Tag Archives: Japan

TOKYO, JAPAN – Onsen for dummies

Normally people have to know me pretty well before they get to see me naked. I’d heard about these onsen baths in Japan where people take off their clothes and clinch big business deals while sitting in hot water. But modesty, fear of making etiquette gaffes and my sad lack of interest in merchant banking had prevented me from visiting one.

Until I had Tokyo resident Wouter to take me there. He’s a librarian, so of course knows everything, and what he doesn’t know he can look up. Now I’m an onsen expert, keen to share my intimate knowledge with others.

There are hundreds of onsen in Japan, many of them in lovely rustic locations, with full accommodation and dining available. To find the one in the Jindaiji district in western Tokyo, you slipstream Wouter on a short but pulse-quickening bicycle ride from his house, over the train tracks, down some back alleys, across several sets of traffic lights, past the service station and along the laneway behind the shops.

The Yukari Onsen isn’t much to look at from the outside; a small traditional-style building with a bike rack by the gate. The inside is nicer, designed on feng shui principles with New Age decor.

Step in through the door and attempt to remove your shoes. You may wish that you hadn’t tied the laces in tight triple knots to avoid catching them in your bike chain. Rip your shoes off by brute force, then cram your western-size footwear into the Japanese-size locker by the door. Take your locker key to the front counter.

Greet the smiling attendants with a slight bow. They will ask whether you’re staying for an hour or all day. ‘All day’ means anything over an hour, and since it costs very little extra, it’s the better deal. They give you another locker key, as well as a big green towel, a little green towel and a folded green judo suit. Bow to the attendants again, just to be on the safe side.

Proceed through to the change rooms. Turn left if you’re male, right if you’re female. [Note: getting this part wrong is a serious mistake.]

In the change room, undress completely. Don’t worry, everyone’s doing it and some people are even flabbier than you are. Leave your clothes, big towel and judo suit in the locker, attach the key to your wristband and bring the little green towel with you.

Pass through the door with the steam belching out of it. Use a bamboo dipper to sluice warm water from a barrel over your hands, then cross to where people are squatting on low wooden stools looking at themselves in mirrors.

In front of you are a tap, a shower hose and three plastic bottles. One contains black shampoo, another nearly black hair conditioner and the third very black shower gel. Wash yourself for a long time, ostentatiously using gunk from all three bottles. Everyone else wants you super clean before you share their bathwater.

Next it’s outside to the onsen proper. The baths are sex-segregated, surrounded by high walls, trees and fake antique water wheel, and in our bath men and boys of all ages lounge in steaming water.

Stripped to their bare essentials it’s impossible to determine who’s the CEO of Mitsubishi and who can’t afford a car. The only way to express your individuality here is through your little green towel. You can drape it modestly over your nether regions, plonk it on your bald patch, or knot it around your head Rambo-style, as one muscular chap has chosen to do.

The water is murky brown. This is a good sign, according to Wouter. Brown water means that this is a genuine onsen, rather than a sento – an ordinary public bathhouse using heated tap water. A true Tokyo onsen should have ‘fossil water’ full of the health-giving silicate and borates it has collected as it percolated to the surface from its underground source.

You have a choice of pools. There’s the cave pool, with gentle lighting and hidden jets squirting water into your undercarriage. There’s a glasshouse with a circular herb bath. There’s a wooden tub just big enough for two bathers to share if they’re very good friends. Feel free to move round and try them all.

It’s hard to see the bottom, though it’s only a metre or so below the surface. The water is hot, 40 degrees according to the temperature gauges, and I found myself a little light-headed after half an hour. However, you can escape from time to time by sitting on the edge of the bath, and if you think your heart will stand the shock there’s a cold plunge pool.

Do not run, bomb or do bellyflops.
There are no signs specifically banning these enjoyable activities, but I bet they’re frowned on. This is a place of rest and contemplation and there is little talk. Nobody seems to be buying or selling banks.

If you’re ready for a break, go back to your locker, dry yourself with the big green towel and put on your green judo suit, then head to the small cafe for a bowl of noodles. The womenfolk are already there, looking clean, fresh and fetching in their pink versions of our judo suits.

After this you could strip off and flop back into the onsen pool, maybe enjoy a massage or sweat off those excellent noodles in the sauna.

Finally you dress again, dump your towels and judo suit in the bin provided and pay the bill, possibly also buying a souvenir bottle of black shampoo. Slip your toes into your shoes and step outside. You’ve never felt so clean, refreshed and relaxed. Then bend down to have another crack at untying those knotted laces.

TRIP NOTES

Free shuttle buses to Jindaiji Onsen Yukari run each hour from Musashi-Sakai Station on the JR Chuo line. Regular bus services also run from Kichijoji and Mikata Stations (20 min).

Jindaiji Onsen Yukari is open daily from 8.00 – 22.00.
Entry: Y1500 per person, (noodles Y600 extra)

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KAMAKURA KARMA – a walk outside Tokyo


Kamakura is no place for the weak-kneed. We clambered up muddy forest paths and climbed a thousand temple steps. Then when my Japanese hosts Takashi and Ayumi suggested we go somewhere and sit down, I thought they meant on a chair. I didn’t realise we’d be on the floor, folded like origami frogs. But the trip was well worth the physiotherapy bill.

The small town of Kamakura, 50km south of Tokyo, was the Japanese capital from 1185 to 1333. Now it’s a popular day-excursion destination for Tokyo residents and tourists needing a break from karaoke bars and department stores. Kamakura promises temples, forests, hiking trails, craft shops and a view of Mt Fuji from the beach.

The train ride takes just under an hour from central Tokyo. It was Sunday, so we shared our compartment with a large proportion of Tokyo’s working population, and hung on straps until many of them disembarked at Yokohama, presumably to go shopping for car tyres.

It was a relief to step onto the platform at Kitakamakura, just north of the main town centre. Here were trees, here were hills and the air was fresh.

There were plenty of temples to choose from, but we started with Engakuji, one of the five Zen Buddhist temples in the area. It was founded in 1282, honouring soldiers who fought off a Mongol invasion, but the buildings are not nearly so old, having been replaced and renovated through the centuries.

Engakuji boasts two national treasures – the great temple bell and the Shariden shrine, reputed to contain the Buddha’s tooth. We could see the lovely shrine through the gate, but it’s closed to the public most of the year, so don’t ask me how well the Buddha had been flossing.

Other shrines were open however, and their gardens were lovely, even in the non-cherry blossom season. Under the maple trees, groundsmen had carefully raked the pebble ponds into ripples around standing stones, and fat carp in the ornamental lake begged for food.

Foreigners tried hard to follow local customs. In the teahouse, an American visitor was getting a serious lesson in tea ceremony etiquette. Two large western women bowed low before a shrine and as we watched from behind, the angle was not flattering. Most Japanese visitors seemed less concerned with tradition, and were busily photographing each other with their mobile phones.
The direct road to downtown Kamakura was crowded, so we set off along a steep trail leading up into the woods, following English signposts towards the Great Buddha.

Take my advice: don’t wear your stiletto heels to Kamakura. They seemed to be compulsory for many women, who bravely picked their way along the hiking path, looking very chic, but only when they could stand upright.

After half an hour we came to a short tunnel, leading through rock to the Zeniari (‘coin washing’) Benten Shrine. They say money dipped in the shrine’s spring water will double, so we eagerly put it to the test.

We tried to do it right. We bought candles and incense sticks. Dutifully we lit them, rang the temple bell, bowed, clapped our hands, and respectfully asked to be made rich. Next we paid another modest sum to rent baskets in which to place our money, then with the faithful and the hopeful we laundered banknotes in the spring.

I thought of washing my Visa card to see if my credit limit would double, but lost my nerve. The card had already been rejected by several ATMs and moistening it would be courting disaster.

Beside the spring, a sign in Japanese included just two English words: DRIES NATURALLY. Takashi translated the rest of the message for me: ‘Warning – visitors should not dry money over candles.’ Doubtless there’d been unfortunate incidents in the past.

The rain started and showed no sign of drying naturally, so we dipped into our baskets and used our soggy notes at the souvenir shop to buy umbrellas. My cash had now been halved, while the temple’s money had doubled during our visit.

Then it was on to the Great Buddha, the best-known symbol of Kamakura. The building that originally housed it was washed away in a tsunami, so now the Buddha sits exposed to the elements, his serene face hovering nearly fifteen metres above our worldly worries.

The statue is hollow, so for yet another of those small fees, Ayumi and I joined those filing through the back door. The inside of a big metal Buddha resembles the inside of a big metal water tank; it’s interesting if you enjoy looking at welding. More fun were the temple shops selling Great Buddha-shaped candies. I like a religion that can laugh at itself sometimes.

We headed back into town to look for a place to eat. The road was lined with restaurants, only recognisable as eating-houses by the pictures of their food on placards outside. Takashi and Ayumi chose a traditional vegetarian establishment, and it was beautiful. But I must have blanched at the sight of the low tables, because our waitress immediately bowed and, in English considerably better than my Japanese (which doesn’t extend much beyond “konichiwa”, “sushi” and “pokemon”), offered me a chair.

I was too embarrassed to accept, since other diners looked comfortable sitting cross-legged on cushions. But my clumsy western legs left an awkward chasm between table and mouth, through which soft tofu could slither off my chopsticks into my lap. A great pity, because the food was wonderful and nothing should have been wasted.

The Japanese taste in design always surprises me. In this restaurant the emphasis was on muted colours, sage green walls and straw cushions, with bare wooden tables and red lacquer bowls. Everything understated, nothing out of place. Yet outside in the street the neon signs were garish and the shops full of kitsch Hello Kitty merchandise. 

As darkness fell we climbed one last flight of steps to the main Hachimangu shrine, to watch the stars prick out over Kamakura. The crowds had thinned so we were almost alone. There was nothing but peace and quiet, such a change from the throbbing streets of Tokyo. What an excellent day!

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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