Category Archives: Life on the Road

Research Tales: The Mixed Bath

It wasn’t the first time I had gotten naked with a new coworker, just hours after meeting. Last summer I met the photographer for my upcoming travel guidebook, Ken Shimizu (http://kenshimizuphoto.com), to split costs on a research trip up to Tohoku, the region north of Tokyo that had been devastated by the tsunami and nuclear disaster just a year before. We met outside Sendai, Tohoku’s big central city and rented a car for the trip. By evening we had finished up with Sendai, passed through the village of Tono and arrived at the hot spring resort of Nyuto, a spot I was really interested in adding to the new book, and which Ken thought ideal for photos.

Yours truly, center. Photo credit Ken Shimizu.

Yours truly, center. Photo credit Ken Shimizu.

First off: the name. Nyuto’s Chinese characters are “milk” and “head”, which, when combined, mean “nipple”. The original meaning here referred to the milky-white opaque waters, but Tsurunoyu Onsen, where we stayed, has a second nipplesque theme—its mixed bath. Hot spring bathing in Japan is in the nude, but it is nearly always sex-segregated. Not so here—think broad daylight skinny dipping with total strangers of both sexes. The only saving grace is the opaque water, but it is of little help when you have to get out of the bath and your towel is 5 paces away in the changing room.

So Ken and I arrived late, after most of the guests had eaten, and were assigned a room together. There was as moment of hesitation because we had only known each other for 8 hours at that point, but we finally agreed to share a room as it was the best way to keep trip expenses down. We ate dinner around a sunken hearth, filling our bowls from a hearty mountain potato stew bubbling in the pot that hung over the hearth and talked about our research plans for the next few days. We skirted the topic that was on my mind, and likely his too: would the mixed bath be heaven or hell? Would it be full of buxom young women, their skins as milky white as the waters, or would it be all geriatrics, groaning quietly as the heat soothed their joints?

We went to our tiny 6-mat room and saw to the all important plugging in of the various devices we carried, then got changed into our bathrobes and went to the bath. As we headed toward the men’s bath we passed a group of women in the same bathrobes.

“Oh, headed to the bath again?” said one of the women, likely in her 50s.

“No, we actually arrived late, so we are getting in for the first time just now,” replied Ken.

“Oh really? We were just in the mixed bath. Too bad!” This flirtation elicited a round of schoolgirl like giggling from her companions, who were anything but school girls. To this day I can’t quite tell if she meant “too bad for you” or “too bad for us.” I like to think it was the latter, or perhaps she meant “what a shame we couldn’t all see each other naked!” That’s a generous way of reading her expression, in any case. To this ambiguous flirtation Ken only managed a “Yeeeessss” that was about as uncertain as the whole conversation. I had understood the whole exchange but was tongue-tied.

I checked out the men’s bath by myself while Ken shot some photos around the grounds, then we met up at the mixed bath, perhaps for moral support or shared anticipation. Seven years prior I had just arrived in Japan and met my new colleagues at the school where I would work for the next 2 years. The following day we took a road trip together to get to know each other better and visited a hot spring in the evening, where I had my first Japanese hot spring experience and also saw my coworker Richard, whom I had known for just over 24 hours, buck naked. Even after countless hot spring experiences, getting to know someone in the nude was something that was hard for me to adjust to.

So Ken and I got naked and hit the bath. A handful of men were lounging about in the steamy waters but no women were in sight. The men had this practiced slouch that seemed to mean, “I’m cool and not a creep ladies! Come in so we may spy upon each other.” What would have merely been the posture of a relaxed man in a bath now seemed like a manufactured display, the peacock at rest. A sign posted at the entrance to the bath had read, “Don’t stare; don’t show off”; I thought these guys were failing the second rule, but there were no ladies in attendance yet.

I had a good soak and was starting to overheat, but there was still no sign that this was even a mixed bath. Ken got out to process some photos on his laptop but I decided to stay in the bath a bit longer. Finally, a collection of high voices, laughter and the flash of white towels tying up hair at the periphery of my vision put all of my senses on edge. This mixed bathing area was designed in such a way that the women could enter the water behind a screen, then wade into the main area submerged up to their necks, completely modest (errr, relatively modest anyway). So it was: a group of four women waded through their entrance and took up position along one side of the pool.

And I couldn’t see a damn thing. My glasses would get damaged by the hot mineral water, so I had left them with my robe. I sat and squinted through the dark and the steam rising off the water. Were they young? If young, were they beautiful? We were there on a weekday—the likelihood of a young woman was quite low as they’d either be busy with work or university classes. If I were to go closer they might freak out and flee, perhaps with good reason. Or maybe I’d get close enough to see and then I’d be the one running off. Chickenshit, I sat on my rock tried to pretend that I wasn’t peering at them, casual as hell. The other men there seemed to be in the same position. No one stirred, and while I considered doing a dramatic “emerge from the bath right next to them in all of my snowy-skin glory” manoeuvre, I sat tight until they had eventually had enough and slipped back into the women’s section.

The next morning I posed for Ken in a series of embarrassing semi-nudes as the bath was all but empty much of the time and he needed a model. Eventually some people arrived and Ken scurried about asking naked people for photographic releases, his least favorite task. I found myself silently praising the complete opacity of the waters as I fell into a conversation with an elderly couple, the wrinkled visage of a grandmother floating upon the white waters the complete extent of my real, confirmed experience. So despite the total lack of orgiastic bathing and the near complete lack of nubile maidens, I enjoyed myself. I’ve been to the bath a lot in Japan and I am pretty comfortable in my own skin, but this way my first time to skinny dip around women and that excitement has stuck with me.

 

 

Christmastime in Kathmandu and Acute Lowland Malaise

Christmas finds me this year cringing to odd versions of carols blasting out of bars in the tourist ghetto of Thamel, Kathmandu — once rectal end of the Hippie Trail east, where brain-fired spiritual questers flopped down in a place aptly called “Freak Street” — now the nylon-coated business-end of “Himalaya: the Experience.”

If that sounds jaded, it’s because I’m suffering the exact opposite of Altitude Sickness: Acute Lowland Malaise. After the relative solitude of nearly a month walking around and among the peaks of the Annapurna Himal Range, I find the press of humanity too much: all heavy panting and scrabbling fingers.

The mountains have always been a meditative experience for me, a chance to let my thoughts quiet a little, to get away from distractions. Long descents, bus trips in the countryside, long mountain highways: these acted as a buffer between the fragile communion with the natural world and screeching urban hustle.

No such boundary exists here in Nepal. The mountains are more habited that I was used to, but from the trailhead village only an hour on a sardine can masquerading as a highway bus stood between me and the total tourist culture dousing I received upon arrival at 9pm in Pokhara.

The first person I met back in “civilization” was a pimp. “This is Pokhara,” he said, standing 50cm from my right ear, grinning. “Lakeside.” I turned to look at him directly, as he was standing too close to concentrate on figuring out a taxi with my companions. “Pokhara,” he repeated, “Full servicing.”

Somehow the insinuation was worse than “You want girlfriend?” which I was to hear repeatedly thereafter, as though I, another money machine, had arrived to be greased with whatever foul unguents I required and he was my willing mechanic.

We fled across the street to tangle with lying taxi drivers.

I became less certain of the services that the city could really offer me. A hot shower and some laundry were immediate in my mind, but having a celebration meal was all we had talked about in the last few painful hours of downhill, so there was no turning back. We bathed and ordered steaks, beers. It was a lot of food, but unsatisfying, as though I had been eating fried noodles and mountain sunsets for dinner during the whole trek.

We went to a bar, ordered more, more. The talk was a horrendous smear of misunderstood politics and cock-fight conversations. We cringed in unison and tried to shout over it, to shout the quiet conversations we’d enjoyed in the mountain lodges. Dismal failure. Snarling dogs chased me back to my hotel at 2am.

The next day I woke hungover, sick as the dogs that pursued me, half my body in revolt against the meat, cheese and booze I had stuffed into it.  My headache faded, but not the dizziness of being back among so many people in a city designed to suck as much marrow out of me as possible.

A three-day “strike” where roaming Maoists shut down the entire country on threat of violence was something of a reprieve from noise, but now that their demonstrations are over and the forced idleness lifted, the country is seething like a dog with fleas, everyone hungry, everyone trying to get somewhere, something. I too, scrabble on a bus along sinuous highways back to Kathmandu, ready to do battle with visas, passports, embassies.

After all my fantasies in the mountains of women, luxurious meals and hot showers, I find I’d rather just have another dose of quiet, 10 minutes of dawn light among high peaks and silent eagles.

Sayonara Tourist Season!

A hush has fallen over the city of Kyoto: no buses rumble, no wandering masses tourists clog the streets, no tour guides spout history nor wave flags. The fall foliage season is over. 

 

Kyoto is famous for its spring and fall, for the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves that is, and it seems that every year the television advertises more and more the secret places that only locals once enjoyed. This year whole busloads of gaping out-of-towners paraded through my neighborhood and gawked at the foreigner on his bicycle, all headed up to a tiny temple that is normally both quiet and pleasant but is neither once a thousand shutterbugs descend upon it. 

 

That’s the problem with anaba, or secret places — once they are no longer secret they lose their hidden charm and become merely small and crowded. In any case, December is one of the best seasons for visitors to Kyoto as the city’s reputation for cold keeps most tourists away. At present it is sunny and 13 degrees Celsius — so if you can handle that much, you’ll love it.

 

Just stay out of my neighborhood.