Every time we go visit Aya’s parents, we always do an overnight trip to the hot springs. This is a very popular activity in Japan. What are the hot springs? Well, the Japanese love their baths, and they love fancy food, and scenic views. A hot springs hotel is a place where you can take a bath, eat a fancy meal, and take in a scenic view while you’re at it too. These places pipe in the natural hot springs water (they have some sort of medicinal effect) for you to soak in a big public bath… nude… with strangers. When this was explained to me on my first trip to Japan, I started to worry what I got myself into.
My first trip to Japan was almost ten years ago before Aya and I were even engaged. When it came to the activities planned, I didn’t ask many questions. I didn’t know enough to have an opinion on anything we did anyway. Everything I saw or did was completely new so I just went with the flow. But the day they told me we were going to the hot springs and that we’d all be sleeping together on the floor in the same room, I was a little worried. I had just met Aya’s parents for the first time just days before.
The hot springs hotels all have old style traditional Japanese rooms. There is usually one room that acts as the living, dining, and bedroom with tatami mat floors with a short table in the middle. Then there is one room with just a toilet in it, and then another room with the sink and shower (this is typical at all Japanese homes. The toilet is always separate). Some places they bring the meal to your room, and some you go to a special room to eat. Usually wearing your Japanese pajamas and sitting on the floor. After you eat, they come to your room to set out the futon mattresses on the floor. This was ALL new to me. But I figured, hey, I’m here to experience as much as I can, so let’s all cuddle up together and point me in the direction of the public bath.
The public baths are separated by gender (there are some that aren’t. It’s unisex). At first I had pictured an indoor awkward nude beach scenario, so I suppose I was a little relieved when I heard they were separated. Aya told her dad that I was going to head to the bath. They all knew I was a little worried about my first Japanese hot springs bath so her dad offered to go with me. WHAT!? Aya, I just met your dad three days ago, I’m not ready to take a naked public bath with him! I knew I would be staying in their house for 10 days and that we’d have some awkward encounters because of that, but I was NOT expecting this.
I’m happy to say I was able to dodge that bath with him. Instead I took it with another stranger who really enjoyed it. He was a big Japanese guy who walked in slowly and once fully submerged moaned, “Hiiiiii.” I had skipped that first bath with her dad, but a few years later, I wasn’t so lucky.
Aya and I had just been married and so for this trip, we had our own room. And when I announced I was going to the bath, I had no idea what her dad’s bath schedule was. But I soon found out.
I wasn’t and am not a sports guy and never really got accustomed or comfortable with that whole locker room culture with a bunch of nude dudes showering together all the time. So this was really uncomfortable for me. But at the same time, I was trying to embrace the culture and do my best.
I got to the bathing room, had my pre-bath shower (you have to wash before you soak in the bath), and got in the large bath. The bath I was in was maybe 10ft by 10ft and had a view of a nice Japanese garden. After soaking for a few minutes I started to relax and thought, I guess I can see why people like this. AND THEN IT HAPPENED. Aya’s dad was walking inside after soaking in the outdoor bath and headed straight towards me. I wanted to be invisible. Please don’t see me, please don’t see the only white guy in the room. But he got in the same bath as me. Ahhh! Luckily he has bad eyes and wasn’t wearing his glasses, because he didn’t seem to notice or see me. However, I definitely saw him though. Every trip since then we’ve been fortunate to stay in rooms that have our own private outdoor bath. And that’s where we stayed for this trip.
We went to a place called Izu and stayed in a room with an ocean view. The bath and shower were outdoors. There were privacy screens so no one could see into your bath, but not preventing you from seeing the ocean view. Not to be confused, this is not like having an outdoor hot tub. It’s a wooden bathtub with natural hot spring water in it. And yes, the shower is outside. The Japanese shower is very different from our’s too. All the controls and shower head are low, and you sit on a stool and wash. It was kind of weird at first, but I actually prefer it now.
The other great thing about the hot springs trips is the food. I’ve had some amazing food on these trips. One time, when my parents had come along to visit with us, they served something alive. There was this little creature in it’s shell and Aya asked, “what’s this?” and poked it. And then it moved! Gasp! They later provided a burner to cook it, but that was definitely weird to me.
This meal was all about the tuna. Tuna sashimi (raw), and lots of it. We also had a lobster type creature which was awesome. At first, I always used to ask what everything was before I tried it, but now I find it’s better to eat first and ask questions later. I’m more likely to try things that way.
The following morning, Ellie got to take a morning bath under the morning sun with an ocean view. What a view! Truly amazing! It made me totally forget about the 2 ½ hour train ride with a toddler that was in our near future.
What an incredible trip. But so different with a toddler. Considering there were two, 2 ½ hour train rides that were great reminders we still have a 12 hour flight home, plus taxi rides, bus trips, hiking strollers up and down stairs, outdoor baths, funky food, and sleeping on the floor together, she did great! It’s a lot we put her through and she handled it all so well and I was very happy she got to experience this so early.
And lucky for me, I have a looong time before I have to wonder if I’ll ever have to sleep on the floor or take a bath with my daughter’s boyfriend.