I looked forward to many things in Japan: eating Japanese food for breakfast, feasting my eyes on the world’s biggest collection of cute-but-useless things, wearing leg warmers for fashion not function (and fitting in), hearing Japanese sounds rolling off the tongue everywhere. But the biggest draw was definitely the onsen. Steaming hot spring baths at the onset of winter was the very definition of heavenly to me. Being a good Chinese, I liked trying all things hot (read “Chinese Science Keepin It Hot”) – spicy food, sweaty Bikram, sauna, and traditional kangs. To this list of piping experiences, I would now add onsen bath.
After a long first day, I eagerly awaited the post-dinner bath like a child counting down the days to Christmas. On the way to Kagoshima, Ai the tour guide gave us a Bathing 101 to avoid embarrassment and maximize enjoyment. She patiently talked us through proper bathing attire and etiquette. At a traditional inn, we needn’t be shy about wearing our cotton yokata robes and room slippers in public areas. To make things more aesthetic to people we encounter on the way to the hotel bath house, the women should tie the yokata sash at high waist (to emphasize the figure) and men should wear it below the abdomen (to show off masculine swagger). I probably would’ve figured out the how to dress for the bath without instruction (except for the part about laying the left panel of my yokata over the right). When Ai started on the bathing ritual, I took furious mental notes to avoid a blunder later.
When I was happily full on black pork, a specialty of Kagoshima, I headed back to my room to get ready for the bath. I found the two yokata, sashes, and short over-robes to wear on top of the yokata neatly folded in a closet. Before leaving the room, mom and I checked each other’s outfits to make sure we had properly tied and tucked everything in. We also made sure we were wearing the right slippers out since there were clearly designated room bathroom slippers in a different color.
I felt exposed walking past the reception desk, where three hotel employees bowed to me in greeting, in my slippers and bathrobe. Once I came upon a group of old Japanese bathers dressed just like me I felt less naked. The waddling ladies and swaggering men, with their hands tucked into the sash atop their hips, seemed to know where they were going, so I just followed. When we reached the bath house at one end of the hotel I saw that the signs written in kanji said “female soup” and “male soup.” This gave me a start, but then I remembered with a chuckle that Ai had earlier alerted us that the character for ”soup” in Chinese means “hot water” in Japanese. So I bravely marched into the women’s soup, ready to cook away the day’s chill and tiredness.
In the changing room, I abandoned my room slippers at the door. There were many identical slippers neatly laid in rows. The chances of me reclaiming “my” slippers after the bath were slim. Inside, I found a locker and fussed around with my sash, unsure of what to do next. Did Ai say now was the time to strip down? In front of all these people, standing in a brightly lit room? I stole furtive looks at the Japanese women in the room to see if anyone was pointing to the silly tourist untying her robe. They were efficiently getting naked while keeping up a lively chatter. Emboldened, I undressed faster to get it over with.
After I tucked my last piece of clothing and shame into a cubby hole, I darted for the warmth of the bathing area. I remembered to stop first at the shower area to scrub myself clean before soaking in the bath pools. The shower stalls were immodest things – slivers of glass separating you from the person splashing next door. Everything was also short, like that scene in “Lost In Translation” where Bill Murray whacks his head against the hotel shower head, but worse. These showers where half length, so you had to wash sitting down. Each stall had a plastic stool, a small basin beneath a spout, and a shower head mounted over a mirror. With these amenities, I figured the best thing to do was to sit and ladle water over myself with the basin or rinse off the suds with the shower head. Despite the awkwardly new set up, it went smoothly, except I had a hard time figuring out which of the neat bottles was shampoo or body wash.
While I cleaned myself I saw an old lady from our group lumber into the room and lower herself straight into a bath. There, she proceeded to dip her hand towel in the bath water and scrub her arms. I don’t know if she didn’t understand Ai’s instructions, or if she simply felt old enough to do as she liked, but I cringed. Any minute I expected a group of Japanese bath monitors wearing arm badges to haul her away for impropriety. Sure enough, people noticed, but they reacted mildly and politely. A Japanese lady nearby vigorously motioned to the old lady that she is not supposed to be cleaning herself in the hot pool, making a big “X” sign with her arms. She pointed energetically to the shower stalls. The old lady understood and begrudgingly dragged herself out of the bath.
I was clean and ready for the “soup.” There were actually many soups — several hot pools in different sizes, a cold plunge pool, and some Jacuzzi heads. If I followed Ai’s advice to “soak thrice, rinse thrice,” I would get to try each one. The trinity of hot soaks and cooling showers supposedly enhances the already potent health benefits of this natural spring bath.
As I slipped myself into the hot water I felt heaven washing over me. I rested the back of my head against the rim of the pool and laid my small towel on my forehead. Steam constantly rose from the surface of the water, drifting this way and that as small breezes of cool air came with each opening of the bathhouse door. The heat loosened my muscles and gave me a dreamy lightheadedness, much like the effect of champagne. When it got too hot, I would lift myself out of the water or paddle to an open window for a breath of air. Initially I thought I could bathe forever, but the ten prescribed minutes of hot bathing went by slower than expected. On each successive soak, I found my tolerance for heat getting lower, so I would get out of the bath sooner and sooner. Eventually, my limbs were limp like marshmallows and my lids grew heavy. I decided to call it a night, barely awake as I redressed myself and shuffled out of the bath house. That night, tucked into the cozy novelty of a tatami room, a futon, and an incredibly fluffy comforter, I slept soundly like a baby fresh out of the “soup”.