1. Akita ryokan, October
In her role as social co-president of the Yamagata JETs, Amber organised a group trip up into the mountains of neighbouring Akita. We were to spend a night in a fairly basic self-catered ryokan with onsen. The place was a short drive from Lake Tazawa, which particularly keen readers might remember was the location of the jazziest night of my 2010 summer road trip.
We arrived mid-afternoon, and Amber, her co-president Alyssa, and I did a quick spot of caching around the aforementioned lake before the sun went down. And rather successful it was too: four for four! We then returned to the ryokan where the presidents cooked a monster batch of yakisoba (fried noodles) for the 20-odd of us. Appetites sated, it was time to commence the night of boozing. After an hour or so in the biggest tatami room we had, about a dozen of us took the party to the bath. You see, the USP of this place was that it had mixed onsen. I'm not talking about the little bookable “family onsen” that Amber and I tend to bathe in; these were decent-sized (though still smallish as onsen go) public pools, indoor and out. We didn't have the ryokan to ourselves, but fortunately the outdoor pool was empty, so we claimed it. Let's face it, once 10+ drunk naked foreigners are occupying perhaps 6m² of water, it would take a certain chutzpah for a stranger to intrude.
I suppose for many people reading this, the idea of a single-sex onsen may still be rather daunting. After almost four years in Japan, I am entirely inured to that concept. However, this was uncharted territory for me, and most of my fellow bathers. What is the etiquette in this situation? Where does one look? At first, everyone played it rather conservatively, concealing their sensitive areas with the water, hand towels, or their limbs. Everyone, that is, with the exception of Amber, who made no attempt to hide anything. This may have been a commendably bold act of ice-breaking, but knowing her, she probably just didn't give a shit. Anyway, as time and alcohol consumption progressed, people became more relaxed.
Over the evening, people came and went. It should be noted that quite a few of our party flat-out refused to join the mixed onsen, which is fair enough. However, I stayed for the duration, which amounted to about five hours, only getting out to fetch chocolate covered almonds, dried squid, and more alcohol; I was having a great time. As I like to do with all aspects of my life, I shall now over-analyse why, using one of my beloved bulleted lists.
- As I've remarked many a time, I really miss the British pub experience. Strange though it may sound, the mixed onsen was perhaps the closest I've come to replicating that feeling in Japan. Nudity aside, this was a long, relaxed evening of gradual intoxication (in contrast to a two-hour nomihodai rampage) with conversation as the primary form of entertainment. It put me in mind of those fondly-remembered Edinburgh IPUBs (friday night drinking sessions with my fellow informatics postgrads). Except with girls, obviously.
- I must stress that nothing at all untoward occurred in the onsen. That being said, it still somehow felt as if we were breaking some taboos. To me, many of our society's hangups about sex and nudity seem rather pointless and arbitrary. Though I am very happily in a monogamous relationship, I've always been intrigued by the notion of polyamory and free love. While I've made my peace with the way our culture has decided relationships should be conducted, in an “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em” sort of way, I've often thought that if a found myself in an alternative universe where anyone exclusively sleeping with one person for more than a few months was seen as some kind of deviant, I could probably adjust fairly easily. Like in Brave New World – one of several fictional dystopia that I actually think sound kind of golden. So yeah, in some small way, I felt that communal bathing was a step towards that more rational and liberated world.
- One of the main reasons that I update this blog so infrequently these days is that I've grown accustomed to life in Japan. I rarely feel like I'm experiencing anything alien any more, but this onsen evening was something completely novel to me. Having said that, I don't think we were really experiencing a Japanese custom. As far as I can gather, mixed onsen are mainly the preserve of middle-aged to elderly married couples; I don't think many Japanese youngsters (I reckon I can still consider myself a “youngster” for maybe another fortnight or so) would organise a mixed onsen party of a saturday night.
We called it a night at about 1am, by which point I was drunker than I'd been in quite some time. Consequently, I wasn't feeling particularly sociable as the presidents whipped up a megaomelette for breakfast the next morning. As the group disbanded to return to Yamagata, Amber suggested going on a shortish hike up nearby Nyuutou-san (literally “nipple mountain”, so called because of its shape) but I vetoed that plan as I really didn't feel up to the exertion in my hungover state. We therefore scaled back our plan, and set out (once again with Alyssa) to find a cache on top of a smaller hill called Oname-dake, literally "man woman mountain" - what is it with the weird place names around there? It turned out that the road to this place was closed to private vehicles, necessitating a bus ride up a winding mountain road that nearly caused my omelette to make a reappearance.
Once up there, the terrain proved rather tougher than I anticipated. We were soon scrambling over a steep and eerily sterile hillside of volcanic gravel. In my haste to catch the bus, I had neglected to bring any kind of jumper, and it was getting rather breezy. Between the cold, the hangover, and some rogue app that was guzzling my smartphone battery and refusing to die, I was rather ill-equipped for the whole venture. However, I persevered and we made it to the summit, where we were rewarded with a cache and a beautiful view of the autumnal forests. We got a great view of Nyuutou-san too, bringing my total count of nipples seen that weekend to an unusually odd, as well as high, number.