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Published: April 8th 2018
Mmmm, jumping in where some might fear to tread. When was the last time I wrote about toilet happenings, bathing techniques and walking around naked? Ahhh, never.
But this is Japan, where the customs around body care are gentle and somehow elevate the necessary to the level of ritual.
Our last few stops have been in the mountains, where hot springs are common.
Several places we stop (both accommodation and public places like the Hakone Outdoor Museum) offer foot baths. Tidy outdoor natural pools of hot spring water, lined with seating where you can soak your feet and enjoy the environs before continuing on. Surprisingly restorative.
Many ryokans (traditional accommodations) and hotels offer onsens
. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring with bathing facilities around them, on that score not unlike those in the Rockies. Japan has thousands of onsens scattered throughout all its major islands. Some places offer a private onsen attached to your room - we didn’t experience these. Our experience was in ‘public’ onsens in our hotels.
Reading up on the etiquette, we learned that it doesn’t matter if you just showered in your room, you need to bathe before entering the onsen
where others see you and know you are clean.
Rooms provide you with yukata robes (a casual kimono), a sash and slippers - in fact, onsen or not, every room provides you with slippers. Outdoor dirt brought in by shoes is unwelcome anywhere, and you are encouraged to leave the shoes at the door and wear slippers. Likewise, at most service counters (like ticket counters), a stand is provided beside you to place your hand bags without touching the floor. This holds true for visiting homes or temples - you must remove your foot from your shoe on the ground (defined as ‘outside’) and place it immediately on the clean, slightly raised flooring inside. One castle had two men standing guard to ensure compliance and they didn’t hesitate to intervene if protocols were about to be broken.
Back to the onsens. Some of the forum posts say it upfront - these baths are nude, so set your foibles aside and know what you‘re heading into. Being raised with a tinge of puritan privacy, I mentally paused the same way I did when our waiter encouraged me to dip my veg and noodles in a raw egg. I skipped
the egg, but not the onsen.
Let’s talk practicalities. You don your yukata and slippers in your room, leaving all personal clothing and underpinnings behind, but do please bring your own towel. Throughout the hotels you see people scuffling along in the robes and slippers, rather like a monastery of monks. You enter the onsen area, men through one door never to be seen again, and women another. Cubbies are there for you to leave your slippers. You continue to the next room where larger cubbies with baskets are there to hold your towel and robe, while you go off into the mist.
Onward to the bathing area. Here are maybe ten half-height stalls each with water taps and wands a couple feet off the floor. Plastic stools and basins are placed at each, along with pretty jars of various shampoos, soaps and potions. And here the cleansing takes place. One stall has a woman with her young daughter; another older woman is with a middle aged autistic woman; me as the only visible westerner and all other ages in between.
Oddly, it’s a comfortable place - I haven’t had a singular experience that summoned the notion of sisterhood as much as this one. When I need help to figure out how to redirect the water to the wand, a young woman easily aids me. A lack of rushing strikes me. Each person takes her time, suds and rinses with leisure. I have never thought of showering as a ritual and this may have flipped a switch for me.
Once ready, you can choose your onsen. In the places we were, there were several indoor pools at various temperatures, and one outdoor pool that gave views of the mountains. The absolute, soul-touching pleasure of the soaker heat on your body, a wet-haired head in the cool air, the steam blurring the others in the pool with you and the stunning mountains above was something to be experienced. A meditation; a church; a prayer; a thanksgiving. It was all of that.
Back in the hotel room, other bodily requirements occur as they do. That brings me to toilets.
Here too the Japanese have introduced us to something quite remarkable. As John coined it, a bottoms up approach.
Toilets here come with a control panel, just off to the side of the seat. The first time sitting down on one, water started to run in the toilet, making me jump up at an inopportune moment. Once we figured it had nothing to do with me, I ignored the intimidating panel and odd water works.
Days later, John as the inquisitive one started pressing buttons and reported back. These little buttons on what we now know as a “washlet” activate well directed sprays of water for all potential points of activity. Most have heated seats which, I admit it, is wonderful. Temps and pressure can be adjusted. Not only are you left squeaky clean but with a sense that something luxurious just happened.
So if you visit us somewhere some day in the future and notice a control panel on the side of our toilet, go for it. Give it a whirl and thank Japan.
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