Although my first experience of sitting on somebody else’s shower stool was less than pleasant, it wasn’t long before I was out plonking my naked buttocks on the stool of another stranger. A student, you see, had invited me to spend an evening with his family in Nagasaki and, thinking it would be a great opportunity to visit the city, I accepted.
In his family home lived his younger brother, his parents and his grandfather. I walked in, thumped my head hard on the door frame and swore loudly. It’s not the most endearing way in which to enter someone’s home – with an angry expletive and a bleeding head – but it is one of my commonly employed methods and certainly gets their attention. My student laughed as he introduced the crumpled, cursing heap on the floor as his teacher. His family all laughed too.
My student’s English was rubbish, and his family’s English was as non-existent as my Japanese. We sat down around a low table in his living room, and the family asked lots of questions about me. My student translated as best he could and his parents, brother and sister smiled a lot as they spoke about me. The only thing I did understand was when old Grandad in the corner shuffled off to the loo and on his way back stopped and asked, ‘Is he from America?’ The family explained that I wasn’t and Grandad shuffled off again only to appear a few minutes later with an atlas. He sat himself next to me and told my student’s mother to get us some beer. We couldn’t understand a word each other said but had quite a good time getting pissed and pointing at Britain in an atlas for a while.
When dinner was served it was a veritable feast; sashimi, baked eggplant, tempura, salad, and a big bubbling nabe broth. All the time, my student’s mum ensured our glasses were full while the rest of the family encouraged me to eat as much as possible and got very excited whenever I said something was nice. Especially if I confirmed that we didn’t eat that particular kind of food ‘abroad’, which was apparently my country.
After dinner, Grandad fell asleep, and the others began to talk in an urgent manner. The mother disappeared for a while, and a little later came back with a folded yukata. She handed it to her son.
‘Please take a bath,’ he said.
It’s hard not to be a bit paranoid when someone says that to you.
He passed me the yukata and showed me to the bathroom, where the tub was covered with a plastic cover to keep the heat in. ‘Please wash here,’ he said pointing at the shower head and the little wooden stool on the floor. ‘Then enter.’ He had clearly been briefed that all foreigners are likely to get straight in the tub and start foaming up with the soap.
I assured him I knew the etiquette and he left me to it. I undressed, ran the shower copiously over the wooden stool before sitting on it and tried hard not to think about the fact that Grandad sat on it every day. Ordinarily he would be first in, but I had read that that honour now fell to me as I was the guest. I was quite glad, because he was really quite old and I’d imagine he would be quite, well, quite dribbly. Leaky.
After my seated shower, and making sure I’d rid myself of all traces of soap, I lowered myself into the tub. It was very hot but very pleasant and I closed my eyes for a second and drifted off. At least I hoped it was just a second. When I came to I suddenly wondered how long you were supposed to stay in somebody else’s bath. I didn’t want to get out after five minutes and have everyone think I was a smelly bastard if you were supposed to stay in for an hour, and I didn’t want to stay in for too long and have everyone thinking I was hogging all the water while it was still hot. I stayed for about fifteen minutes, got out, scanned the water for stray hairs, scooped one out and showered it down the drain. I dried myself and tried to put on the yukata, but it had been designed for a far smaller man than me and it was a snug fit around my belly and almost indecently short. I came out of the bathroom, flushed red with both heat and embarrassment and my hosts burst out laughing at me again.
The father handed me another beer and as the other members of the family took their turns in the bath, I got more and more pissed and hoped I wasn’t exposing myself whenever I changed my sitting position.
Although briefly paranoid about being requested to take a bath, I had quickly understood that I was just joining in with the usual family conventions. I was a little more surprised, however, when, after breakfast, and a little sightseeing the next morning, my student, had said, ‘Now, let’s have a bath!’
‘What? Now?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ said my student, smiling, and before I knew it we were heading off to the local sento.
As anybody with an interest in the country knows, bathing isn’t limited to one’s own house in Japan. Throughout the country there are public sento and onsen. A sento is a public bath or bathing complex and an onsen is a hot spring, or a sento that pretends it is a hot spring if news reports of a few years ago are to be believed. There are also lots of huge spa type resorts, with a wide variety of baths for the clientele – both indoor and outdoor – and their popularity is testament to the fondness Japanese people have for getting naked and sitting in water with strangers.
It was the first time I could recall being naked in the company of other males since the rugby changing rooms at school, and certainly the first time I had been in a bath with another male since then. I felt a little awkward. I shouldn’t have, I know, but I’ve never been much of one for the gym, and at that time had spent almost no time in locker rooms or other clothes-off-with-the boys establishments. I felt awkward undressing with someone I usually had to wear a tie for. My student evidently felt no such shame and was quickly nude, just covering his genitals with a small towel.
I followed suit and covered myself similarly. Then I followed my student through to the bathing area. It was a very small sento in that there was just one bath, perhaps big enough to seat around ten people at a time; a few more if you didn’t mind a bit of frottage. Along one wall was a row of shower heads and taps, with accompanying wooden stools and small wooden washing bowls.
We sat next to each other and began to wash. I thought I’d finished but when I turned to my student he was completely lathered from head to toe and furiously scrubbing himself. I felt clean enough, but thought I better put in a bit more effort and washed myself all over once again. I rinsed off and still my student was covered in soap and scrubbing away. How dirty did he think he had got since last night? What an earth had he got up to in his sleep?
I stood up and covered my modesty with the little towel, which had doubled as my washcloth. I strolled to the bath to join an elderly man who was quietly gurgling to himself in the corner. He had has washcloth on his head.
The water was blistering hot. Getting in was tough, but I had to man it out. Otherwise I would just have to stand around naked, which I thought might look a bit odd. Once in, I could feel the sweat pouring down my face. I put my washcloth on my head, closed my eyes and realised that this was great. It didn’t matter that I was having a bath with an old man I had never met before; it felt great.
My student got in. ‘How about Japanese sento?’
‘It’s great,’ I said. ‘Hot, but great.’
My student beamed with pride. ‘Thank you,’ he said, as if it were his bath.
Much as I quite enjoyed that first public bath, it was little more than a bath. I have since discovered that most bathing facilities are much better than that one. Every so often, my wife and I rent a little wooden bungalow in the country for a night or two and spend a bit of time away from everything that reminds us of work. The bungalow is part of a kind of campground which is adjacent to a large onsen, and bathing there is always one of my favourite things about the trip.
Inside there are three baths and a sauna. The main bath is just a large hot pool although built off it to one side is a jacuzzi section. The wall on the far side of the bath is a huge window which looks out into the two outdoor baths. Opposite the main bath is a much shallower pool where you can lie straight out and have your shoulders gently massaged by bubbly jets of water. This bath is long and narrow and the spots for lying down are divided by metal handrails. I quite like this bath. You can close your eyes and drift off, and it would be just perfect if it weren’t for the fact that you are usually lying in the nude next to an elderly Japanese bloke who keeps sighing with pleasure.
They love their pleasure gurgles, the old men. I mean, I like onsen as much as the next man, but I don’t feel the need to grunt and moan and sigh about it all in the presence of complete strangers. They seem to be the same when they exercise – full of unnecessary over-exhalations. I first noticed this after a swim. I was getting changed and for a few moments had the entire changing room to myself. Then I heard the door open and somebody came in puffing and huffing after a workout in the gym. I didn’t see the person as a bank of lockers separated me from him. Indeed, it is quite likely that he had no idea of my presence as I am generally a fairly silent changer. He, however, was inappropriately noisy. Regardless of whether or not he thought he had the room to himself or not, there was simply no need for the kinds of sounds emanating from his side of the lockers. A bit of huffing and puffing after his exercise is forgivable, but this fellow proceeded to large grunts, a few moans and several loud exhalations and weary sighs. It was as though he was doing a difficult shit on the floor!
Anyway, back to the camping resort. The remaining indoor bath is a small one for a single person. It is about 120cm deep – too deep to sit in, but too shallow for a man of my height to stand straight up in without feeling a little awkward. So you kind of bend your knees and slouch down so that a powerful jet of water can massage your back. It’s great. But last time I went I gave it a miss because just as I was thinking of trying it I noticed an elderly man in there. He wasn’t enjoying getting his back massaged. Instead, he was standing facing the massage jet front-on and had his eyes shut rather too tightly for my liking.
It is the two outdoor baths, however, that I enjoy most. They are sunk into the ground and surrounded by rocks in a lovely little garden. Going there just before sundown is best. You settle into the hot water, and watch as the sun slowly dips below the Japanese Alps, the trees become silhouettes, and, if you’re lucky, the moon or stars shine brightly overhead. Sometimes, even I let out a few gurgles.
For me, the sensual pleasure of outdoor winter onsens after a day’s skiing come top of the hot spring charts, but for spectacular kitsch beauty, Yunohama Onsen on Niijima wins the prize. Niijima is an island off the east coast of the Izu peninsula, a few hours south of Tokyo by ferry. It is a small, quiet, volcanic island with a population of fewer than 3,000 people. It has some lovely beaches, and into the cliffs overlooking the pacific ocean somebody thoughtfully decided to build a free, public onsen in the style of Greek ruins. There are several pools dug into the rocks and open to all-comers. Bathers are not separated by sex, but swimwear is required. You can take beer in and sit in the hot pools watching the waves crash into the rocks below and the sun slowly sinking into the Pacific Ocean. It doesn’t matter that there’s a touch of Vegas about the Greek ruins; it is wonderful. The ruins may be fake, but the cliffs and the ocean and the sun aren’t and I can think of few better places to enjoy a sundowner and watch day turn to night.