Search This Blog

Tuesday, August 7

This Piece Certainly Warrants At Least An R-Rating

My goal when I moved to Japan was very “when in Rome.” I have really tried to experience everything I should try while I am here. But there was one thing I have held off for some time now. Even now, I wasn’t ready for it, but I did it anyway.

We’re talking Japanese Onsen. These are hot springs, both natural in the great outdoors or indoor man-made spa bath settings. Onsen types are numerous with various minerals dissolved into the water that are there to provide the partaker in different health benefits. But the main thing onsen is for is relaxing. Think of it is a big tub that you relax in sometimes meant for only girls, sometimes for only boys and sometimes even fore boys and girls. Oh, did I mention the important part yet? You do it naked. Yep, unclothed, uncovered, unprotected… in the buck-est shade of naked.

My girlfriend had chosen, Spasso, the seaside spa in Ofura where many gaijin (foreigners) often visit. However, on this day there were no other gaijin outside of the two of us. She at least gets to claim being half Japanese which leaves me a little bit further out of the loop. We had often discussed going to onsen, as she has done it before, but I was more than a little nervous. See, for those of you who haven’t seen me, ummm… in the buff… which, god, I hope is the majority of you… although there were those years in the 90s… I digress, I have a little secret. I have tattoos. Three of them exactly. Nothing kinky or sadistic but there is one that is rather large on placed on my lower back. The thing about tattoos here in Japan is that they are not looked on so favorably. Certainly, the younger generations are more tattooed as is the way in our culture. But onsen is a traditional experience and therefore traditionally partaken in. My friend considered this in choosing the location for my onsen experience. With the proximity to a major American base, and the number of gaijin that frequent the location, plus the fact that there were no signs stating any anti-drawing-on-your-body policies, I was in the clear with Spasso.

The funny thing I just couldn’t grasp was what was still bothering me. It couldn’t be the naked thing… could it?

I certainly wasn’t considered a prude in my twenties. I was always quick to join a skinny dipping session or just to let the girls free on a party dare. And yet here, I waffled on actually doing this. Perhaps getting married has calmed me down more than I ever realized while it was happening.

When it came right down to it, I simply was not going to let newfound prude ruin what is supposed to be a wonderful experience.

I paid my 1,800 yen (about $16) and took my bag of towels into the locker room. As I rounded the corner to enter the changing area, I was immediately confronted with T&A everywhere. Seriously, I couldn’t figure out where to land my glances because they would surely move over something my brain told me I shouldn’t be looking at. Pushing all thoughts out of my head, I went straight to my locker and began stripping off components of my wardrobe, trying hard not to look at anything around me. How hard that turned out to be when a young girl and boy walked between me and the lockers in all their jay bird freeness.

Once I undressed, my friend directed me that the little towel in the bag was meant to be used for privacy. The aforementioned towel was narrower than a hand towel and only a smidge longer. You hold it over your chest and it hangs down to cover the hoohah. With a chest like mine, this towel honestly did little. But there we were, ready for the next step.

Into the spa room where showers sit off to one side. Here you must wash from head to toe to prepare for the spa baths. I managed to spray soap directly into my eyes because I was still trying to hold the towel to cover me while I washed up. Apparently, you are to put the towel down and wash, but I was still struggling with the fact that I was naked and behind me stood the first spa baths backed by a glass window that overlooked more outdoor spa baths and the ocean that spread out in front of the place. More than a few ships were passing by which I prayed couldn’t see us.

All cleaned up, my friend suggested the outside spas because inside the heat becomes a bit too hard to take and there is at least a breeze outside. Clutching my tea towel to me, we walked outside and climbed down into the spa bath. From there, you take the towel and lay it aside and lay flat on you back to soak in the spa and enjoy the relaxation of it. Seriously? I cannot fathom how to relax in this environment.

There are about twenty women and children (one of which was a boy my friend and I agreed was a bit too old to be in the women’s spa) soaking with all their glory displayed for the boaters in front of them and the heavens above them. While I won’t describe what I saw, I now fully know what the female Japanese body looks like… in every aspect.

I must admit that the breeze felt nice with the hot mineral water. And the view was gorgeous! But I simply couldn’t get over the fact that the boats that went by in front of the hotel and spa could surely see into the bath area, despite the wall that was built along the ocean’s edge. If I could see them, what in the world would make anyone think that they couldn’t see you?

After soaking for some time, we got up and sat out to cold down a bit, only to crawl back in single-sized tubs that were about the size of a sake or wine barrel. When the heat finally overcame us, we crawled back out to sit and soak up the air that no longer had a tinge of the humidity we had felt when we arrived at Spasso. Certainly our body temperature was well past appropriately registering heat and humidity.

We had been there for some time when a woman approached us. My friend speaks wonderful Japanese and was able to interpret that here the woman had come to us because of my tattoos. For all the time we had been at the spa, I still was not comfortable. My awkwardness now peaked at new levels. She had tape to put over them, but I was honestly just done with the spa anyway, as I am not one for handling elongated periods of the intense heat in spas and saunas. I was ready to leave. I wanted to run while doing it. And run I did. I didn’t care that all spa goers were probably staring out of the corner of their eyes at me. I grabbed my little towel and headed inside to the showers to rinse of the salt and mineral water before redressing.

As we discussed it later, we can only think that maybe someone complained about the tattoos. Why else, after such a long time there, did someone finally approach me about it? To each his own, but I couldn’t help but wonder why someone would do this when they are so polite and usually keep to themselves. And then just today I was reading an article about how Japanese people certainly do try to keep to themselves, but when something offends them, they work around the person to have the offense removed. Was this what happened to me?

It doesn’t really matter. My goal was to get a new Japanese experience and I surely did. I even took a chance and pushed myself out of my comfort zone, which I didn’t return to until I was covered again.

Downstairs at Spasso, there is a tatami (straw-mat) room that men and women go to after they are done in the spas to take naps. There were many people laying all about on the floor sleeping the effects of the spa off. I would much rather go home and take my nap in my bed with my pjs on.

Certainly an experience I think anyone living in Japan should try, but onsen is not one that I will be trying again. Unless it is one of those hotels in Hakone, around Mt. Fuji, where each room has its own outdoor spa for just you and that someone special. Then I would definitely do it. He said “I do” which means he is bound to see me naked at some point. And I won’t have to worry about being checked out by a room full of twenty Japanese strangers.

Monday, August 6

I Heart KH

While out shopping the other day with a girlfriend, I came across a most excellent t-shirt...

This was found at Uniqlo, a store somewhat like generic Old Navy in its designs, but with a higher quality to the garments. I honestly have no idea who or what "KH" is to the Japanese, but I know what he is to me. Unfortunately, they only had up to a large. That certainly doesn't suit me as a Japanese large is equivalent to an American small. So sad.

But I'm truly glad to see that the rest of the world loves my husband as much as I do!

Saturday, August 4

Soggy Stomping through Kyoto with Typhoon Man-Yi

While my mom, aunt and uncle were visiting, I had prepared a trip by Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) to go to the southern town of Kyoto for a visit. Kyoto is known for being a more traditional looking Japanese city which the area I live in is certainly not as it is much closer to Tokyo and therefore has a modern, dirty city vibe. The Kyoto trip was planned for Friday through Sunday, but as the week progressed, news of a large approaching typhoon made me quite nervous. I did my best to hide the news from my family, particularly my mom who was having a hard time dealing with the culture shock and a few earthquakes that myself, my aunt and uncle did our best to lie about even occurring so as not to add to her worrisome thoughts. As we watched the news the night before we were planning on leaving, it was clear that the cat was out of the bag.

We packed that evening despite the threatening weather approaching the exact city in the south we were heading towards and left early the next morning. The trip south went smoothly and we arrived in Kyoto without incident, but to dark gray skies that poured forth a steady, warm rain. Taking the hotel bus from the train station to the Rihga Royal Hotel to drop our things off, we realized we had a few hours before the temples close (typically around 5:00 pm). However, the rain made it a bit difficult to walk to any of them. Plus, walking to the train station would keep us out in the damp weather that had already brought about some cold symptoms for my aunt after a particularly intense downpour had caught us unaware in Kamakura a few days before. Doing something I usually avoid, I found a taxi that was willing to take five American-sized tourists in one tiny Japanese car to the temple. Taxi travel is incredibly expensive and I wasn’t willing to through out all that dough so complacently.

Choosing a temple that was close by, so as not to fear getting stuck in traffic that would negate us spending sufficient time at any one of Kyoto’s beautiful temples, we squeezed into our ride and headed towards nearby Toji Temple. Toji Temple includes a five-storied pagoda that is an image often attached to Kyoto travels. It is the highest pagoda in Japan, measuring 187 feet, and it is made of a dark-stained wood. Information from our tour there tells us that the pagoda was built in 826 and has burnt to the ground four times after lightening strikes. The latest standing pagoda has been in place since 1644. Even as the rain continued pouring down, it could not quell the awe we felt in front of this temple.

The other buildings at Toji Temple include the Kon-do (Main Hall) and the Ko-do (Lecture Hall). Kon-do, also constructed in ancient wood, was first built in 796. It also suffered a fate of burning to the ground in 1486 to be reconstructed in 1603. Ko-do was built in 825-835 only to suffer heavy damage in typhoon and earthquakes, finally succumbing to a fire in 1486. The rebuilt structure was completed in 1615. I’m sure you gather that this temple has had problems with fires. Because of the dark skies, the pictures do not do justice to the gorgeous wood that forms these structures. Of course, the dark skies mean the likelihood of a fire incident is probably rather low. This does not stop the temple grounds workers from placing red buckets every few feet around the buildings. Should a fire start, I can only imagine that they hope the person nearest will grab a full bucket and start tossing.

Inside of Kon-do are 21 amazing Buddhist statues that include statues of the five wisdoms of Buddhism in the center which are flanked by five Bodhisattvas on the right and five fearful kings on the left, with various other images around them. I won’t bore you with details about Buddhism, but I have always been fascinated by this religion and have mingled much of it with the Christianity I was raised on. I could explain all about the statues in this building, but I fear I would get the same glassy-eyed look from you as I did with each and every member of my family that day. I just can’t take that rejection again. *sniff*

The temple was beginning to close for the evening and I knew it was time to get my soggy family back to the hotel. As we had driven to the temple, I had made note of where the best spot would be to find a cab back to the hotel. Only now, the likelihood of getting one that would fit five had been drastically reduced. After the first two cabs stopped, but refused the large group, I insisted that Kimono Hubby escort my aunt and uncle back to the hotel. I hated to see their fledgling colds get any worse. Of course, this meant that I left my own mother to stand in the rainy cold with myself. And wouldn’t you know that another cab would not stop for us after they drove away. Feeling no small frustration, but refusing to show such to my mom, I was incredibly relieved that a cab finally did stop. He was the same one that had taken the first set back to the hotel and he had kindly come back just in case we were still alighted on our corner.

Saturday’s plan included a trip to see Kinkaku and the Rokuon-ji Temple, more commonly known as the Golden Pavilion. Another day of rain and another tight cab ride brought us to the temple that had been built as a villa in the 1220s, and had been converted by a retired Shogun in 1394 into a breath-taking site where he could live out his final days surrounded by serenity. Upon his death, his will indicated that the location was to be turned into a Zen temple. The other buildings of his time have long gone, but the Rokuon-ji Temple remained and became inscribed as a World Cultural Heritage site in 1994.

As we entered the grounds, a girl in her late teens to early twenties approached us and asked us if we would like a guide through the grounds. Part of the difficulty one often feels when touring these amazing places in Japan is that you are missing something. This is because it is rare to find information in English beyond perhaps a tiny pamphlet that certainly never covers the mystery of the location. We were thrilled to have someone to tell us things we would otherwise miss. While it was never discovered for sure (there still was a small language barrier), we came to know that she goes to university and this is a volunteer group. Our guess is that they practice their English by giving tours to Yankees like ourselves. Thanks to her, we truly learned much more that day that we could have ever hoped for.

Looking at the temple, it was created from three styles of architecture: the first floor, called Shinden-zukuri, is the palace style; the second floor, called Buke-zukuri, is samurai house style; and the third floor, called Kukkyo-cho, is Zen temple style. The second and third floors are covered entirely in gold-leaf on top of Japanese lacquer. The effect of this bright, shining structure is amazing, even in the dim shadow of typhoon Man-yi rains who continue to haunt us.

Speaking of typhoon Man-yi, Saturday was the day he was supposed to strike Kyoto the hardest. All day I moved with such trepidation waiting for the fury of wind and rain to strike us like those fear-inspiring videos we have all seen during hurricane season after hurricane season at home. There were periods while we were out that the rains would pour down harder on us, with me consequently bracing for it. While the trip was quite a wet one, the worst moments of the storm must have occurred after we were in for the night on Saturday. By Sunday, the rains had cleared and left behind only some fluffy, light gray clouds. Thank you, Man-yi, for not spending your entire time on this earth as a thorn in my side.

The rains that poured while we were at the Golden Pavilion were enough to drive us back to our hotel for the afternoon. We spent the afternoon drying out, resting up and then headed back out for the evening. Unfortunately, we were minus one. The weather finally forced enough of a cold to compel my poor, dear aunt to stay in for the evening and get a few extra hours of rest.

At the time, the rains continued, so we caught another cab to the area of Kyoto called Gion. This is where we were likely to find what Kyoto is quite famous for… the geisha. Have you seen the movie Memoirs of a Geisha? If you have, much of the film was shot on location in this area. It is beautiful and old Japan. If you recall my trip to Takayama, the houses are quite similar with the dark wood and shoji screens covering the entry ways to the homes. There was also a festival going on in this area of Kyoto, but the rain had driven much of the actual festival to close early. The crowds were still out, but the festivities were not what we hoped to see as many of the parades and events were likely canceled.

The Gion area is known for good souvenir shopping as is obvious for an area so famous. Having my uncle and KH along did limit the possibilities however. We did our best despite their obvious impatience. Wandering off the main street takes you into the heart of the geisha area. Reading my travel books ahead of time, we knew that we were likely to see several geisha and it was fine to take a picture, but asking them to stop for such would not be appreciated. Frankly, these are working girls who have places to go and people to see… and those people were not a bunch of damp-looking Americans. The geisha houses have small signs on them that the Japanese people obviously figured out and would be lined up out front of the entrance waiting to catch a geisha on her way out for an appointment. But these girls move fast! And their drivers were likely to trick you and have them come out of another door just a bit further down the street, even though they had been parked and waiting at the main door for twenty minutes that the crowd had also gathered around. Try as a might, my camera was not cooperating with the rain and the crowds and too much movement and I didn’t get a good picture of any of the ten geisha I saw. No matter, I honestly just liked the feeling of being transplanted back on time to an old cobblestone street surrounded by ancient wooden houses and having traditionally decorated geisha hurrying away under attractive umbrellas to protect the gorgeous white makeup they fashioned for their evening’s appointments.

We wandered the streets a bit longer, had dinner at an Indian restaurant (for we were all tiring on night after night of Japanese) and then wandered into a temple that had a few meager booths still up struggling to bring in business in the Man-yi rains. Splashing in the darkness through puddles that were beginning to resemble small ponds, we headed in for the night to brace ourselves for the worst.

Like I said, Sunday we awoke to the rain having gone, giving us our first opportunity to leave the hotel without dragging five umbrellas along. We didn’t have too much time as our Shinkansen was leaving early in the afternoon, but we arose early and headed to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The cab dropped us off at the foot of a hill that led up a narrow street lines by multitudes of souvenir and pottery shops. Now that the rains had left, we were introduced to the more seasonal weather, a humidity that would heighten throughout the day until it threatened to smother you. But at least it wasn’t raining.

Kiyomizu is another of the famous temples that is a must see for Kyoto. It is part of the city skyline as it is built into the steep eastern hillside of the city. 139 giant pillars support the main hall from which we could stand on the attached veranda and look back on the city from a spot of solitude embraced by the nature of the very mountains that define the city limits. The temple grounds are just massive and I can’t even begin to explain all the buildings and their meaning. We wandered the grounds until it led us into a path into the mountains, arriving at the temple surrounded by the forest that you could only see the peak of from the veranda. Had I known of the vastness of this place, I would have adjusted my Kyoto plans so we could have spent more time here. I hope that this is one place I can return again to some day and take in more of its hidden mysteries. For us, time was of the essence and we began to make our way back down the steep street, stopping at a few places along the way to pick up a few last minute, Kyoto keepsakes.

As I mentioned, Man-yi might have left our company the night before, but I did still fear that we would meet again. The news had reported that he was heading north, and in the exact path that were to take on our Shinkansen ride home. Wouldn’t you know, I had ever right to fret?

At the train station, we passed through and made our way to the platform we were to board on. KH and I watched the screen above us that revealed how the 8:00 am train was still sitting and waiting to more towards Tokyo and home. Our train being scheduled for 1:30 pm… this wasn’t looking good. KH and I collected the tickets and headed down to the ticket counter to discuss the situation, knowing that this was bound to be difficult. Indeed it was as person after person told us varying bits of information about how to get home. Our tickets had been for reserved seats on a particular train. If we waited for the train, there was no telling what time it might actually come through. After discussing the situation with various Shinkansen employees, we ran to the end of a different train that was approaching and where we could pick up an unreserved seat. I feared this meant that some of us would have to stand for the two hours trip home, but I was willing to sacrifice myself to get my family home without causing worsening cold symptoms or exaggerating the possibility for jet lag fatigue. As we stood in line, the train behind us seemed to be filling and looked as if it was going in our direction. This time asking a train traveler, we came to discover that it was indeed going the same place and it was leaving in a minute.

One minute. I literally shoved my family onto the train.

We managed seats and stowed our luggage above us. I constantly worried that we would be kicked off the train because our tickets were not for the train that we were traveling, but when no one ever came around to check and collect our tickets, I settled in. Only, there was cause for worry as at each stop closer to Tokyo, the train filled thicker and thicker causing me great concern for how we would ever manage to get the five of us off with our luggage in the short minute that the train stops to unload and reload passengers. Turns out here is where I did have reason for concern. Others put into the same position of being scheduled to a train that they had no idea when it would be coming, had hopped onto the one we were now stuffed into. The aisles were completely filled with bodies and bags so to get off meant that we would have to forcefully push ourselves off. I can do it, but as I explained the situation to my family, I was reversing everything I had told them about being polite on trains in Japan. The big suitcases were given to my uncle, KH and myself which we carried on our head as we pushed and shoved to get off at our stop. There were a few who tried to get out of the way, but really there was no possibility of such happening. I was the last in the line of us and was sure that I would not make it to the door before the train was moving again. Only by sheer will did I make it just before the doors closed and the train was off again. Two young girls had done everything short of heaving me out of the way to get our seats so a poor little old lady (who was actually closer and obviously more deserving) didn’t get there first. As the train pulled away, we stood there together and let go of that nervous laughter that had been building up inside of all of us.

It was early evening until we walked in the front door. We had caught up to the rain as Man-yi had been chilling in Zushi all day, waiting to welcome us home. The hospitality in Japan is truly wonderful. But I think I could do with a bit less from the weather sector… at least until the next rainy season, please.

*More pictures can be seen using the Flickr link!