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Talking with a Naked Yakuza

"…you look around and see you are not alone in the neighborhood: The prepubescent boy or girl scrubbing father’s back. The saggy old men lolling about, forcing you to face the inexorable effects of gravity on male body parts. The yakuza with his vibrant and fascinating tattoos, brooking stares from no one. The screaming kids and chattering women audible from the female side of the bathhouse (in stark contrast to the male side, where stolid silence is generally the status quo). And the soaped up shaving salaryman with fogged-up eyeglasses who seems to enjoy few things in life – except a smoke, a good meal with friends and family, maybe the occasional tryst with a co-worker, a professional or a casual. And this bath."

Japanese Only, Arudou Debito

Never will I ceased to be amazed by the bathing culture in Japan. This weekend wrapped up my first trip to Beppu (別府) in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu. Beppu, a city sitting on quite a large volcanic vein, is well known for its unique and various onsens (温泉): ranging from full mud baths, warm sand, scented waters, multi-colored waters, and traditional outdoor pools (called rotenburo, 露天風呂).

Although onsens create the occasional stir (i.e. concern over contagious people in a public area, and the Otaru Onsen lawsuit by foreign residents of Japan in 2001), they are still widely celebrated as some of the best places to relax in Japan. Relaxing after a long work day by enjoying a dip in the local hot spring. Taking the weekend to stay in a luxurious onsen hotel and never leave the premises. If the Japanese are a hard-working people, then they know exactly where to go after such stressful conditions, and how best to relax.

When I first heard about the concept of onsen in Japan, I didn’t think I would partake. Why? Because I was thinking like a stupid closed-minded foreigner. Sure, showering and cleaning yourself is a private activity, but who defines privacy? The Romans enjoyed public baths two thousand years ago, when they were considered the epitome of civilization. Japanese deserve the same consideration. Leave your modesty at the curtain.

How to behave in an onsen

The procedure varies slightly depending on where you go, but in most cases…

1. Entrance area. Pay a small fee (usually anywhere from 50-700 yen depending on how nice the onsen is) and remove your shoes. The onsen will have a coin or free key locker right next to the entrance, where you can exchange your shoes for onsen slippers or geta (wooden shoes). Head towards the main changing area, where you are divided up by gender unless it’s a group onsen. Remember:



2. Once you are in the group area or locker room, remove all your clothes. Lockers will be provided or there may just be a small wicker basket in which to place your personal items.

3. Entering the bath. Grab a small hand towel for use in the onsen. I know we’re more commonly taller and bigger as foreigners, but don’t take the full-sized bath towel inside. You’ll get to use it when you emerge. When you do enter the bath, you should see a showering area. Pull up a stool and clean yourself thoroughly with soap and shampoo. Rinse yourself off completely, and do not splash other people with water.

4. You are now ready to enter the first bath, the hottest bath. I doubt any of us need instructions at this point. All I can tell you is: don’t swim, don’t splash, and try not to get your hand towel in the water too often – set it on your head when you’re not walking around.

5. The order of baths goes – hot, warm, cold. Skip the cold if you like, and repeat as needed to ensure maximum relaxation. Many bigger onsens have options like electric baths, steam rooms, baths with cypress tree oils, and other specialties.

So how do you feel? Like you’ve submerged yourself in pure, wet, tasty sunlight. As if your spirit could be lifted a few inches from your body and felt by every essence of your being.

I can sort of relate to Arudou Debito in his qualms over exclusion at the onsens in Otaru; although I believe he was more concerned with the racial discrimination issues, I’m in the habit of seeing only the onsen side of the equation: these are places without barriers. Young and old, rich and poor, short and tall, yakuza and businessman, foreigner and Japanese… we all come here seeking the same destination. There’s no business, no stress, and no serious talk…

I’m enjoying the second round of soaking in the warm bath at Tanayu Onsen (棚湯) in the Suginoi Palace Hotel (スギノイパレス) when a most curious sight passes before me: a man with bright red tattoos covering his backside, showing no shame or embarrassment, entering the special steam room. Sidestepping a five-year-old girl (who might have been his daughter; I couldn’t tell), I proceeded to follow him; if nothing else, just to engage him in simple, relaxed conversation.

He was sitting upright near one of the walls, and started on me first:

"Doko kara? America?" (casual, where are you from)

"America kara. Shikashi ima Hiroshima ni sumimas."

We continued on for a few minutes with my limited vocabulary and his patience. I should point out that this particular steam room in Tanayu was shaped like an igloo; great design for holding in the vapor, terrible for echos. I finally had to give up and mutter that I couldn’t hear him too well with my listening skills combined with the bad acoustics. He nodded his head in understanding, and I left to submerge myself in the hot bath once again.

A yakuza (if he was one – I’m just basing that on tattoos). Many public baths and private clubs reject Japanese citizens if they have visible tattoos, commonly associated with the Japanese mofia, the yakuza. And yet no matter what his name or stance was in the outside world, he was no yakuza. I was no foreigner. We were two residents of Japan enjoying a soak. As it should be for all entering the world of the onsen.

Beppu, Japan

Tanayu Onsen (棚湯)

The Way of the Hot Springs – onsen in Beppu