(Andrew Killeen is currently exploring Japan with his wife and two sons, aged ten and seven. In this series of posts he shares his experiences of travelling in 日本 with children. Find part 1 here)
Unlike sumo wrestling or seeing the cherry blossom, visiting an onsen was not on my list of essential Japanese experiences. Indeed, I’d never heard of these traditional spa baths, and if I had, I would probably have taken care to avoid them, nudity in front of strangers not being something I’m wholly comfortable with.
So the fact that we ended up in one was almost entirely accidental. We had decided to take a trip to Matsumoto to see its fabulous 16th century castle. The only guesthouse I could find was hideously expensive, but since accommodation is hideously expensive all across Japan, I bit the bullet and booked it.
We had by this time become used to the ryokan experience: futons on the floor, sliding doors, shared bathrooms and so on. However as soon as we arrived, I realised that Izumiya Zenbe, with its flags in the doorway and dark polished wood floors, was a very different stay to the funky hipster joint in Kyoto. The owner, while welcoming, was intensely nervous, as though we might at any moment start singing football chants and rioting. Since I couldn’t be entirely sure my children wouldn’t do that or worse, I became very nervous too, and we smiled and nodded and bowed to each other with fixed grins, curled toes and tightened sphincters.
The room though was fabulous: paper walls, luxurious duvets, and a black lacquered table with a traditional tea set. It says much for the atmosphere that the boys never even asked if they could turn on the small TV in the corner of the room. But it was not the room alone which accounted for the cost of the accommodation. The owner proudly showed us to their indoor and outdoor onsen, while anxiously ensuring that we understood the rules:
“Men – women – separate! Bare!”
If this had cost extra I would have kept my money in my pocket, but I’m nothing if not a sucker for the sunk cost fallacy, so having in effect paid for it, I was determined to give it a go. I dressed in the yukata provided, clutched my towel like a comfort blanket, and headed out to the onsen.
I had read up on onsen etiquette, and learned that misbehavior by drunken tourists had at one point led to foreigners being banned from the baths, which perhaps accounted for the owner’s nervousness. I was determined not to disgrace myself, so I showered, grabbed the small washcloth which is all that is permitted to cover one’s modesty, steeled myself for the disapproving glares of naked Japanese men, and strode in.
There was no one there.
With great relief I sank into the surprisingly hot spring water, and prepared to relax. Now, I am one of those people that is only held together by nervous energy, so whenever I undertake a supposedly relaxing experience, my interior monologue runs something like this:
“OK, time to relax! Here we go, one two three… RELAX! So this is relaxing! Funny, it feels quite a lot like being tense. Obviously I’m not trying hard enough. Going to try really, really hard to relax. That’s it. Relaxed now. Great. When can I stop doing this?”
It occurred to me too that like saunas and hot tubs, the onsen is primarily a social experience, and doing it alone is intrinsically unsatisfactory. So the next morning I took the boys with me to the outdoor bath.
This time there was one old man already there, but since we outnumbered him, I muttered “konnichi wa” and slid into the water. The boys, having been already instructed that it was not a swimming pool, behaved surprisingly well. We chilled and chatted, discussed Buddhism and the importance of mindfulness and letting go. Joseph revealed the hitherto unsuspected and highly complex theology by which he reconciles his belief in both the Christian god and the Olympian pantheon. The wind blew through the blossom, we gazed up at the mountains. I felt – yes, actually definitely relaxed.
Perhaps there’s something to this onsen business after all.
Photo: Karen Killeen