A mid-term resident of Tokyo reports – Part 1: The onsen, or bathing in the sky

This is part 1 of what is intended to be a collection of overview reports on living in Tokyo by someone who is here for longer than a short stay but shorter than a long stay. Hopefully they will be helpful to others in similar situations.

Today was the first real day of winter per my definition. It was wet and windy with a low grey cloud cover hiding the tops of the taller buildings and snow flurries trading off and on with rain showers. I had the day off and had planned on going hiking but the weather changed my mind and I spent the day meandering through the city instead, nominally in search of a hardware store but in reality out enjoying the snow, limited as it was.

After several hours I came back to my flat and decided it was a good day to head up to the onsen on the top floor of my building. An onsen is a hot spring, and while I think there is probably another name for the concept when it is simply a tub with hot water and not in any way connected to an actual hot spring, that is what everyone else in the building calls it so I’ll go along with them and call it one.

The technicalities of the name aside, my onsen is a wonderful perk of the building, particularly as my flat only has a shower. There are actually two onsen(s?) in the building, one for men and one for women, but from my perspective there is only one. Put a little less poetically, an onsen is simply a communal bath. The twist for those of us from certain other cultures is that it is actually a bath, and for the most part that implies a birthday rathar than a bathing suit (there are exceptions for mixed gender onsen and other situations). My building has a large number of people such as myself who do not speak Japanese, so to be helpful the management has posted a set of onsen guidelines, which in large letters proclaims “BATHING SUITS ARE NOT ALLOWED.” On the surface a shocking idea, but how often do you wear a bathing suit to take a shower?

The process is fairly straightforward: take your shoes off at the entrance and put them in a cubbyhole (which is a good way to get a feeling for how many others are already using the onsen), then grab a handtowel, walk to a locker, and become disencumbered by the rest of your clothing. With the towel strategically held, walk through the sliding doors into the onsen area. Mine has wood ceilings and the walls and floor are tiled with stone tiles and floor to ceiling windows with a view over Tokyo, which I certainly hope have some form of one-way tinting on them.

Once inside, the first thing to do is to get clean. Traditionally this is done by sitting on a low wooden stool away from the bath area and taking a soapy bath using buckets of water, but most now have a hand-held shower sprayer, though the buckets seem to be kept on as functional decoration. For those of us who may prefer a different approach, my onsen has a shower area as well for the bath before the bath.

Once clean and well rinsed, it’s finally time to take a bath. My onsen is a simple rectangular pool roughly 15 feet by 20 feet by 2 feet with two sides having a full length step at 1 foot depth for entry and seating. The water is on the hot side of warm at about 40 C, but surprisingly easy to adjust to. The handtowel is not supposed to get into the water, so I usually put it on the edge of the bath to lean my head back against. Others fold it into a small square and place it on top of their heads. Different onsen may have different cultures, but in mine the general rule is tranquility – minimal talking, minimal movement, and slowly getting in and out to avoid creating any waves. It’s a time to soak up warmth, let muscles relax, and generally enjoy the calm.

At some point, usually sooner than desired, it starts getting a bit too warm, which is the sign to get out, take a (probably cool) shower, dry off get dressed, reclaim your shoes and go back to the regular world.

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