Time can erode even the most exciting of lifestyles into mundanity, but after nearly a decade in Japan, I’m still presented with experiences that make me appreciate how lucky I am to live here.
A national holiday falling on a Saturday meant that I had a rare treat; a two day weekend! The Japan branch of the Miller clan set off for Ena, a small city in the Gifu Prefecture, for a weekend of hot baths and good food. We were staying in the Enakyo Grand Hotel, a building that was no doubt luxurious in its hay day, but peeling paint and worn carpet tiles made it look like a vaudeville actress failing to hide her age.
The hotel’s biggest draw is its view of a beautiful emerald blue lake, marred a little with some construction vehicles and black smoke chugging tug-boats, nevertheless, everything is angled towards the body of water, including the café, rooms and of course, their onsen or natural hot spring public baths.
Onsen and their cheap cousin sento (baths filled with heated water, not naturally hot spring water) can be a little disconcerting for some Brits who have a prudent aversion to being naked in public, but I’m all but used to it now and was actually looking forward to sharing a bath with like-minded naked dudes.
The Onsen itself was nothing special, two walls lined with showers and plastic stalls, so you can get nice and clean before getting in the water, there were a couple of stand up showers, neither one worked though. There was one cramped sauna, and only two large baths, one inside one out.
After scrubbing clean I ventured outside, the bath on a large balcony overlooking Ena Gorge and the beautiful lake resting at its base. As I sat in the bath, a lean middle aged man stood up and trotted over to a bench overlooking the water, as he sat down in the cold winter air, he steamed like a demonic OAP, the hot water dripping from his body giving up the ghost and turning tepid in the blink of an eye. It was one of the coolest things I have ever seen, so as soon as he left I too went to the bench, avoided the water print left by his butt and sat down.
I could see a lone tour boat circling the lake, and I wondered if any poor tourists with binoculars and a morbid curiosity had flinched at the sight of my hairy, insect-like body, I crossed my legs just to be on the safe side. My skin too steamed as the water was forced to readjust to the rapid temperature drop. As my skin was speckled lightly with tiny snowflakes, I could see goosebumps rising on my arms, something I have never actually seen happen before, my hairs seeming to come alive as they stood up to attention. I didn’t feel particularly cold, but when the wind threw a gust or two my way, the air was knocked out of my lungs. After just a couple of minutes I retreated back to the warm bath, my body tingling as I entered water that felt scorching hot. I looked again at my arms and the goosebumps subsided, it’s weird that I’ve never thought to observe that kind of thing before, but I’m sure I won’t be able to ignore it ever again.
After the bath brought me back to a comfortable warmth I had a coldish shower to get my body temperature back to normal, dried off, got dressed and downed a few cups of bitingly cold water. As I waited for my wife and daughter to get out of the women’s bath I couldn’t help but reflect on that short, but unforgettable experience; I was naked, in the snow, sitting on a bench…in public. I hope Japan can keep surprising me in the years to come, a little less public exposure next time would be nice though.