THE ONSEN

      Onsen or Japanese hot spring bath is the one thing that is all encompassing in our world of biking around Japan.  Without this little luxury, you can bet I would think twice about bike/camping.  But it is what makes it all worth the miles and miles of pumping up hills and sleeping on the ground.   Difficult to describe this amazingly wonderful experience so I will say it like it says in our Lonely Planet Guide.

                         First know that getting naked with total strangers is not, for most of us, the cultural norm, but shy gaijin (foreigners) should know that the Japanese perceive bathing as a great social leveler: company presidents rub naked shoulders with truck drivers, priests with publicans and all revel in the anonymity that nudity allows.     



                                                            ONSEN ETIQUITTE

The Japanese hot-spring O-FURO is blissfully free of the rules and regulations that make life a minefield of potential societal gaffes for the average Japanese citizen.  No doubt this liberation from the strictures of polite society is what makes it so popular.  The first-time-naked gaijin needn't be intimidated once the basics have been mastered.

Soap is a commodity kept as far from the bath water as possible.  Have a rinse in the adjacent shower.  If there's no shower, squat on one of the Lilliputian stools provided and ladle hot water over your body, using one of the available buckets, while outside the bath.  Then gracefully ease yourself into the water,   Incidentally, stealing someone else's bucket or stool while they are soaking is officially frowned upon but, in fact, seems to be an undeclared national pastime. 


One should endeavor to slip into the water with the minimum of disturbances, not unlike a cherry blossom petal delicately slipping into a moonlit Kyoto temple pond.  Doing a double-pike with a half-somersault into the ornamental stone bath might impress your traveling companions, but not only will it result in cerebral hemorrhaging as you strike cranium to bath-bottom, it will mean instant social death - blood in the bath water is a strict no-no.

In the event that the water is hot enough to strip the skin off a rhino, it is perfectly acceptable to do a reverse long-jump action, although if you can slowly ease yourself into the superheated water, grimacing is positively encouraged.  If you accompany your facial contortions with a long drawn out anguished 'achee, achEE, AAAcheeeee!" (hot, hooo-ot, HOOoo-ot), you will be considered a professional.

An essential piece of onsen equipment  is a 'modesty' towel to delicately cover your most private bits and pieces.  Once they are safely underwater, this useful item can be dipped in the water, rinsed out (outside the bath) and placed on your head, a la Northern England male beachgoer, circa 1958. This is rumored to prevent you from passing out (another minor social infringement).  In the more rural, single-sex baths, however, no one bothers with a modesty towel - bathers wibble and wobble around, starkers as the day they were born.

It's that simple.  And if you do commit a faux pas, most people are too busy forgetting work and looking forward to a night of karaoke to care. 


And in the event that you inadvertently FART, just try kyo tansan wa kitsui desu ne   (CARBONATION'S STRONG TODAY,ISN'T IT?)




                                                                      THE SENTO


A sento is a public bath house used mostly in local neighborhoods. They have existed for over 400 years in Japan, but a post-war construction boom in residential housing without bathing facilities or running water cemented the sento’s prominence in the community. Sento numbers are dwindling today as Japanese can now afford baths or showers in their own homes.  The Yomiuri Weekly newspaper reports that sento's are disappearing at the rate of one a day. Numbers peaked in 1964 at 23,016, but are currently at 8,422. For a class-conscious society, the sento has become an embarrassing reminder of an impoverished past, and as the ranks of Japan’s noveuau riche have continued to swell, an undeserved stigma has fallen upon those who patronize the humble sento; it has become the domain of the shitamachi (inner urban areas) and the industrial “working class” suburban sprawl. However, the sento remains a veritable oasis in many communities, especially in the suffocating summers and brass-monkey winters