Onsen & Sento

Onsen

No swimsuits allowed! Onsen have hot springs and assorted pools, and since the hostess of my AirBNB digs recommended one on the outskirts of Tokyo, off I went sans swimsuit or towel, as instructed.

Following three Japanese women and a young girl into the entrance, I removed my world traveling Nike pegasus — faithful like the infamous Timex watch (two pair in a row of Brooks began falling apart after minimal wear) — and padded barefoot to the shoe lockers, then to the registration line. The clerk had virtually no English, and I surrendered my credit card for the admission fee and pointed to a cartoon of what looked like a massage. Why not!

Nodded toward the next station, I selected my Kimono for the day, and was scrutinized for size. How could I possibly be a “small” among petite Japanese women? Indeed, here, I’m a “medium.”

I ignored universal locker room etiquette and stared at the women in various levels of undress, trying to discern what a gal is supposed to wear under her kimono, and stashed my belongings and the key to my shoes locker at the main entrance, carefully testing the strength of the coiled wristband locker key. The cashier had drawn a red circle around a cartoon that made it clear that losing locker keys cost a’gazilion yen.

Where now? Wandering into the men’s locker room or pool area was not a story I wanted to write, and thus far had not spied icons signifying women or men in the signage, and the letters were of course meaningless. Pay attention.

A large noisy area had carnival style games and aromas of grilled meat. Food vendors for “takeaway” as well as restaurants with ambiance lined the perimeter, and men, women and children — all in kimono — ate and played. Grandmothers and little ones, sweethearts, a gaggle of teen girls peeking at teen boys, multi-generational’s — presumably family —surrounded tables filled with food. The most popular attraction? Cell phones.

Where are the pools? Where are the toilets? How do I reserve a time for the massage for which I just paid? What do I do?

Feeling like a mime in a circus, I wandered and asked. One vendor understood “toilet,” with another, I waggled the massage brochure, and after scheduling my massage, followed two 10-year old girls outdoors to a lovely Japanese garden with foot baths/ponds.

Sitting with my kimono modestly gathered around my knees, I dipped and then settled my feet into the cool water, watching others to get my bearings. After watching five tween girls, I attempted ever so BRIEFLY (how to endure the pain?) in a pond with rocks of varying sizes embedded in the ground. If any gentle readers knows of this therapy, do share, because a few steps revealed I’m a wimp. What is childbirth like?

The tiny, delicate hands of the masseuse were the size of a 10-year-old’s. After we bowed and then bowed and bowed again, I disrobed, climbed onto the table and gentle fingers surveyed my neck and shoulders. The hands were smart and drawn to the knots with strength that left me searching for comparisons: construction workers? professional bread bakers, carpenters? She could certainly have conquered every jar and water bottle I’ve tried opening with my handkerchief, kitchen towels, and the thin rubber grabber the hospital therapists would give to arthritic and stroke patients.

Fifty minutes later I slipped oily skin back into my kimono and stumbled the rubbery walk of the well-massaged into the woman’s entrance to the pools, at first glance startled by the fashion statement of the raw female body in all its extremes, entirely unabashed. The nakedness was liberating in the vast area that could easly hold two full basketball courts. Twice, at a distance, shapes without many feminine curves caused my heart to race, thinking a man had slipped in.

Six or seven pools of temps ranging from impossibly hot to cool, steam and dry sauna, ccccold water pool, and outdoors another few pools as well as overgrown wood buckets that could hold two or three gals who don’t mind being close in the buff. All were deliciously warm for me, though too hot for many. High walls secured privacy, and tall trees with huge tropical leaves surrounded the sounds of water bubbling and running, and soft conversation. The only male eyes allowed were baby boys.

One of the joys of travel alone is eaves dropping on others’ conversations, and the melodies of the Japanese was a pleasure even without understanding. Like Eskimo’s having many words for snow, perhaps the Japanese language has a special term for the noodly relaxation after an Onsen, because I certainly felt it.

Sento

While in Kyoto I visited a neighborhood Sento, a bathhouse, that was as different from the Onsen as is a quality deli from Michelin cuisine. I paid the 600 yen ($6) and a few moments later stood helplessly as four naked women in the locker room pointed (and jabbered) me toward each of the processes – absolutely the most complicated bathing procedure of my lifetime and sadly I was without any of the prerequisite wash cloths and scrub brushes.

My presence was spectacular and it appeared I was insufficiently cleaned before bathing, because women exited the pools as I entered. The Hebrew word for embarrassed is מביש

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