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Looking around Do you know that kids show 'Go outside' with the woman and her collie in the biplane? I took her message very much to heart.

The Onsen in the storm

JAPAN | Monday, 30 July 2018 | Views [368]

It has rained all day today. Being the UK that shouldn’t be even worthy of mention, but it is the relieving cleanse of heavy rain after an uneasy prolonged heatwave, so with relief I say, it has rained all day today. Whenever it rains now, I mean really rains, I think of my trip to Asia. It may rain often in the UK but it rarely rains well. It rains lightly forever, half committed to drowning us all in a lazy, self-obsessed, melancholy way. In Asia when it rains, it rains with dedication. It rains because it needs to rain, and if we drown, so be it. That was my experience of rain in Kuala Lumpur. A torrent of rain fell on the sauna like streets in almost literal buckets. The dry dusty tarmac turned into a gushing river in mere minutes. I walked 10 paces from the metro station to the Hindu temple at the end of the street where my hostel was and I have never been so wet in my life. It fell from the eaves of the buildings like a waterfall. It hammered the corrugated plastic roof of the walkway like bullets. And then 30 minutes later, the streets were dusty again, as if the rain had been a complete hallucination. But today’s rain was nothing like that, nor any rain that I have witnessed since. The grey sky and the serene Sunday mood reminded me of the rain in Japan. Elodie always says that the rain here is a pale imitation of the rain in Japan, and it is the only real time that she longs for Japan I think. It also makes me long for Japan, and long for one specific day in Japan. I mean, honestly, I wasn’t exactly there for many days- a grand total of 5 in April 2017- but I remember this day like I remember few days in my life.

It was the end of my trip to Asia. I had been to KL, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh and Hong Kong. I left Anna many days ago and had been alone to stew in my sadness for a while. I was excited to be in Japan but mostly to have company again. However, Elodie and I, close friends as we were, had never been alone together before and when I first arrived I was a bit unsure how this would go, whether I would feel as lonely as I had been. Such a statement now is laughable it is so ridiculous. There is no one in the world who knows me like Elodie knows me, and there is no one in the world I feel so completely able to be my true internal self around as Elodie, and honestly I believe it stems from that day in the rain in Kyoto.

Elodie’s family were also visiting her at the same time as me, so even with my trepidations I knew I would be surrounded by people I could talk to, whether I was lonely or not. It was also the first time I had met her family, but that did not worry me. I care very little for what my own family thinks of me, let alone everyone else’s, and either my lack of pretention warms them to me, or everyone is extremely polite and deceitful, because my friend’s families seem to like me, without much effort on my part. She has two younger sisters, the perpetually unmoved and vaguely fed up Pippa, who seems always a little unimpressed with everyone, as if she sees through all the bullshit to your inner soul, and the curious and carefree, totally alive older one, who I both see myself in and wish I was more like at the same time. Her parents are exactly as she had described them. All of them didn’t seem to mind a bit that I had invaded their reunion with their daughter who had been away for 9 months, and for that I will always be very grateful. We met outside a vegan restaurant on the other side of Kyoto. They were late because the girls had stopped at a vintage shop to buy a retro jacket and an unknown Japanese instrument that looked a bit like a psalter. The vegan restaurant was for my benefit, as finding food without meat was pretty difficult everywhere in Asia, but here was impossible. After dinner we went to the Kyoto castle to watch a light show celebrating the end of the spring festival and the blooming of the sakura. It was beautiful but extremely crowded. Everyone loves a good picture of the sakura. Amy people watched an awkward couple of teenagers behind us that were obviously on a date, cringing and silently trying to encourage them to actually talk.

The next day we had planned to go to Arashiyama, a town just outside Kyoto, to go to an Onsen. We had promised we would go to an Onsen when I visited and Elodie picked out the best one she could find. An Onsen for those of you who don’t know is the strange red emoji of the circle with three lines of heat coming off of it, or a hot spring public bath. Like a spa, but in Asia that level of luxury is called communal personal hygiene, not an extra special, and expensive, day out with the girls. We had roped her mum into coming with us, and convinced her dad and sisters to wander around Ararshiyama as they waited. The name Arashiyama means ‘Storm Mountain’. I practice the Japanese martial art of Jiu Jitsu (really) and we have a move called Yama Arashi, which means the same but the opposite I suppose, ‘Mountain storm’ which is a move for defending against a samurai sword, where you get in front of them, facing the same way, grab their wrists, put your shoulder under their shoulder and kick their leg from underneath them so they fall dramatically to the floor and you don’t impale yourself on a katana. I think they just wanted a cool sounding name for what is a pretty cool throw- I mean there is a katana involved (even if so far I’ve only been attacked by wooden ones) and everyone knows katanas are pretty damn cool, just like mountains and storms- whatever order they happen to be in. This information is not at all necessary to the story but it’s a fun fact, and I think the fact that they kind of almost named a martial arts move after this place reflects the general atmosphere of it. It is a touristy, in the pretence of being traditional, town at the foot of wide river and a sudden tree covered small mountain. It is imposing, powerful but serene and controlled, and ultimately, artful. It is also an accurate name in another sense. It rained all day. Not like Malaysian rain, more like a very heavy British downpour- like the best day of rain we would get, is just a normal day of rain in Japan. It was humid in Asia and yesterday Japan had been above 30 degrees, so suffice to say Melissa, Elodie’s mother, and I had not packed for the rain. Luckily Elodie had umbrellas, but only two. I, enjoying the cleansing caress of the rain, sacrificed my body, my canvas shoes and my denim jacket to the rain. In my mind this was going to be a day of bodily cleansing anyway, so the rain only added more gravitas and pseudo spiritual drama to the occasion. Melissa was slightly less happy about the rain, and Elodie was content to get soaking wet in the name of the destination.

The Onsen was 20 minutes across town. We would get wet there was no doubt but Elodie was determined and I was excited to continue my heartbroken white girl story with a ritualistic, mystic rebaptism. The walk was not difficult though it did seem much longer than 30 minutes. Perhaps it was that our every step relied on google maps, going down the twisty-turny narrow backstreets, the hard rain or the fact that Melissa had to stop a few times because her shoes plus the water were cutting into her feet, that made it seem so long. Watching Elodie interact with her mother, was like an outer body experience, as if I was watching me and my own mother. Funny how what infuriates us in our family is hardly a thing to bat an eye at in someone else’s. Eventually though, we arrived. The building was big and wooden and looked very grand and traditional. But the door was closed, and Elodie frowned. She went to the door and read a sign, “closed every 3rd Monday of the month” I can’t remember her exact reaction but it was probably something like “OH FOR GOD’S SAKE” but probably more like a “WHAT!”, I think only I still say oh for gods sake. Either way she was that classic British mix of angry, disappointed, outraged and somehow cynically unsurprised.

We didn’t know what to do except go back to the tourist town at the mountain and hope her dad and sisters had not moved very far, since they had no wifi or data or signal to be contactable. Luckily we walked even faster, so fast I really do not remember the return journey at all; we basically ran. Luckily again they had not even left the souvenir shop we had deposited them in 30 minutes ago. So we regrouped and tried to decided what to do. We wandered around the shop, I bought a badge that said “Time is not real, we all die” or something like that, it still lives on my backpack. We decided to look around for a bit, having travelled on the bus to get here. We braved the rain and went to what Arashiyama is famous for, the bamboo forest. It was less of a forest, more of a bamboo zoo. The bamboo was behind fences that lined a tarmac path full of mostly Japanese tourists. Still it was pretty cool, and I very much enjoyed the House of Flying Daggers vibe. After that we went for lunch. In Japan they have this weird custom of having plastic replicas of the dishes they serve in the window rather than just a menu. It kind of makes you feel like you’re a doll in a doll house, not helped by the fact that their buildings are small and made of wood and their movements seem overly polite and rigid, like they have a limited range of movement in their joints. But maybe I am remembering things a bit too caricatured. This story is all from memory. I didn’t keep a diary at this time, too distracted by my companions and too jaded from my own self pitying, forlorn tone and preoccupation with my own shame, desperation and rejection. I had Udon soup, that being basically the only thing I could eat. After that we left Storm Mountain, having had enough of the storm and not enough of the mountain. I don’t know if it was at this point or if it was decided earlier as soon as we couldn’t get into the other Onsen, but for the benefit of dramatic narrative I’ll say, on the bus home, Elodie remembered that there was another small local Onsen close by to her place. She was pretty done with the idea of going to the Onsen at all but I, uncharacteristically, told her not to be so downhearted so easy. I wasn’t invested in that specific Onsen, any Onsen would do. Furthermore, I have travelled enough to know that planning with the expectation of success is a fool’s game, and readjusting to disappointment is the only route to satisfaction. Even furthermore, I wasn’t giving up on my damn grand narrative so easily. That whole episode with the Onsen in Arashiyama is one of the rare occasions that I had not had even the vague inclination to give into despair. On a trip so preluded by despair I was surprised. Was I growing? Was I learning? Was I just not really that bothered by a walk in the rain? Who can say.

So once we were back in Kyoto we dropped the girls and the boy at their hotel and walked around the corner to the small Onsen in a back alley. It was, to me, even better aesthetically than the last one. It was in a small courtyard, but generally smack bang in a residential area. The doorway was covered by a white draped cloth with Japanese symbols written in hand painted script. It was already evening so the lamps were lit either side of the door and it glowed invitingly on the dark street. You could almost see the steam rising out the door, drawing you in with the promise of a warm bath and rest for our damp bodies and our tired feet. That doorway had nothing which suggested that it was from the 21st century; for a second we were timeless, we were far out of the world, as one often feels in Kyoto in its monuments and secluded corners, if you ignore the modernity and tourists you can glean in your peripheral vision. We entered, the protagonists in a studio Ghibli, half expecting to be greeted by giant frogs in kimonos or at least a spirit goddess or something. Instead it was a woman at a desk who gave us each a small rectangular yellow towel, not big enough to wrap around anything, in exchange for the money we gave her. You could also buy soap and things but didn’t, I think we had brought our own. So we ventured into the doorway for women on the right hand side of a wooden partition, and we got undressed. Keep in mind I met Elodie’s mother yesterday, and despite being best friends with Elodie had not seen her in 9 months, and had never even seen her in her underwear. I used to be so English about nudity. It was a thing for children and Europeans only. But Kate and American Anna had been so open about nudity in first year and on our travels in Italy that I had grown to realise my attitudes were pathetically childish rather than civilised. Also, having to get dressed into a gi (fancy white pyjamas that fools who think they’re samurai wear to throw their friends on the floor without ripping their gym shirts) three or four times a week just takes way too long if your trying to manoeuvre in a toilet cubicle or slip a sports bra over the top of another bra, so girls with as many body issues as you, though you know from your sly glances you’re pretending not to have that they have no reason to have because damn if the boys next door could see the bodies underneath those cotton potato sacks they’d find it difficult to get so close without their minds wandering, don’t see your boobs. Elodie was moving towards rejecting our ridiculous hang ups about nudity too, and in fact we had been excited about the Onsen for almost this reason- it was a symbolic of our sisterhood and our rejection of internalised shame about our female bodies, because we actually do think and discuss and care about such abstract rebellion- but for her mum this was an uncomfortable and nervous occasion. Still she bravely, yet hesitatingly, got head to toe naked in front of her 20 year old daughter and her friend she met yesterday. The changing room was full of other white women, tourists by the amount of body tattoos (myself included) getting naked, though not being English it wasn’t such an enlightening moment. In more strict, traditional Onsens tattoos are forbidden, or at least you are forced to cover them up with a plaster or something. Tattoos were symbolic of membership in the Yakuza, and since they wished to keep peace in the public baths they normally preferred not to let the Yakuza in. Since this Onsen was full mainly of tourists their policy was considerably more laxed- to my disappointment honestly.

The main room of the Onsen, beyond the locker room, was also gender segregated though not all Onsens are. It was a small tiled room, not much different from what you would find in any spa or swimming centre. There was a sauna at the back with a freezing cold dip pool outside the door, a bigger pool on the left side of the room, with a section marked ‘medicine bath’ and another marked ‘electric bath’ and the right hand side was just rows of small dressing tables, with a mirror and a bucket thing to sit on as a seat, where you were supposed to actually bathe yourself with water before and after relaxing in the pools.

We followed the two or three actual Japanese women and poured cups of water over ourselves. Immediately Elodie and I were fascinated by the naked adult women. We looked at each of them, securely, confidently, nonchalantly, washing themselves. Every body was individually beautiful; no one looked bad, or ugly, though some had bigger nipples, droopier or larger breasts, hairy bodies or wider hips and skinnier waists, there was not one woman I was not impressed by, and lightly envious of, in some way. I thought, if I were sexually attracted to women, there was not one that I would not whole heartedly appreciate. As it was, there was not a single murmur of sexuality in the air. This wasn’t a shower scene in a movie, there was no male gaze polluting the air with selfish desire or stylised erotic expression, gesture or tone. This was 6 or 7 human women bathing. Never in my life have I felt so safe, so secure and so satisfied with my body. Me and Elodie simultaneously dreamed of the Amazonian paradise that could be if only there was no men; no men to judge our bodies, to rank us and set us against each other, to penetrate deeper with their insidious eyes than they or we could ever dream they could with any other body part, stripping us beyond the skin and yet seeing nothing but skin at the same time, to fuck us and break our hearts. Of course, Elodie’s mum, not the ardent feminists we are, did not agree outwardly with our dreaming, though I think undoubtedly, she was happy the atmosphere was so relaxed whether or not that was because it was sans homme. Admittedly, it was the lack of sexual desire and gaze we felt momentarily liberated from, not necessarily the absence of penises. We talked of our bodily anxieties, the things about ourselves that we had despised and been ashamed to show others until this moment, and as much as we detoxified our bodies we detoxified our self-esteem.

We bathed in each pool, even the strange ‘electric’ one which had a small electric current running through it that you could somehow feel under your skin in an exciting and unsettling way. There was also another pool outside, small, a few steps off the ground and sheltered by a wooden veranda in a tiny courtyard. It was still raining quite heavily but in the pool you were safe. The light from inside seeped gently through the paper doors and windows of the building. It was strange being out of the rain but still submerged in water. It was almost unearthly, as if we had parted the rain clouds around our heads as we bathed like Diana and her nymphs. You were technically outside but it wasn’t cold. The water was warm and the air was still slightly humid. The rain fell on the little water feature that was opposite the pool. A statuette of a Japanese goddess was pouring a jug of water into a pond. The soft but strong sound of the rain hitting the ground blocked out any outside worldly noises. It soothed the soul as music does the beast.

We sat quietly, talking intermittently about women and bodies. I just wanted to sit in that pool, listening to the rain for the rest of my life. I felt like when we left this Onsen 100 human years would have past. Really it was only about an hour. We reluctantly put on our clothes, our mortal female identity and our anxieties (hopefully minus a few) and returned to the present human world. We collected the others from the hotel. They had passed the time in peace as well, Amy was trying to figure out how to play a tune on her new instrument, Pippa sat quietly with a raised eyebrow.  We headed out for dinner to a local Chinese restaurant. We ate a hearty feast set out on one of those circular tables with the smaller spinny circle in the middle. The Chinese woman remembered Elodie from her first visit almost a year before, and she smiled enthusiastically when I ventured to try out my long lost mandarin to say goodbye. We were back in the real world, but for me something was a little different, not much, but a little bit purer. We said goodbye to Elodie’s family, they were leaving early to catch their flight home in the morning, so it was a farewell I was again intruding on, but no one seemed to care. I would miss them all though I had only known them a few hours really. I would also be leaving Elodie and Kyoto tomorrow to catch the superfast train to Tokyo. The whole day seemed to sense our impending separation and eventual return to the west, and sought to slow us down with the rain.

 Instead of going back to Elodie’s shared house, we did one more thing we had promised we would do in Japan together- we went to sing private karaoke. We stashed a bottle of sakura sake in our bag that we had impulsively bought from a very attractive guy at a food stall at the castle the night before, who sadly seemed absolutely unmoved by our presence and sold it to us without subtracting or adding a single drop of charm. We sang the most cheesy and therapeutic songs we could find (we are talking ‘I’ll make a man out of you’, ‘I will always love you’ and ‘I will survive’ songs of desperate determination) and got merry on the sake.

I think it had finally stopped raining at this point, and we walked down the still and silent streets of Kyoto, cleansed internally and externally. And now whenever it rains I think of that day, and the peace and comfort I felt to the very bone and even deeper. And I long to be in the that Onsen in Japan, watching the rain hit the water feature, and feeling nestled in the arms of the public bath, like the jug in the arms of that stone goddess, hidden and safe in a secret world at the centre of the city.

Tags: arashiyama, female empowerment, japan, kyoto, onsen



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