In Hot Water

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10 August 1999

Over the course of the previous week, I had stopped marking time by meals and begun paying attention to check-in times and bath times. Eating had become less important than washing away the day’s grime and soaking in hot water.

The New Tokushima Hotel had two baths. From 3 p.m. - midnight, women bathed on the first floor. From 6 a.m. until 9, they bathed upstairs on the fifth floor. The men’s schedule was opposite--upstairs at night and downstairs in the morning. I’ve learned that when baths are switched like this, there’s usually something special about one of the bath rooms. So before breakfast, I decided to have a bath upstairs.

And I was right. The fifth floor bath had a rotenburo, an open air bath, with a little garden. It was nice to sit in the warm water with my wash towel piled on my head and listen to the traffic below me on the street and the calls of early morning workers unloading trucks of produce. Although maybe these aren’t the poetic sounds of nature, I enjoyed them. No matter where you are, there’s a world around you that you never imagine. And vice versa--how many of those produce workers gave a second thought (or even a first) to a foreigner’s bath that morning?

I finished my bath and back in my room I packed up my things. Breakfast turned out to be much less dreadful that the previous morning’s. No natto and raw fish today--it was ham and cabbage with my egg broken into the miniature cast iron skillet atop my brazier. Plus rice, miso soup and all the little pickle dishes. Japanese breakfasts are really quite a feast!

Today I was going to be spending some time on a train heading west to Matsuyama and Dogo Onsen. When I had made my reservations the day before I decided that I wanted another morning in Tokushima to see some craftsman. But my enthusiasm for crafts waned a bit after the trip to Ko and now I had several hours to wait before the train left. I decided to walk around the castle museum and park.

The next day marked the start of the annual Awa Odori festival. For three days & nights the town would dance. There’s a saying written all over posters and all the promotions for Awa Odori “Fools are dancing and fools are watching. Why not dance?”

Dance parades fill the streets, contests and impromptu lessons are held anywhere there is space. Brilliantly costumed women wearing cotton kimono and straw hats tied to their heads like folded paper plates dance for hours balanced on the toes of their wooden geta sandals. Arms point into the air as wrists rotate and legs fold then step forward. Men bounce along standing tall then suddenly doubling in half as they writhe to the beat of the drums they carry. It’s quite a spectacle.

But I was witness only to the preparations. Young men in light green uniforms and white gloves spliced electrical wires to create endless streams of red and yellow lanterns that would be hung along city streets and waterfront parks. Metal pipes clanked as burly workers, skin shining and brown from the heat of the day, constructed the bleachers flanking the parade routes. Traffic was disrupted by slow moving trucks bearing port-a-potties.

In the park near the castle museum, in the shadow of the ancient castle gate, a handful of bleached blond boys inspected the sound equipment going up for the concert scheduled for the evening. Their roadies, dressed in baggy t-shirts, long shorts and flat bottomed skateboarding shoes, could have been college students from any US university. But the ubiquitous Japanese towels tied around their heads gave away their national identity as they worked busily adjusting cabling, moving monitors and lugging carts around while two well-wrought women with clipboards discussed the progress off to one side of the event stage.

Eventually, I boarded my train to Matsuyama. The trip took four hours and the only thing to break up my studying was the view of the Shimanami Kaido bridge at Imabari. This bridge was the beginning of the next two days’ travels--I was planning to cover the 60 km span on a bicycle. The approach to the bridge, all curves and circles, looked so much steeper and intimidating from my low vantage point than from the aerial photographs in the brochures. I wondered if perhaps I was getting myself into something I couldn’t handle.

I tried to put that thought aside and concentrate on what I was going to do for the rest of the day. I would arrive in Matsuyama in the late afternoon and make my way by tram to the outlying area where I was spending the night--Dogo Onsen.

Dogo Onsen was the pinnacle of my bathing experience. The public bath there is the oldest in Japan. It is mentioned in Japan’s first written records which are about 3,000 years old. The legend of the bath says that an injured white heron dipped its leg into the hot spring here and was cured. Since then, people have flocked to Dogo for its curing powers.

There is the main public bath house and myriad hotels surrounding it each with its own baths for guests. Which was excellent, because my inner clock told me it was bathtime!

In my hotel room was a pink cotton yukata robe with a pattern of blue toys printed on it. The “Big Book of Hotel,” my generic name for the folder in every hotel room which lists the hotels amenities and rules, didn’t give my any information in English. Should I take my room towels to the bath? Was it OK to wear the yukata in the halls? Some hotels don’t like that...

I needn’t have worried. Not only in the halls of the hotel but also on the streets of Dogo Onsen, visitors wear the yukata provided by their hotels as they go bath hopping. They carry their toiletries in wicker baskets or plastic bags and shuffle along in geta or slippers.

But I discovered this later. I decided that my first bath should be at the town’s feature attraction, the main public bath, so I went out in my street clothes without any towel or toiletries. The bath, about 10 meters from the door of my hotel, had a long queue waiting for tickets.

The onsen has three floors. On the first floor is the general bath. If you have your own yukata and towel with you, the Water of the Gods bath is the one to go to. If, like me, you don’t have a towel or a yukata you use the second floor where you get both and a cup of green tea and a cookie after your bath included in the price of your visit. On the third floor is the family bath area with private rooms.

The building dates from 1894 and it is quite lovely, though its small, interlocking tatami rooms are a bit confusing for the first time visitor. I padded barefoot through the first floor hall and up some stairs to a larger room with zabuton cushions scattered on the floor. I was handed a drawer for my valuables along with a yukata and a towel and was pointed in the general direction of the women’s bath which was several rooms away and down a short flight of stairs.

The bath was very small and crammed full of bathers. I had a quick, chilly scrub at the cold faucet tap because there wasn’t a hot tap available. The heat of the bath water took the chill off, though I didn’t stay in for very long. Too many people. And bathing alone in a crowded room isn’t really very fun.

I donned my yukata and went back up to my zabuton for tea and cookies. A family group came in and sat at the other cushions around me. The youngest child was about three and hadn’t had a lot of interaction with gaijin-san. Her eyes widened when she saw my blue, round ones looking at her. Her grandmother, a spindly woman hobbled off to the bath with her daughters and granddaughters in tow.

Across the room, two men were waiting for their wives to appear from the bath. As they waited, one of them completed a deft dressing maneuver--sliding on underwear and pants while wrapped in his yukata and then quickly exchanging yukata for shirt. He dressed unselfconsciously and quickly. Well practiced in the art of public bathing. It will take me years before I can do that. And as a woman, I think maybe it would be inappropriate.

I have a lot of leeway as a foreigner so I could probably get away with dressing under my yukata in public. I live outside the rules, even though I try to follow them as best I can. Since I don’t really understand them I can’t follow them too closely--I don’t know when to laugh or not laugh. How deeply to bow. Or whether to shake hands instead. But I’ve stopped worrying about it too much. I just live my life and see what happens. I learn as I go.

It’s interesting to see what stereotypes the Japanese expect me to fit. Eat huge amounts of food (Not very often). Talk at the top of my lungs (I’ve learned not to). Be violent (OK, I fit that one). Be Christian and proselytizing (I am not). Go to sleep without bathing first (Only in a Western bed). These are just the few assumptions that people have hinted at. I sometimes wonder what other stereotypes are unspoken.

Before leaving the bath house, I visited a special room on the third floor--Botchan’s room. Botchan is a fictional character created by Soseki Natsume, the Meiji-era writer pictured on the 1000 yen note. Soseki’s novel is a funny account of the misdeeds of a young, opinionated teacher from Tokyo who was assigned to teach at a boy’s school in Shikoku (which was the hinterlands of Japan as far as a Meiji-era Tokyo-ite was concerned). It takes place in Matsuyama and Dogo Onsen, though neither town is mentioned by name.

On my way back to my hotel, I watched a sequined band of amateur samba dancers piling out of a van like clowns at a circus. They were drumming up (literally) spectators for the evening’s Samba Parade at the main shopping arcade in Matsuyama. I was heading there for dinner, so I made sure not to miss _this_ dance parade!

It was great fun. For two hours, dancers flowed past. Scantily clad but heavily bejeweled and feathered girls pranced along to the beat, executing footwork which would have had me flat on my face. They were followed by what seemed like the entire population of Matsuyama’s preschools. These toddlers could samba! A band of fools came along, then more kids. A troupe of professional dancers danced to an Aladdin theme. On and on they came.

But when it was over, most of the restaurants were closed! So I ended up eating Chinese food in a restaurant called London. Incongruous but filling. I went back to the hotel and had a bath in their lovely bath area. There were three places to soak and I tried them all: a fragrant cedar bath, a very hot indoor bath and a tepid rotenburo.

It was an early night for me., I wanted to be well rested for the next day’s biking trip across the bridges of Shimanami Kaido. But no amount of rest could have prepared me for what was coming...

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