This article was originally going to be submitted to The Notebook, a new creative writing magazine with a travel section. I missed the deadline.
There have been few occasions when I have felt truly at ease in the presence of a naked man. Included in the list; a corpse, chest cut open with me going at his ribcage with a hacksaw (my time as a medical student) and William Moseley in full Narnian battle regalia, with me going at him with vigour (a brief dalliance for the other side and very possibly a dream). My comfort was in one instance due to my being fully clothed and in the other due to my curiosity regarding the lesser-seen parts of human anatomy.
I can now augment that list.
Japan is a country of opposites. It is fiercely modern yet steeped in tradition. At times utterly respectful, at others devilishly kinky. Throughout history, its cities have been burnt, besieged and bombed, but its spirit endures. If it is to be understood, like so many things, it must be experienced. And there is one experience in particular that I can now thoroughly recommend. But you must know what you are doing. A faux pas is embarrassing at the best of times but is felt most acutely when starkers…
I find myself, dear reader, on a mountainside beyond Kyoto. The air is sweet and a little humid. The vegetation is a rich green, the sky azure. The scenery is beautiful—worthy of Hokusai if he hadn’t been so preoccupied with Fuji, but I am unable to appreciate it fully. My muscles ache and my previously immaculate linen shirt is creased and not a little damp. I am in need of relaxation. Thankfully there is an Onsen near by. This, for the uninitiated, is an establishment where a natural ground fissure releases hot, nutrient rich water, and is not to be confused with a Sento where normal water is heated artificially. But I am filled with trepidation. It’s my first time and I’m worried about how I’ll perform. My companion, Monish, and I (travelling alone has its merits, but on balance is best left to Buchan-style adventurers) enter the complex through a small wooden door. First, as expected, we remove our shoes and purchased small bars of soap and towelling cloths. Then we step into the changing room. Men of various nationalities and in deshabille meet us. What else is there to do? We disrobe entirely. It is unusual, and oddly liberating. My travelling companion (quite hairy, burly and blessed with proportions I would never have suspected) moves outside. I follow.
First comes the washing. I admire many things about the people of Japan but none greater than their etiquette regarding cleanliness. A row of tiny wooden stools with buckets and taps are in front of me. I fold my spindly frame on to a stool, soap and rinse every part of my body thoroughly (it is paramount one does not get soap in the bath itself) and then stand awkwardly, trying not to slip on the smooth stone floor.
Two things strike me as I enter the bath area. First the beauty (a wood and stone construction nestled in the aforementioned mountain side) and then the penises. Just what is the appropriate collective noun? A plurality, a plenitude, a plethora, a profusion? Anyway, there they all are, as numerous and as varied in appearance as Pokemon, without the inconvenience of having to ‘catch ‘em all’. Oh really, you can’t help but look. The bath is raised. One’s eye line is cock-height (technical term). But as soon as one enters the water, all embarrassment is forgotten.
In my current London abode, I don’t have the luxury of a bath. I imagine many first year readers are in a similar situation. Isn’t it a bugger? There are few pleasures more joyous than a hot bath. But an onsen is more. The water is richer, with an almost herbal aroma, and you have company. But this latter fact ceases to matter. Your muscles relax, your breathing deepens and your skin feels fantastic. You sit and you wallow in companionable silence (but for goodness sake don’t wring your towel in the bath water).
Later, on my return to Tokyo and comfortably ensconced in the Park Hyatt (woefully devoid of Scarlett Johansson) I recalled the experience as near perfect, marred only by the two French gentlemen who smuggled a camera in somehow—goodness knows where they hid it, the mind boggles. I like to think somewhere on a foreign mantelpiece lies a photograph of mountains, Frenchmen and Monish and I. In the altogether and utterly content.