the lure of a hot spring

Posted on Friday, February 25, 2011, under , ,

Japanese public bathing is sometimes referred to as hadaka no tsukiai (‘relationship in nude’). The idea is to lose clothes and forget about one’s age, status, background etc. Naked we are all equal. My recent visit to Arima onsen, located just north of Kobe city, was an opportunity to experience this relationship, or what Monthy Python’s Terry Jones, as a famous nude organist, once qualified as ‘two separate strands of existence, the essential nudity of man.’ And I came up with a poem which I am gladly sharing with you.


I am a double stranger here.
Here’s my Caucasian face
which by definition interferes
with the custom-held peace.

And here is my alien body.
So I play a double of myself,
a hairy-chest version in a documentary
hastily titled ‘In Pursuit of Health’.

I must heed the spa’s etiquette
to avoid that extra bit of attention –
how to arrange clothes in a basket,
how to undress in slow motion.

Guided by instinct and common sense
I screen my member by a hand towel,
take a splash in some suspense,
perch on the bath-edge like an owl,

then casually slide into hot bubbles –
all of which a called for attitude.
Here, no one’s asking for trouble.
They invest in relationships in nude.

At first, every ripple seems sacred.
Every leg movement, each glance,
each spatter down to a droplet:
that’s how begins a bath romance.

I get bolder as body gets warmer.
I move into an enormous teacup
in whose faintly green corner
a camomile bag bobs up.

Then it’s a kinsen, the iron bath.
It sports a kidney bean colour
and I want to laugh
as I fart into its rusty splendour.

I slip into a transparent ginsen
yielding to its smell of bleach
as long as I’m able to discern
my own foot within reach.

But after a while the mind
gives in to visions in the heat:
a man’s bald, jagged behind
I construe as a Hellenic sculpt.

Soon I arrive at a melting point
that reels me about like a drunk:
scorched, gutted, dehydrated –
head, limbs and trunk.

I slump on a deck-chair
and watch my wilted self steam
in the winter air.
At last stripped of self-esteem

I lie here god knows how long
under the cold twilight sky.
Only now I yearn to belong,
my social ineptitude to justify

and it’s to do with a mere gesture
like my refusal to stare,
or adopting a posture
of a foreign, ignorant bear.

Sadly, it is time to leave
at this most defenceless hour.
I hope that all of us believe
that after our exit shower,

taken in front of everyone
and no one in particular,
each of us will have done
our best to absolve the other.

We imparted our scruples
to the water. The water
changed us back to mortals,
by this much lighter.
February 13th, 2011

Here are some photos of hot springs in Japan from the past. I always find historical photos vastly appealing. They evoke a sense of harmony, at times mystery and lost innocence, and most of all the unspoilt, uncluttered beauty of people, buildings, artefact. These particular images appear to be in public domain, and come from, a lovely site dedicated to old photos/postcards of Japan. There are dozens and dozens of them: to browse more photos click on the fifth button from the top, then click on the picture of a ship. The site is both in English and Japanese.

 Hakone Dogahisma Onsen

                                                                        Noboribetsu Onsen

                                                   Kinosaki Onsen, c. 1910

Click on photos to enlarge.

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1 Reply to "the lure of a hot spring"

  • Shanae Buckner on 18 January 2012 at 03:41

    There's something quite fascinating about old pics like the three you posted. They provide a good view of the past, something that's close to the history books or personal accounts. It would have been wonderful if cameras existed way earlier.

    Anyway, it must have been an interesting experience to be a foreigner enjoying the customs of another culture. It does seem pretty shocking for some to bathe in hot springs like that with so many people, but I suppose in time, it gets comfortable like the hot water.