Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Adventures in Osaka: Lying naked in the rain

I'm outside in the rain, lying naked on my back, on a waterproof tatami mat with a towel placed strategically across my hips. It's raining, with the the water falling steadily on the wooden rooftop of the gazebo above me, and my friend, Ashleigh lays a few feet away, also naked, also with a towel strategically placed on her prone body. The night air is the perfect humidity, the perfect temperature and seemingly bug-free. We are at Spa World, a huge themed onsen in Osaka, Japan, and the only two caucasian women in the place.

Many Americans tend to avoid Japanese onsens, despite the relaxing atmosphere, because nudity is the norm. Although my spouse was a bit disappointed to hear it, the genders are separated - in Spa World's case, by floor - but, as most American women have come to realize, the thought of being naked with a bunch of judgmental women can be just as unnerving as the thought of being naked with a room full of appreciative men. Thanks to the Puritanical roots of our country's society we avoid nakedness in public as much as possible. And those of us who don't end up with some indecent exposure charges, but I am not naming any names.

Going to an onsen was not on my bucket list. I'm American enough to have hangups about walking around naked in front of strangers, or, worse yet, people I know, so, since my arrival in Japan nearly two years ago, I did not actively seek out opportunities to go to onsens. Flower and fertility festivals, yes. Onsens... mmm... no. But, when I am presented with something directly that freaks me out a little, I make myself put on my big girl pants and do it. Well, actually, in this case, I took my big girl pants off, but you get the idea.

My friend Ashleigh, and I both went on one of the base-offered weekend trips to the cities of Osaka and Kobe. Both of our husbands were out of town, so having a bus buddy is a fun way to explore places. A week before the trip, I ran in to Ashleigh at the commissary (like you do with everyone here) and she wanted to know what I had planned for our evening of free time in Osaka and afternoon of free time in Kobe. My answer: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Type A planner in me was going on vacation. I was willing to wing it. But Ashleigh had done some research: she wanted to go to Osaka Castle and have a Kobe beef meal. Sounded good to me, I agreed. And then she dropped the bomb:

"How do you feel about going to an onsen?"

Immediately my mind went to my heavy thighs and stretch marks and finding a way to back out of this conversation gracefully. But then the Tenacious Brave Big Girl Pants Wearer kicked in. After birthing two kids in a room full of strangers, this would be much less painful. I just needed to remember to shave. After all, the spouse had been out of town for a couple of weeks. And the experience would hopefully make some good blog fodder. Ashleigh explained that she had gone before and knew the rules and regulations of such establishments.

I replied: "I've never been to one, but if you can show me the etiquette, I'm all for it."

Fast forward 6 days, 8 hours and 17 minutes... or so.

It was 9:30 p.m. in Osaka. We just finished our steak dinner after waiting for over an hour to be seated at Outback Steakhouse. I had had two margaritas, Ashleigh one, and we were both quite tired. We had used the complicated subway system and walked a few kilometers to see the Osaka Castle,

and then used a complicated subway system to get lost on our way to Outback only to give up and flag down a taxi.... whose driver had no idea where Outback Steakhouse was and kicked us out of his cab. Thank goodness the second taxi driver we flagged down knew where we wanted to go. In all, though, the afternoon hadn't been easy, but not terrible, either. But two tasty margaritas, a bloomin' onion and a medium rare steak made life SOOO much better... better enough for me to want to go get naked in public in a societally accepted way... even if it wasn't necessarily my society.

After all, I had shaved for this.

I sold it to Ashleigh that we wouldn't have to shower once we got back to the hotel, we could just crawl in to bed and crash. Ashleigh was game, so we headed off to Spa World on the complicated subway system, which was much less complicated now that we had already navigated it twice.

Spa World's claim to fame is that it is huge, six stories tall, looks like a department store on the outside, and features a "world" theme: Asia and Europe. There are 5 other continents, but they don't count, I guess. Although the Antarctica floor would have been interesting with my lack of clothing. Regardless, Asia is on the 6th floor, Europe on the 4th, and it swaps between the genders. Women had Asia this month. Just look for the red signs and curtains. Women are red, men are blue. Japanese men wear pink, so the usual American choice of pink for girls would not work here.

After going to a vending machine near the Spa World front door to buy a ticket to the spa for 1,000 yen (about $10), we go to the registration desk where we learn that after midnight we will have to pay another 1,300 yen late night charge. Mind you, Spa World only closes from 8:30-10 a.m. for "inspection." It is now 11 p.m. Ashleigh is very bitter that we have to pay a late night charge, but I'm fine with $23 for a potentially life-changing experience. I pay more to go to a terrible movie and eat some terrible popcorn in the States. Let's do this thing.

In the locker rooms, there are, of course, lockers, but also towels, ugly pink dresses to wear as robes so you can walk from one floor to another without having to get dressed, and every toiletry needed to bathe or shower. Of course, there were no pink dresses in "Big OK" sizes, but that's OK... I wasn't planning to leave the relative safety of the 6th floor and I hate pink, anyway. We picked lockers, tossed in 100 yen (which would be returned to us when we returned the key, which was on a waterproof scrunchy keychain like retail store managers have) and started to strip.

The inside of my locker when I am naked.
Now, there is an important detail here. Onsens generally do not allow people with tattoos to enter. Japan is still old school and tattoos are mainly associated with the Japanese mafia, especially if you happen to have one of cherry blossoms. (Don't worry Brittani with an 'i,' if you have one... as long as you aren't of Asian descent, you will be fine as far as the mafia goes. If you are of Asian descent, Brittani, well... good luck to you.) Most Americans get around this by covering their tattoos up with band aids, but, depending on the number and size of tattoos you have, this can be a challenge. Both Ashleigh and I have tattoos (sorry, Grandma, but it's just a small one, where no one sees it unless I am naked, I promise), that, fortunately, are small enough to be covered with band aids. So, between Outback and Spa World, we stopped by the convenience store, Lawsons, and bought two boxes of band aids, just for this purpose. We were covered. Literally.

My tattoo that doesn't exist as far as the onsen and my grandmother are concerned.
But this was also why we had our towels strategically placed on our bodies in the rain. By the time we were laying outside on the waterproof tatami mat, I was no longer concerned about being naked. I just didn't want to waste my $23 by getting kicked out for my excessive band aid use. In fact, being naked was quite liberating and relaxing. Yes, I know this sounds cliche', and I rolled my eyes when I heard that, too. But it's true. NO ONE CARES. While Ashleigh and I were clearly to tallest people on the floor at 5'9" each, there were much older and saggier Japanese women in there who wandered around naked with confidence. And damn it, if they could do it, so could I. And while Ashleigh is about 10 years younger and 70 pounds lighter than me, she appears to be refreshingly nonjudgmental and easygoing. I JUST DID NOT CARE. Plus, if I hear any rumors about my dimply butt on this tiny base, there are only two people here who have seen it and I know where to find them both. One of them lives with me and Ashleigh has been duly warned. LOL. (Rodney, Ashleigh... I ended it with LOL so you know that I am joking. Mostly.)

Before we relaxed in the rain, there were several rooms to explore, with different pool temperatures, health benefits, themes and more. There was Japan (wooden pools and tatami mats), of course, and Bali (bubbling spa with fake palm trees), and Persia (large stone area with statues of what looked like Egyptian gods). There was a 40-degree Celcius salt sauna we were able to stand for about 5 minutes before we had to leave. There were four outdoor pools that grew increasingly warmer and this is where the tatami mat gazebo was. Seriously, that 30 minutes of laying on that mat, listening to the rain fall was probably one of the most relaxing times in my entire life. It was just so calm and tranquil without any restrictive clothing. It almost convinced me to become a nudist. Almost.

And, since it was so late there were maybe 20 people in the whole place, where the floor was clearly set up for hundreds. And there were two schools of native people: The ones who would almost immediately vacate the area Ashleigh and I entered, and the ones who came in to the pool after we did and smiled and nodded with acceptance. It was fun to place bets on who would leave and who would arrive.

As you might have guessed, cameras were not allowed, but I did try to get a picture of the board outside Spa World, which had photos of the inside of Spa World.

Swim suits are required on the family floor... the one with the fun slides and stuff. We did not go there because, while there were swimsuits available for rent, I 1) didn't want to bother, 2) think renting a swimsuit is just asking for a some kind of rash, and 3) didn't want to deal with a possible non-"Big OK" sized swimsuit issue.

We spent about 2.5 hours in all at Spa World. We left around 1:30 a.m., taking a taxi back to the hotel. But that was after we used the showers, shampoos, conditioner, soaps, q-tips, brushes and more to freshen up. You truly do not need to take anything but yourself and some yen to an onsen. Everything you need for a good time is provided.

Well, everything except a couple of margaritas to make this sound like a good idea, and band aids to cover your jailhouse tats. But I will be sure to take care of that the next time I go. And yes, I said 'next time.'

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