In Hot Water in Japan
Ian D. Robinson.
Ooohs and ahhhs fill the steamy room as Japanese salary men, worn out by years of toil, soak their weary bones in the yellowy iron-rich waters of Arima Onsen.
The Japanese have a knack for turning the most ordinary of daily activities into complex rituals; making a simple cuppa evolved into the intricacies of the tea-ceremony and even going to the loo in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ one can be bamboozled by a toilet seat with a dozen buttons. The Japanese passion for having a bath has long since grown from just scrubbing off the day’s grime to become an exercise in the art of relaxation; across the country spas, or onsen, cater to the national pastime of soaking in extremely hot water.
Thirty minutes north of the city of Kobe, or an hour’s drive from the stadium sized shopping centres of Osaka, the roads steadily shed lanes until our little car is speeding through glades of trees dressed in the reds and browns of the Japanese autumn rural landscapes.
Arima sits in a tangle of mountains in the Rokko Range and was once a favourite haunt of the 15th century Shogun Taiko Hideyoshi. His Highness came here to take advantage of the healing waters and is said to have enhanced his stay by hosting the occasional tea ceremony. The rugged topography of the little town means the streets are laid out in a confusing muddle and we have to stop more than once to ask directions to our onsen ryokan, spa hotel.
From without the spa hotels of Arima look like something built in the 70s which have seen better days, which is probably what they are, however the point, in inward looking Japan, is what lies within. After checking in we are guided to our room and since we’re staying in off-peak mid-week we’ve been upgraded to a deluxe suite at no extra charge. All the rooms are traditional Japanese style with tatami mat flooring, sliding screens and polished wood panels complete with hanging scrolls of calligraphy and arranged flowers.
Guests are provided with comfy yukata gowns, slippers and warm robes in winter; you get to dress up like your favourite samurai or geisha!
After cups of green tea it’s time to take a dip in the baths. Japanese holiday makers will make the most of their precious onsen visit and spend as much of their stay in the water as possible. In our room there is an illustrated instruction manual on how to use the baths; these are to be studied carefully as incorrect bathing procedure is taken as an offence seriously frowned upon.
Firstly, and probably most importantly, at most onsen men and women bathe separately, if you can’t read the Japanese symbols for male/female you might want to check with someone. Bathing costumes aren’t worn and though technically those with tattoos are barred from onsen an allowance is usually made for foreigners; the rule is mainly to keep the ornately inscribed Japanese mafia or yakuza out; they tend to get a bit rowdy.
My companion and I shuffle down from our room to the baths in our step-restricting yukata, she slips off into the ladies wing leaving me to navigate for myself the elaborate rituals of Japanese bathing. Inside I take off my room slippers and exchange them for plastic sandals. Then undress completely and stash my robes in a lockable locker before entering the steaming bath room. Mirrors line the walls and in front of each is a little plastic stool, a shower nozzle on a hose and bench stocked with body wash and shampoo. Using the small towel provided one soaps oneself all over, etiquette states you must do this seated on the stool, standing and soaping is a no-no.
When fully soaped and scrubbed rinse it all off again, no soap of any kind is allowed in the baths. The little towel is also not allowed in the water, my dilemma of what to do with the item is solved when I see other men fold it up and lay it across their heads, you don’t put your head under the water either. Formalities are complete for now, it’s time to soak. A quiet bliss settles over the bath as everyone zones out for a while as they take the waters. Small talk is acceptable among the complete strangers you find yourself naked in the bath with. Someone asks me where I’m from: “Ah! Nuru Zealand-o! Many sheeps!”
When the heat gets too much the other men get out, soap, rinse and get back in to soak again. Through a sliding door is another outdoor bath open to the skies where the winter stars and the waxing moon can be contemplated at ease. Lying in the steaming water and gazing at the cosmos I am struck by a sound almost unheard in the madding rush that is Japanese society: silence! Only the trickle of water into the bath accompanies the rare emptiness of noise.
Back in our room a seasonal kaiseki dinner, which is included in the price, is served. A woman in kimono lays the table with a dozens tiny dishes, none of which are more than a tasty morsel on their own but collectively they quietly and effectively fill you without overindulging. When she’s finished the table resembles and edible chess set with the each dish mirrored by its counterpart across the table. Next to the array she leaves a kind of map explaining what the different dishes are; wild mushrooms, sesame tofu, tara cod, the legendary Kobe beef, and tsukuri sashimi.
After dinner we return to the baths and repeat the same ritual as earlier, we’ll do the same thing in the morning before checking out. While we are away futons have been mysteriously unrolled in our room and made up complete with hospital corners. The following morning after a breakfast only slightly less spectacular than the previous night’s dinner we wander round the village’s temples, shrines and souvenir shops stocked with the local crafts Arima is renown for; bamboo products, traditional brush pens and rather odd little tansan senbei crackers made from carbonated spring water. Luck has it that the day we are there is a festival and local fire brigade entertain the crowds with a rousing chorus of shouts and taiko drums, cups of green tea are passed around along with chewy balls of mochi rice cakes, a not-very-often chance to enjoy Japanese small town life.
By late afternoon we are back in the human cyclone of downtown Osaka; crowds that carry you along like a flooding river, omnipresent recorded announcements reminding me to mind the doors on the subway, to hold the handrail on the escalator, to wash my hands after using the toilet. Bored girls with impossibly high-pitched voices stand in the doorways of their shops screeching monolog tales of the wares within, everywhere you look there is something being advertised, an overwhelming and oppressive command to consume. When we finally close the door of our tiny budget hotel room, which barely keeps out the racket, the stars, steam and silence of Arima seem very far away.