Teaching In Socks

Naked and Confused
March 25, 2010, 4:02 pm
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During my “blog blackout” last month I made a short weekend trip to Kurayoshi in Tottori prefecture. Tottori prefecture is on the North side of Honshu (the Japanese “mainland”) and to get there I had to take the Super Hakuto train north, all the way across the island. I had never traversed the country from North to South before and it was quite interesting to watch the shifts in the landscape outside the window.

When foreigners list things they associate with Japan, the shifting landscape probably isn’t high on the list. This is unfortunate, because it’s kind of spectacular.  The numerous and lengthly tunnels couple with the quick progression from plains to field to mountains to coast line resembles the ride at Epcot–you know, in the good way, minus the space part and the talking Presidents.

I started in Aioi, along the coast of Seto Inland Sea, where it was cool and sunny. Within twenty minutes on the train the horizon was filled with sharp, gray mountain peaks and snow-blanketed fields. A handful of stops later, I was back again at sea-level, passing the famous sand dunes of Tottori and traveling alongside the Sea of Japan as waves crashed against the shore.

The abrupt transitions reminded me that I wasn’t in America. Back home it often always seems like you have to travel for days or jump on plane for the scenery to change significantly.

I headed to Tottori with my fiancée and her family for two reasons: Onsens (natural hot springs) and Crab meat. I can’t speak for the rest of Japan (although I think I do) but here in Hyogo, heading North to eat crab and sit in scorching hot water are a winter tradition.

Onsens have always kind of freaked me out. While Japanese culture highly values privacy, the notion of natural purity seems to supersede it. What I really mean is; at most onsens you are required to bath in them naked. There is usually a number of pools connected to the hot spring and they separate the men’s side and women’s side. Thus, when I go with my girlfriend, this basically leaves me stranded in terms of having a cultural consultant. Normally, I can hold my own, but onsens complicate the situation there is a strict code of etiquette at the onsens, (that involves bathing at certain times, not having tatoos and so forth) that is designed to maintain the purity of the water.

Now, I can get past the nudity (barely), and as you might have noticed from reading this blog, I have a wealth of experience in dealing with social faux pas. However, the one thing I dread is committing a faux pas while naked. Naked faux pas are like the sixth of Faux Paws hell (I saw six because I there must a be a seventh circle that I don’t want to–and hopefully am unable to–imagine).  Also, any transgressions is compounded by the fact that I am a foreigner– it’s not like I can blend in the with crowd or hope that an incident will slip anyone’s notice.

Now, I imagine that you, the reader, are anticipating some ripe and juicy story where I do something offensive and am chased down the streets, running to the embassy buck-naked.  Unfortunately, I have to disappoint you. I lucked out. First, we were traveling on a Sunday and Monday so the ryokan (Japanese style hotel) was fairly empty. In fact, at night I had the whole men’s side of the onsen, with four different onsens–two indoor and two outdoor, to myself. I could have swam laps ( sort of did, I ran around and jumped in every onsen for no explicable reason). The second day, I stumbled upon a poster in the changing room that outlined the proper onsen etiquette. For those interested it’s:

Step 1: Take a shower

Step 2: Get in the onsen.

Step 3: Don’t splash around or swim. Don’t eat food, don’t drink, don’t put your washcloth in the onsen, it’s uncouth.

Step 4: Chill out, you’re in mineral rich hot spring water. It’s one of the few benefits of living on top of a bunch of volcanoes.

Getting that sussed out helped make the weekend more relaxing. In between going to the onsen and eating the largest crab meal I have ever had we had a chance to go to a Yakuza-run arcade (classy and retro) and walk along the river–which held an outdoor all-male public onsen. I’m not sure what the protocol is on the outdoor onsen, but I bet it’s a bit too European for me.