen—127 million people—participates in a daily event.
The apartment was on a floor low enough that I could see the shapes of their earrings, the color of their shoelaces, and although I couldn’t overhear their conversations, I felt I knew something of their lives because I knew how their days would end: Back on the subways they would go, toward home, and once they disembarked, off they’d head to their own bathroom, or to a public bathhouse, where they’d remove their clothes— the first step of the
They would then shower, sloughing off not just the grime of the day but also their individual identities—family names, education, expense accounts, titles. By the time they climbed into the 42°C water, sitting there alone or with acquaintances or with strangers, they would also be announcing themselves as something far more elemental and inarguable than all the things they had just discarded. For in the bath they would all be one thing: Japanese.
The most difficult thing about an onsen is summoning the courage to enter it.
One might not appreciate just how extraordinary the country’s devotion to soaking in a steaming tub of water is until one realizes that Japan might be the only industrialized nation in which virtually every citizen (in this case, 127 million people) participates in a daily event. Formerly reliable rituals— going to church in Italy, to the grocer in France, to the pub in England—are to varying degrees being subverted by modernity, but Japan, alone among its peers, remains a uniquely insulated culture and country.
Unlike Western Europe, the modern power of which derives from a constant churning of products and ideas and blood, Japan spent its first 2,000-odd years in self-imposed exile. By the time it was forced to open its ports by Commodore Perry’s fleets in 1853, it had developed such an immutable sense of self (and of aesthetics, etiquette, religion, and ceremony) that not even the ensuing 150 years of globalization could completely dislodge it.
Ganiba onsen in the Akita
But of all the inimitably Japanese traditions that continue to intrigue or bedevil foreign guests (bowing, to start with), the daily
Aside from being a source of anthropological fascination, the onsen is sensually transporting. The heat of the water (sometimes tapped from deep underground, sometimes warmed on-site), the steam in the air, the cool of the stone floor beneath your feet, the fragrance (in some instances) of the cedar-wood tub, the way the tub is filled to the brim so that the water sloshes decadently over the side when you climb in: It is dizzying, enchanting, enveloping.
Depending on where you’re bathing, you might encounter a regional distinction or two. Around Nagoya, famous for its groves, the surface of the water might be abob with bright crimson apples, the fruit lightly perfuming the air. In Shizuoka, one of the country’s most renowned tea-growing areas, you might encounter little floating woven baskets packed with green tea, which is said to improve circulation and pinken the skin. Elsewhere you’ll be offered oranges or yuzu to add to your bath.
It is a time and place reserved for pleasing the senses, for enjoying the luxury of feeling, for the wonder of experiencing the simplest, most satisfying sensations: heat, water, scent.
Because here bathing isn’t about getting clean, it’s about doing nothing. (It is also, purportedly, about health: Everything from enhanced digestion to clearer skin is attributed to the powers of the
For outsiders, though, the very prospect can seem terrifying. Visiting an onsen–even within the confines of your hotel or ryokan–means walking naked into a room lined with showers' showering naked (although men and women have separate bathing areas); and then walking naked across the room to the bath, where, once you get in, you'll be sitting with maybe one but maybe 10 other people, all of them naked. This being Japan, there are rules, but this being Japan, you will be forgiven for breaking them. The most difficult thing about an onsen is summoning the courage to enter it.
Yet you must. To come to Japan and not experience an onsen is the equivalent of going to Rome and not wandering into a single church, or going to Hawaii and not visiting a beach. Except that the experience is infinitely more profound. Because when you do take the waters here, you’re not merely relaxing, you’re making yourself vulnerable to another place and another culture—still the most humbling and thrilling experience a human can have—and you’re getting to see the Japanese as you wouldn’t otherwise.
One of the persistent myths of Japan is that its people are timid, somehow, or unknowable. In fact, the country has an unusual degree of tolerance for eccentricity—look at how its teenagers dress, or the architecture it commissions, or the toys it creates. And its people—despite the language barrier and the elaborate and daunting fretwork of etiquette that accompanies even the smallest interactions—are no more or less opaque than any other. In an
As in England (another etiquette-obsessed island culture with its own vibrant kinds of eccentricity), where the pub provides a public space without the expectation of engagement, in Japan the bath is an exposed place that allows people their privacy. For the minutes that you are in the water, there is a collective ceasefire of judgments; you are alone among others, and it feels, curiously, as far from loneliness as you can imagine.
Bathing do's and don'ts
In America we expose ourselves daily, hourly—on social media, in conversation, in the amount of skin we choose to reveal. But sharing is not equal to intimacy.
I would not have gone into my first onsen had I not been forced to by my friend, a fellow Japanese-American who, unlike me, had grown up visiting the country and who moved there as an adult. It was from her apartment that I would watch the passersby, and it was she who accompanied me to my first bath, who sat near me in the
That was in 1998. I have returned to Japan every year since. And over those years I have developed my own ritual, similar to the one I imagined for those unknown Tokyoites.
That first walk on that first day is always scary—I grow unaccustomed during my months away. The self-consciousness I, like so many of us, carry with me everywhere feels like scaffolding squeezing my heart. But then, unfailingly, one or five minutes in, I feel it: that letting go, that falling away, that lightness. When I get out, everything is softer—my skin, of course, but something unseeable as well.
Has something been revealed, or has something simply been restored? I never know, and probably never will. But it is how I know that I am back in Japan, how I know that I have had the privilege of once again partaking in something I cannot quite understand—but that is
Many hotels and all ryokans have an
THE DRESSING ROOM
You will be given a towel and washcloth. Put all your clothes and the towel into the baskets or lockers provided and proceed with your washcloth into the shower area.
They will be individual stalls (at more Western-oriented places) or a row of handheld shower-heads, each with its own low stool. Wash thoroughly with the soap (and shampoo) provided, then rinse completely (the washcloth, too), and tidy up your shower area.
Along with the hot
This story appears in the December 2017/January 2018 issue of Town & Country.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors