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The International Writers Magazine: Living in Japan

A hot spring in Japan
• Michael Webb
I want to write about what for me has made this country real and sometimes incredibly beautiful. My weekend visit to (Isesaki) in Gunma prefecture is almost over. Thus far it has been an alcohol fuelled mess. But that is better left untold and like I said, I want to talk about something beautiful.

I have arrived at one of Isesaki’s Onsens. Gunma prefecture is well known for its onsens. Onsen is a Japanese word meaning 'hot spring'.  There are a good number of onsens in Gunma and some of them are very famous.  This is not one of those. But it’s beautiful all the same. 
“Do you guys have a hundred yen?” Mike asks.
Mike’s been in Japan for just over five years now and his Japanese is excellent.
“No I don’t have any money right now sorry. I’m going to use my onsen tickets to pay,” says Nick. Nick has been in Japan for almost two years now and is a very dear friend of mine. Though he constantly claims his Japanese is terrible, I think he’s bluffing.  
“You both need a hundred yen for the locker,” Mike said.  I don’t have any change and Nick doesn’t have any money so Mike gave us a hundred yen each. Mike’s a nice guy. Not because he gave us a hundred yen, that’s refundable. He’s just a nice guy. 

In an onsen you go naked save for a tiny towel that you use to cover your penis whilst you meander from bath to bath. You don’t have to cover your penis with a mini towel whilst you walk around. It’s not illegal not to. But it’s polite and respectful and that’s one thing you should really at least try to emulate in Japan.  At least whilst sober anyway. When the Japanese are drunk they are as carefree as anybody else. They really know how to have a good time.  We enter the onsen together and take showers. It’s important to take showers before entering these public baths. The onsens in Japan are important and since everybody shares the hot springs it’s courteous to shower before going in.

It will come as no great surprise that running water is prominent here. The hot springs constantly trickle water into the rock pools.  Nobody really speaks much here. It’s a peaceful place where flowing water is the dominant sound.  There are public baths for both sexes. Men go in one direction and women the other. So don’t expect to see anything but naked women in the women’s baths and vice versa. I start indoors in the main rock pool. The water is clear and tastes of salt. On the far side I can see a miniature waterfall as the hot spring ascends to its main source. I wade over there and climb up to the higher land and sit with my back against the very far end. Here the water pushes against me at its very hottest, and here I stay until I can take it no longer.

I move on to the smaller and more carbonated pool where bubbles occasionally rise up and tickle my feet. There are many different kinds of bath and I want to try as many as I can. Some are cold, some are hot, some are made for lying down and some made for sitting up in. There are beds of water that immerse you half way so you can sleep without fear of drowning.  I sit in a ninety degree sauna rubbing my entire body with salt. It’s difficult to talk in that sauna, even if you want to.

I go outside to try the reclining chairs and feel the cold night air as it slowly dries my body. But once I get out there I realize that I am entirely alone and I can’t resist the large empty rock pool. It seems to be calling to me. I step into the rock pool and swim to the middle. I lay back and look up at the night sky. There is barely a star to be seen but the moon is big and bright.  There I lay. Mesmerized as the steam rises from my body and surrounds me in a mist that seems to rise all the way up to the moon itself.  My body tingles with warmth as the water comforts me and helps me paint the picture of water, mist, steam, night and moon.
© Michael Webb March 2012

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