This is my 8th visit to Japan. Each time I visit I’m much more comfortable, I question the food less, the customs less, and I go with the flow as much as possible. There is one place though that always remains a mystery to me; the Japanese hot springs, or onsen as they are called in Japan.
This is a place where a mostly OCD, type-A, rule driven, super private society goes to get naked with family, friends, co-workers, and strangers and take baths together. Yes, imagine your co-workers. Now imagine taking a bath with them. Yeah, I know.
You won’t shake my hand or give me a hug, but you’ll take a bath with me naked? It just doesn’t add up.
Overall, I really like a trip to the hot springs. These are Japanese style hotels (ryokan) where they pipe in the natural mountain spring water and people soak. They soak to relax, they soak for the medicinal properties of the water, and they soak because well, that’s just what Japanese people do. The places Aya’s parents have taken us are always in a very scenic beautiful area with either a view of the mountains, or the Pacific Ocean. The food, even though at times can be scary, like that time something was alive and moving on my plate, is fantastic. Not only is it delicious, but it’s a feast for the eyes too. But no matter how much I like it or how many times I’ve been and know what to expect, I always get nervous at these places. (You can read about my first hot springs experience here)
There are so many social and cultural etiquette and rules in Japan and they all seem magnified to me at the hot springs. Between the slippers, potty slippers, the sliding paper doors, the tatami mat floors, the bath etiquette, and how to wear the yukatas (Japanese casual kimonos) I get stressed out.
For the most part, I try my best to assimilate and blend in in Japan. It’s impossible at the hot springs though. First of all, the slippers never fit me. They are flip-flop style with the thong that goes between your toes. My heels hang out over the edge a good two inches so when I walk I need to clamp down with my toes to keep them on. This makes me look like I’m either constipated or I just wet myself while I’m walking. Add in navigating the stairs while wearing practically a long dress and I’m a real treat to watch.
Not to mention, I accidentally wore the women’s yukata for dinner this time. When we checked in, the woman had us pick out our own yukatas. I picked the most masculine one I could find which had a black background with various pink flowers (yes, that was the most masculine print they had). Well, it turns out Aya was the only one who was supposed to pick one out. No wonder they were all feminine looking. I didn’t learn this until later, when my mother-in-law looked at me and giggled. When we sat down at dinner, Aya’s mom asked, “why is he wearing a woman’s yukata?” I looked around the room and saw all the other guys wearing greens, blues, and beige leaf motif prints. In the middle of it all was me, the big foot American wearing bright pink flowers.
I also noticed that the other couples and families at the other tables were not smiling, or even talking. All of them (I’m told this is normal. Looking like you’re not enjoying yourself, normal? It’s all a mystery to me). I was excited to take pictures of the food and enjoy dinner, but with my small slippers, the awkward energy in the room, and my pink yukata I was feeling agitated and nervous. So nervous I dropped my chopsticks before we even started eating. I got over myself quickly though. Hey, real men wear pink flowers, right? I was like the Tommy Bahama of Japan.
Anyway, the food was outstanding. Our hot springs hotel was on the ocean so all of the fish were from the daily catch. We had various fish sashimi, tempura, red snapper head (Aya decided to eat the eyeball). All-in-all it was a ten course meal. The kids did great sitting through that long meal too. Ellie didn’t like everything, but she wanted to try everything. Chloe has been digging on unlimited rice, seaweed, and miso soup.
It’s been really incredible watching Ellie and Chloe (especially Ellie) embrace their Japanese heritage. Ellie’s Japanese speech doubled in the first week and continues to grow. They are absorbing everything and processing everything. The hot springs were no exception and they couldn’t wait to soak in the hot springs bath with a view of the ocean. Me on the other hand, no matter how much I accept, enjoy, and get lost in the culture, the hot springs experience will always be a source of high strangeness.