It’s interesting how you can go from just meeting someone to being totally naked with them in the space of a few hours. Ladies, ladies, don’t get in a huff — your femen-centric minds are misleading you —I wasn’t with fuk-u and fuk-mi. I was in an après-ski onsen with some new friends I had made on the slope from Niigata city. Yes — dudes. Actually, I didn’t even know until today that onsen were segregated and nude. I figured it was just a big hot tub slash sake party. Well… life is a learning process.
Today was my second day of skiing at Myoko Kogen in Niigata prefecture just north of Nagano. I had just finished a nice conversation with an older man in his late 60s, who was retired, but working as a Japanese instructor, skiing during the winter, and playing tennis during the summer, when I went to see if I could get a private ski lesson. The guy at the counter didn’t speak English so so well, but a nice young woman was kind enough to help with translating. Note: she had a slight Aussie accent — it always cracks me up when ESL have a Scottish, English, or Aussie accent, somehow I just think they should all sound like Californians. Anyways, the result of the translation was come back later gaijin, but I ran into her and her friends, 5 of them altogether, while scarfing down a bowl of ramen on the slopes. She had learned English in Brisbane and spoke well, so we chatted up, and I skied with them from the rest of the day. It was loads of fun (たのしかったね), and then they invited me to go to onsen.
I have a history with heat-related relaxation. James and I used to hit the sauna fairly often and have epic conversations — we also went to an amazing public bath complex, Stadtbad Neukölln, in Berlin, that is, just by the way, nude and co-ed. Open air hot baths in Budapest, hamamı in Istanbul, and onsen in Japan… the list goes on dear reader. This was my first time at an onsen so I didn’t exactly know the protocol. Here’s the breakdown: you get a big towel and a small towel; get naked and put your stuff in a basket; bring the small towel with you and leave the big one; head over to the line of stools, hunker down, and wash yourself with the provided shower heads; once you’re good and rinsed, pop into the onsen. This particular place had an indoor pool that was about 40 degrees plus another pool outside. Now forty degrees isn’t too hot but they did also have a 90 degree sauna, which is awesome. And for that après-onsen comedown, why not hit the manga library upstair? Yes, there were in fact 4 aisles of densely packed manga sorted by series and sofa chairs for reading. I perused the selection and while remarking on the breadth of manga available, availed myself to the comic with the most scantily clad and impossibly proportioned woman on the cover — to my chagrin might I add: it was entirely PG. The considerate producers of the manga comic did include the pronunciation of the Kanji in Hiragana, so I could at least pronounce the words even if I didn’t understand them.
To end another day of ceaseless suffering, I went to my favourite Izakaya, Izakaya Pontaro, literally stumbling distance from my spartan hotel for the third night in a row. The couple that run the place are very very very nice. The husband enjoys telemark skiing, the wife doesn’t like skiing at all, they have two dogs, and visit their hometown in Kyushu every May which takes them two days by car. After my prerequisite pint of super cold Japanese draught and a few of their superb home-cooked dishes, the wife reminded me I had wanted to order the sake sampler… well, OK, if I must! Three glasses of slightly distinguishable sake later, they poured another one on the house, I would like to say because they enjoyed our conversation so much, but probably because I was their only customer.
Japan truly is the best place on Earth to visit. Come one, come all, unless you’re Australian, then stay effing put.
* Instead of fuk-u and fuk-mi, I was going to reference Zen Zen Chigau and Uso Bakkari from Hitching Rides with Buddha but it seemed a bit obscure.