Saturday, September 26, 2015

Onsen without Fear: How to Bathe Publicly

For the first 20 years of my life I would never have thought I'd say this, but now I can't imagine differently--public bathing is my favorite thing about Japan. 

Onsen are baths that use natural mineral water from hot springs. Sento use just heated tap water with or without added minerals. Onsen are more expensive and usually offer nicer facilities with outdoor baths 露天風呂 rotenburo, often with great views of the ocean, mountains, or a garden. Sento have their own local charm--I remember one I visited in Kobe, its tiled wall still with a floor-to-ceiling crack in it from the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Apparently I've picked up the Kansai (western Japan) custom of calling all bathing facilities onsen, the ones with hot-spring water we say are 天然温泉 ten-nen onsen, natural onsen. So in this article I mostly just use "onsen"!

Public bathing is an old custom in Japan, brought originally from India as a Buddhist religious rite in the early 700s. Hot baths gradually became accessible to the general public for a fee (sento are about 400 yen or $4 everywhere in Japan), and after more than a thousand years of evolution in design and custom, they are still around today for those of us gaijin courageous enough to give it a try. 

It takes a bit of courage to go into an onsen because not only is everyone naked and bathing in front of each other, but onsen are just so Japanese. There was nothing in my culture at least that prepared me for what to do when I first entered a a tiny sento near my dormitory in Kyoto. No instructions posted in English anywhere, no one except my Finnish friend Jenni (and at least she had her country's sauna culture to fall back on) to show me what to do.

To start off, the whole nakedness thing I got over pretty quickly. There's this post about how much we Westerners have been influenced by Christianity; I'm pretty sure if Christianity had the same influence in Japan onsen would not exist anymore, though now mixed bathing is very rare and hard to find (not that I'd go looking). So not to worry, onsen are separated by gender and you never have to see/be seen by anyone of the opposite sex, except young children in with a parent ( Japanese custom again: families bathe together when children are small). When I first entered that sento in Kyoto, I couldn't decide which was worse--that I was naked with complete strangers or that I was naked with a friend. In the end, neither mattered. No one in the onsen cares or notices "we are all naked here". No one tries to have an "onsen-ready" body and who was I to be ashamed of my shape when women three times my age with amazing amounts of bags, sags, and scars were enjoying the hot water without a second thought? After a while I stopped noticing too. 

There's one thing about onsen I've never had to worry about: tattoos. Most public baths have signage denying entry to those with tattoos. The taboo against tattoos seems to go back as far as public bathing itself in Japan, but actually it's meant to keep out yakuza, Japanese organized crime. I always wonder at the logic of this because yakuza tattoos have a very distinctive style (and are BIG for one thing) and what does a white girl's butterfly on her bum have anything to do with a crime syndicate? But it seems pointless to argue. If you have a tattoo, try taping or bandaging it before going in, if it's small it probably won't be a problem. That said, not many Japanese are used to seeing people with tattoos. It's "scary". Some old lady might grumble about you to management, and you could be asked to leave. I've not heard of it happening really, but I'm sure it's a possibility. 

Anyway, how does one try to look like they know what they're doing in an onsen? Yuya loves onsen but when we go, we enter seperately, so I'm always on my own and very often the only non-Japanese there. I always have to figure things out for myself. Luckily, most onsen have a lot of the same features and require the same etiquette. Normally, no one's allowed to take pictures in an onsen. Naturally. But this time, I was completely alone in this little hotel onsen, so I grabbed the chance to get a few photos for this blog! So here we go:

Before you set off for the onsen, remember what to bring. For a small local sento, think showering at the gym. You will need a towel to dry with, any clean clothes/makeup you need, a small towel to wash with, a hair tie (if you have long hair) and shampoo/body soap. For onsen, the shampoo and soap is provided. We always bring a plastic baggy to put our wet towels/dirty clothes in afterwards. 

The first thing you do when you walk into an onsen, before you even pay the fee, is take off your shoes. Near the shoe-removal area there will either be lockers or a shelf for leaving your shoes. If there are slippers provided, put them on. Then look for a desk with people behind it to pay the bathing fee. Onsen can range anywhere from $4 to $25 (the most we ever paid, anyway). Sometimes at the desk you exchange your little shoe-locker key for a bigger key with a stretchy ring on it. Keep it around your wrist, even when you go into the bath. Then look for a set of red and blue noren curtains (on very small sento they may be hung outside the building). Red is always the entrance to the women's changing rooms and baths, and blue is always the men's, marked with the kanji 女 and 男 respectively. Don't mix them up! Yuya and I always have to part ways here and agree on a time to leave.

After ducking through your curtain, the first thing you should look for is...more lockers! If your key has a number on it, find the locker with that number. If you weren't given a key, choose any open locker. Some little old sento have no lockers but baskets to put your things in. This onsen in Wakayama I visited recently had a fun mix of both:

Once you've got your space for your stuff, undress. All of it comes off! Don't forget jewelry. I also brush out my hair, and make sure not to forget a hair tie. In this little changing room you'll find things like a bathroom, sinks for washing off makeup. Larger facilities have full-on powder rooms with free blow-dryers and samples of all kinds of beauty products, and random things like massage chairs and vending machines for toiletries. Once you're good and naked, head towards the steamy sliding glass doors. Go through and find something like this:


Grab a plastic bowl and a stool and set yourself down in front of a showerhead. Take your time washing yourself. After all, when was the last time you really took time make a lather, to wash each toe carefully and individually? 
After I wash my hair, I wring it out and put it up with the hair tie I DIDN'T forget in my locker. It's rude to let your hair down in the bath. Once you've finished washing, make sure you are rinsed and free of soap. Take a minute to wash your station and stool with the showerhead or bowl and put it back the way you found it. If you brought your own body wash or something other than the washcloth, you should put it back in your locker (and dry off a bit so you're not dripping wet in the changing room) and not leave it at the bathing station.
And now, finally, comes the best part...

The bath!! A lot of onsen have signs or posters telling you the mineral makeup of the water and all the ailments it's good for. Newer places have digital displays with the water temp (in Celsius of course). 
You can enjoy the bath however you like, provided you are clean and quiet, and don't let your wash towel touch the bath water. Some women put it on their heads or on the side of the tub. I like to rinse it in cold water from the washing station (never wring it into the bath water) and keep it handy for when I feel too hot, or to cover myself a bit when walking between baths. 
I like to soak and stretch, and sit on the side for a bit when I get too hot, and soak some more. A lot of onsen and sento have jaccuzzi or jetted tubs, some have different baths with herbal essences. Old sento sometimes have "denki buro" or electric baths--yup, imagine jolts of electricity tingling your skin as you bathe. Only once I had the misfortune of putting my legs in one before I realized what it was. And then there are "water baths" of just cold water to dip in if you get too hot! I'll never forget Jenni sitting up to her neck in the water bath saying "it's just like Finland's sea in summer!" --this meant it was so cold it made my bones ache.  
My favorite bath of all is the rotenburo, open-air bath. Don't worry, they're screened from the outside world, and some offer beautiful views and gardens. This one was quite small but in the shape of a boat, how cute is that? It was nighttime so I didn't have much of a view, but I could hear the waves on the beach nearby. Once in Nikko I spent an afternoon in an open-air bath in the middle of a pine forest as snow fell. I'll never forget that experience. 

After you've enjoyed the baths to your heart's content and you're ready get out, head back to the locker room after dabbing yourself off and and do what you need to do to leave. Success! 

In the four years I've been here, I've been to so many different kinds of public bath. Some "super-sento" like Spa World in Osaka or Oedo Onsen in Minoo are like theme parks: there are pools that require a bathing suit (and then it's mixed gender), all kinds of spa treatments (for extra fees), ganban-nyoku (hot rock bathing? You just lie in a dark, heated/scented room on hot rocks) massages, etc. Once I bathed in a wine bath the steam of which I swear made me feel tipsy, another time in a sulfur-water bath straight from the source underground that had me smelling funny for days afterwards. 

Onsen are good for the soul and skin, and they are just the thing after a long day of travel, hiking, sports, or just a stressful day at work. They're affordable and always clean. I still always have a bit of anxiety going into a new onsen by myself, but since I've figured out the above etiquette, I can just let myself enjoy the experience. I highly recommend you at least try onsen if you visit Japan!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Favorite Untranslatable Words

Untranslatable words are the best. They are there to remind me that I'm not in Kansas anymore (I've actually never been to Kansas but you know what I mean) and that the Japanese experience of life and society, values and meanings--reality--is different from an American English speaker's. In that sense, I'm willing to bet there are many, many more "untranslatable" words between two given languages than there are words that translate well.

My husband and I speak both Japanese and English together. This month, we'd decided to speak English, but sometimes we put in a Japanese word or phrase here and there. I paid attention to those words and thoughts we don't bother to translate into English, most often because it take too many words in English to describe what we mean when there's one very convenient Japanese word for the subject. Here are some of them:

社会人 shakaijin (noun) literally "society person" it means a full-fledged contributing member of adult society. You become one not by getting to a certain birthday, but by finishing your education and getting full-time work. Part-time workers, freelancers, students, stay-at-home moms are not usually considered shakaijin. There really isn't an English word that fits: "adult" has to do with age and maturity and not job status like this word does.

サラリーマン sararii-man (noun) just the English words "salary man", it means a male shakaijin who is working for a monthly salary in a company. It seems to imply your average white-collar businessman, of which there are for some reason a great many in Japan. It's given rise to some other funny words like 脱サラ dassara, to quit being a salaryman and set up your own business/freelance or something. Yuya's dream!

先輩 後輩 senpai, kouhai (noun) as I talked about in the relationships part of this post, there are few Japanese relationships where partners are on equal planes. It's a very hierarchical society. Senpai you might know from anime or a martial art, it's usually translated like "senior member"--someone who has been doing something for longer than you. Kouhai then is the opposite, your newer members you as senpai have to care for. In America ain't nobody got time for that so we don't have a good English translation for those kind of relationships.

やっぱり yappari (adverb...I think?) this can mean so many things! "I thought so!" "after all..." "I knew it!" "nope I changed my mind..." I like to use it in the latter sense a lot. You know the feeling, when choosing between a red blouse and a blue blouse at the store, you initially choose the red one and get to the register when やっぱり、you want the blue one and go back to get it. It just encapsulates that feeling and experience so neatly in one word!

雰囲気 funiki (noun, sometimes pronounced fuinki) atmosphere. As in, "wow this cafe has great atmosphere!" but this is Japan, a high-context culture where 雰囲気 is also a regulator of behavior. Example: my husband had to stay late at work "Sorry, there was definitely a 'no one goes home on time today' 雰囲気" or at church "So-and-so really wanted to talk about______but there was no breaking that 'be quiet' 雰囲気!” This brings me to the next word...

空気読めない kuuki yomenai (adjective) literally "unable to read the air" it means a person who is unable to sense the previous word 雰囲気 and regulate their behavior accordingly. The Japanese put fewer things into words than Americans do, or words are assigned less value/truth; "actions speak louder" is the rule of the day. Japanese who can't or won't deduce from other peoples' actions what they are supposed to do are 空気読めない。It goes without saying that unless you've spent some time in Japan and have a good ability to read people, foreigners are pretty much 空気読めない。There's a fun slang version: KY. Like "Oh he's so KY".

適当   tekitou (noun...ish?) it means kind of haphazard, sloppy, done without thinking too carefully. It can be negative like that, or neutral/positive like in the cooking shows where they say dab cream on tekitou ni.

真面目 majime (adjective) it's usually only applied to people. It means a serious person, although in English "serious" sounds like you have no humor or are a bit gloomy, while 真面目just means like a "Type A" kind of person who is organized, motivated, gets things done, not at all silly or given to playing around, who concentrates well and is thorough, and takes things seriously. It has a good meaning and is not at all used for "anal retentive" or "OCD" for which there are Japanese equivalents.

心の余裕 kokoro no yoyuu (noun) this is a difficult one. 心 is "heart" (as in the seat of emotions, not the physical organ) and 余裕 is slack, leeway, something to spare, to have room for something. So 心の余裕 is room in your heart for something. It means you have the emotional reserves to deal with something, it's being emotionally flexible and accepting. I like my current job because it allows me to work and come home still with 心の余裕 intact to spend on my husband/private life. It's the opposite of being stressed?

まさか masaka (adverb, adjective, exclamation) this one is not so much untranslatable as much as it's fun to say, because it can mean so many things: "Really?" "No way!" "Seriously?" "Whoa!" or as the seriously in "You don't seriously expect me to..." or the sense of an unexpected result, like "don't tell me you actually..." "I had no clue this would turn out like this" Sometimes it just really fits a certain feeling, all in one little convenient word, better than English!

懐かしい natsukashii (adjective) often translated horribly as "nostalgic". But what English speaker goes around exclaiming "This is SO nostalgic!"? Nobody! It's often used as an exclamation and I think it's better to translate, "Wow that takes me back!" "Blast from the past!" etc. although it's not very slang-y and has more of a warm, home-y nuance. Like smelling a smell that suddenly takes you back to your childhood. Or seeing on TV something like Pogs. Anyone remember those? Natsukashii!

アホ aho (noun) ok, this is Kansai (western Japan) dialect. Most anyone who's spent time on the internet probably knows "baka" (idiot/dummy); アホ is our regional equivalent. Except it's not equivalent. アホ cannot be as confrontational, mean, aggressive or dismissive as "baka" can be. In Kanto (Eastern Japan, Tokyo area), "baka" can be used both affectionately and angrily, but Kansai people only use "baka" to express anger and animosity. アホ is always affectionate; the only English that comes close that I can think of is, "you silly goose!" but who says that anymore? In any case,  my husband and I don't really use either baka or アホ、but I find it a funny word. And I'm partial to our Kansai dialect!