Steam slaps you in the face and you are surrounded by naked people. The water scalds your skin as you enter it and you acclimate slowly. You unwind as the stress flows out of you.
Welcome to the onsen.
In America, we have hot tubs and jacuzzis, but there is a world of difference between them and the onsen. Yes, both are meant to relax and your time in them is better when you are in the company of friends or family, but the difference in the two is just how private their experiences are.
It’s an oxymoron that the time in an onsen is a publicly private experience, but it feels the most apt description to use. By the end of this, it will become clear why.
Onsen are considered “public baths,” and they are often translated as such in English. Rather than having one in your own humble abode, you travel out into the world, and join the company of friends and strangers alike. You all have come together with the common purpose of relaxation and rejuvenation.
The space is wide open, leaving no room for the concealment of shame. Showers line the entrance room, where, beside your fellow guests, you must take part in the uniform ablution of yourself prior to your baptism in the ovenlike water. In this way, you are humbled and everything about you is laid bare for all to see, though your compatriots have no interest in what you have to offer.
Just as you and your cohorts have cleansed yourselves prior to your entry into the water, likewise you all share the experience of a sharp bite from its heat. Scalding though it may be, eventually you are comfortable to lower yourself into the pool, basking in its sounds, the sensation of the heat, and the alleviation of the bath.
Yet, in spite of your company’s steadfast presence, there is another member of your party:
The Sound of Silence
Despite being in a group, each member is their own island.
You all came there to relax in the hot water and feel your troubles wash away in the heat, but talking will disturb the peace that you have cultivated. Talking will break the momentary abatement that the onsen affords you, and it will drag you kicking and screaming back into reality. So you leave your words unspoken and your thoughts unshared.
The camaraderie goes unacknowledged and unbroken, continuing to exist in a Zen state of untainted perfection, and you collectively segregate yourselves into the confines of your own minds. And it is within these confines that you are able to find the true renewal of the onsen.
Seated alone in a crowded bath, your thoughts are the one companion to stay with you throughout the cleanse. They remain with you through all of your movements in the water, both nagging at you and leaving you to yourself.
They meander through your consciousness without rhyme or reason, dancing alongside the steam of the bath, and the harmony of the two strangely brings you to a state of rest amid the movement. If given enough time, perhaps you eventually come to a sudden realization.
You realize the astonishingly simple solution to your relationship qualms, or you realize what your next goal is, or you find an explanation for a problem you have had. Or maybe you realize the need to appreciate the smaller things and resign yourself to simply sit in the water until you feel relaxed.
All is drawn out in the onsen.
The onsen excises it all from you, good or bad, and you walk away restored in mind and body. The exit from the bath is followed by a final wash at the shower and then you return to clothe yourself once more and go out to face the world.
The insights gained in the bath may soon pass from your memory, or maybe they will remain and guide you in your coming endeavors. But in this fragmentary and passing moment, you are purified.
In a crowded room, you sat alone and contemplated yourself and your thoughts, just as those all around you did. You came together with a common, yet non-communal, purpose and you left each other to your own devices. You eventually left each other’s company, eternally tied together by a passing and unacknowledged union in relaxation and self-reflection.
That is the experience of the onsen
I spent some of last week in Kusatsa, Gunma, one of the biggest resort towns in Japan and has been a location for prime onsen experiences for centuries. It wasn’t a vacation that was not desperately needed, but nonetheless appreciated. I had the idea of this week’s post when I realized how quiet the onsen was despite the amount of people in it.
Comment your own onsen experiences down below and keep the discussion going!
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Song of the Week
“言って” by ヨルシカ
It is somewhat strange to finally add a Japanese song to this playlist six months into its existence, but I suppose it’s better late than never. Candidly, I cannot admit to understanding all of the meanings in the lyricism of this song, but that does not stop me from enjoying it very much. The instrumentation is funky, the lyrics are sung with a purpose, and it is a pleasant song to listen to both as a means to practice my Japanese and just to enjoy myself.
If you would like to listen to this song or any of the other prior Songs of the Week, check out the Spotify Playlist linked above!