Bathing with Naked Men. Woohoo!

Numata, Japan. planetross certainly knows how to show a girl a good time… One morning, he put me in the van and announced we would go bathe at a very special outdoor hot springs: Takaragawa. Public bathing in Japan appears almost like a lifestyle and a great social equalizer. The anonymity of nudity allows the street sweeper to rub elbows with the business big wig. Ross, I think, is addicted.

onsen-ticket006My ticket!

Most of the Japanese Onsens (hot springs) are gender segregated but this particular one is co-ed. The rotunburo (outdoor onsen) has four different basins located on each side of the river. The basin’s size is expressed in number of tatami mats; the Kodakara-no-yu is the largest outdoor bathing area and measures 200 mats (I even think it is in the Guinness Book of Records.) Japanese translations never fail to crack me up and the English version of the Onsen brochure describes the Kodakara in the following suspicious manner: “It is possible to take a bath at ease even in the female because it is wide.” Ross did not attempt to do so. In retrospect, I feel slightly slighted. ;-)

takaragawa-onsen-06-icoNot my photograph! Cameras are forbidden.

The facility, tucked away in the mountain, was breathtakingly beautiful. Unfortunately, on the path to the ticket counter, a few small cages with miserable looking bears. I averted my gaze. The adjacent hotel advertises Bear Soup. Sometimes, it’s better not to ask questions.

In a typical onsen, you disrobe, go sit on a little stool, and thoroughly wash yourself before entering the basin, but at Takaragawa, they apparently trust that you’ve showered before leaving home. Men and woman have separate changing rooms. Guys receive a modesty towel which is actually a very modest towel and is supposed to hide their bits and pieces as they move around between basins. Woman, on the other hand, are supposed to wrap themselves in a much much bigger towel and keep it on at all times. Towels are generally frowned upon in the water but apparently the rule at Takaragawa is for the women to stay modest (unless they bathe in the special ladies area).

takaragawa-onsen-07-ico1Once again, sorry, not my picture.

I emerged from the changing room and spotted Ross (modesty towel over his head as is the usage) in the water already in great conversation with another gaijin (foreigner.) I put a foot in the water and gasped at how incredibly hot the water was (the brochure states between 109 and 158 degrees!) While feeling on the verge of being poached, I practiced a nonchalant look as I made my way towards Ross. Death before ridicule, that’s my motto! His buddy gaijin, an American professor, had the slanted eyes of people that have resided in Japan for a long time and he was CREEPY. I was glad when Ross suggested we tried another basin on two levels: one, I wanted to get away from the professor, and two, I was about to faint.

We moved to another bath area, and ten minutes later, the creepy professor followed us, and entered the basin with a slip and an unfortunate head dive. A stunning faux-pas although I’m quite sure he did not mean it considering the way he was choking and spitting water. We moved to the basin across the river. Soaking in the slightly sulfurous hot water, perching yourself on a stone before passing out, the sound of the river in the background, most men walking around all naked, all of these factors contributed to make the experience unique and almost surreal. The best part though is the aftermath: the complete relaxation that ensues. Wow!

bonse_005The Buddha at the exit of the Takaragawa Onsen

On the way back, I made Ross stop every five minutes to take in the scenery.

onse_007Rice Field with nice tombs

Tombs in Japan do not always belong to cemeteries. You’ll find them on the side of the road, in the middle of a rice field…

bonse_009Tombs in someone’s yard

onse_018A statue in the middle of exactly nowhere

bonse_019A monkey and her baby on the side of the road

Ross does NOT like monkeys.

onse_021You may live in a small mountain village but that ain’t no reason not to be stylin’

onse_020Avant-guarde vegetable transportation

onse_025A bric-a-brac shop on the side of the road

bonse_030O Surprise! A Japanese Manneken Pis! Of all the things to export from Belgium… Really!

bonse_031Old ad

bonse_026Another old ad with a deja vu feel to it

onse_027A Pachinko machine

Japanese people play Pachinko in parlors. While the game is not considered gambling for historical reasons, the parlor employees are forbidden from telling players where they can exchange their prizes for cash. They’ll have to figure out this one on their own.

tuepm_001Parlor sign in Numata

The devices used to purely mechanical (like the one featured above), but most machines are now digital. The odds of winning on each individual machines are decided by parlor employees and can be changed. These manipulations are tolerated by local police as long as done outside of business hours. As far as Pachinko etiquette, you should do okay as long as you don’t touch someone else’s balls and do not grab a machine where a player has left a pack of cigarette or other personal possession (sign they are holding the machine.)

onsen_001Ross in the mountain daisies

And so we headed back to town, all sulfury smelling, water wrinkled like Sharpeis, and very very mellow. We had a photographic appointment with Kelly Pettit and his family. I’m sold to Onsens. The outside ones anyway. I don’t think I’d like the Sentos (inside public baths) quite as well.

If I may add, not to be difficult, but I’d rather soak with a towel over my head too.

11 responses to “Bathing with Naked Men. Woohoo!

  1. “Death before ridicule, that’s my motto! ”
    I know what you mean, I remember drinking a bottle of Tabasco just to prove…hmm…what was it again… Well, there you go, but there was no ridiculing I tell you that. Though ‘things’ got nastier after that one.

    P.S. Perhaps a complaint to the Belgian chamber of commerce is really in order :)

  2. Naked guys in the title and I STILL couldn’t not look! This is how good you are! And much to my pleasant surprise…no naked pictures! Nice! Once again…very beautiful shots H.

  3. I think I would live there. The idea of soaking in near boiling water until I passed out sounds like heaven.

    I don’t know how I’d like the co-ed naked bathing though. It’s not that I’m a modestly freak, but I think it would be more relaxed. No worries if your tackle was hanging out and no need to worry about keeping strict eye contact. I think having the opposite sex around would just make it a little less relaxing. That being said, I dearly wish I could have gone with you guys!

    -Turkish Prawn

  4. Great photos and narrative; I felt like I was really there!
    That is my favourite onsen, but I don’t get there that often. Onsens are great; although it took me a few years to really start liking them.

    Turkish Prawn: I usually visit one once a week. Weekday mornings are usually quiet with just a few old guys chilling out. Weekends are too busy and you have to wait for a bucket to shower on.

    Nathalie: I’m glad you finally saw monkeys!

  5. When I lived in Tokyo (for a year) I used to go to the sento every day. It’s amazing how social it becomes as people get used to seeing you everyday without your clothes on.

    My flat mates (an Englishman and a Canadian) and I used to quite often end up afterwards on the streets with the locals, we met in the sento, eating soba from a street hawker or drinking in a little bar drinking sake.

    Public bath houses really help build up a sense of community and I’d recommend them to anyone visiting Japan as a quick way to get into Japanese culture.

  6. Thanks for all your comments and Happy Sunday Day! ;-)

    grasswire: some people recommend to put Tabasco Sauce on everything. You simply one-upped them. With dire consequences I’m sure… but don’t want to know.

    Alan: thanks. I’m sure you looked thinking I was probably naked too. ;-)

    TP: no worries about the tackle hanging out. All the guys do it. No one cares. No one looks. It’s completely non-sexual and I feel quite sure you would have felt comfortable with your bits and pieces flopping in the air within a few minutes.

    planetross: thanks again for taking me. :-) Definitely one of the gazillion highlights of my visit.

    Razz: sento and sake would not be a very productive combo for me! Looking back, I think that going regularly to the sento is probably the best way to feel the Japanese culture. Japanese people are very private and the communal cleansing and bathing may be the best way to get close. While all the people I met there were very nice to me, my feeling is that it is difficult for foreigners to integrate the Japanese society.

  7. Hooray! We’re back on Nathalie’s Vagi-van Tour of The Land of The Rising Sun! Tune in here for more naked men, creepy ex-pats, monkey moms and tips on how to get out of (and into) hot water.
    I’m loving this series!

  8. Another vision of Japan- so ethereal, so exotic, so sulfur-y, so towel centric.

    The closest I’ve been to that kind of wet sulfur is at Arendal Volcano in Costa Rica. That rising heat, the smell in your nose and how it knocks the stuffing right out of you is an experience to remember.

    Beautiful photos Nathalie.

  9. Beautiful series mevrouw Nathalie. I love the Japan photographs. I had expected some portraits, but instead you tease me with landscape photographs ;-)

    Re: Did those creatures die before you mowed your lawn or during?

  10. Epic: no more naked men, I’m afraid. Actually, the tour is almost over. :-(

    Bonnie: thanks. That onsen was only slightly sulfury… which is good because in all honesty, we drove near highly sulfury ones and they STUNK.

    Wouter: dank u well maar er was een portret! planetross is geen gehakte lever!
    Dog leaves dead critters all over the yard. I take no part in the murders; I am just the designated undertaker.

  11. Nice piccie of Ross. The real him, huh?

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