Getting naked north of Tokyo

I’ve had some pretty awesome hot water experiences growing up over the years.

As a teenager on a family trip to Banff, I discovered how amazing it was to soak up the heat in an outdoor hot tub after a day of lumbering down the mountain.

There are few places I'd rather be than on a mountainside after the lifts close for the day.
There are few places I’d rather be than on a mountainside after the lifts close for the day.

In my twenties, the best money I spent on a trip to Tofino, BC was the $100 for a trip out to Hot Springs Cove – an amazing natural hot spring and waterfall that was right on the ocean.

Like a scene out of "Survivor" - Hot Springs Cove is a Canadian treasure on Vancouver Island.
Like a scene out of “Survivor” – Hot Springs Cove is a Canadian treasure on Vancouver Island.

So in preparing for my Japanese adventure, when Chris and I started talking about sights to see and things to do, the topic of the Japanese hot spring – also known as an onsen – came up.

No matter where you go in Japan, you’ll find an onsen nearby.  Hot springs are plentiful across the country (volcanos make for lots of hot water. ) Often, an onsen is part of a bigger property much like a mineral spa in North America.  In Japan, these are called “ryokan,” and often feature an all-inclusive experience including traditional lodging and meals.

So, the research began to try and figure out which onsen we’d want to check out while I was visiting.  That’s when I realized something I had long forgotten about onsen from my first ever conversation with Chris about them.

Unlike a trip to a tropical all-inclusive… unlike hot tub night in your buddy’s backyard… unlike a dip in the pool while on a business trip… you enjoy a Japanese hot spring completely naked.

In the buff.

Wearing your birthday suit.

The same way you came in to this world.

Wearing… nothing… at… all.

Sorry, Tobias.  "Never nudes" need not apply.
Sorry, Tobias. “Never nudes” need not apply.

No board shorts.  No speedos.  No two piece, itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie-yellow-polka-dot-bikini.


It’s funny the reaction I’ve had to this from many friends I’ve told about the experience after coming back from Japan.  It usually starts with “whaaaaat,” followed by “come again,” maybe a little “ummm….” and often finished up with a whole lot of “nope… never.”

Now, don’t mistake me for a card-carrying member of a naturist club  (where do they put their cards, anyway) – but I don’t have a huge problem with being buck naked at a Japanese bath house.

Why not?

Well, a big part of it is the whole idea of “when in Rome.”  Much in the same way I did with food during my trip, I approached the idea of going to the onsen with the attitude that I wouldn’t want to be a  “baka gaijin.”  If people who live in Japan are comfortable with the onsen being a place to be naked, why should I question it?

Also, nearly seven years of going to the gym has helped desensitize me to seeing dudes nude in a locker room setting (that’s a whole other blog post filled with funny stories, like the one gym-bro who thought nothing of holding his junky Blackberry just inches from his junk while he was texting a buddy while in the buff.  But, I digress.  Back to the hot springs.)

I decided for this trip we’d skip the ryokan experience – even though it is something I want to do when I go back later this year.  From everything I read, it is the epitome of relaxing.  But there just wasn’t enough time this trip.

One of the onsen I wanted to hit up  was a place called SpaWorld in Osaka.  It can best be described as the West Edmonton Mall of onsen with two entire floors of themed onsen.

"Onsen from around the world!" (Source :
“Onsen from around the world!” (Source :

One floor features Asian-themed onsen, replicating the experience of an outdoor Japanese bath, the south pacific and the middle east.  Another floor features European-themed baths including a Roman bath, a Finnish sauna house, and an Italian grotto.

Another floor of the facility includes themed saunas including something called a “Canadian Forest Bath” that I really wanted to try out.

At ¥1,000 for an entire day, SpaWorld sounds like a pretty decent deal (and it gets good reviews on TripAdvisor.)

But, alas, the trip to Osaka was way too short and so SpaWorld got cut from the list.

So where did I end going to enjoy my first Japanese bath experience?  It would be when we were visiting Yuki and her family in Sakura-shi.

Around the dinner table at Yuki's home.
Around the dinner table at Yuki’s home.

After dinner, Yuki, her friend Will, Chris and I piled in to Yuki’s car – each of us holding a plastic shopping bag containing a bath towel and a facecloth.  Through the dark of night, we careened down the road before ending up at an onsen seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  It is most definitely not in any guidebook (just my kind of place!)

When you walk in the lobby of Matsushimaonsen-Otomenoyu, it feels like you’ve arrived at the neighbourhood swimming pool.  It is warm, friendly and cozy.

A bit of a fuzzy view in to the lobby at the onsen.  To the left are lockers where you leave your shoes.
A bit of a fuzzy view in to the lobby at the onsen. To the left are lockers where you leave your shoes.

A quick transaction with the people at the front desk, and we had our keys to the change rooms and we were off to get naked!  (I realize that sounds like I’m really excited about getting naked… but hey, just roll with it for a bit here.)

It’s important to note that tubs at this onsen (and many onsen) are separated for men and women, so there’s no gender mixing once you leave the front desk.   There are co-ed onsen in Japan, but you’d be expected to wear a bathing suit at those ones.

The change room was incredibly clean and warm.  Warmer than pretty much any other change room I’ve ever been in.  After stripping down to nothing, I grabbed my washcloth (also known as a ‘modesty towel’) and followed Chris and Will to the bathing area.  I had no idea what to expect, and was more than a little surprised when we rounded the corner.

In one part of the room is a large bath tub – about triple the size of any large hotel hot tub you’ve ever seen.  (According to the onsen’s website, it’s made of molten steel, but I was sure it was covered in slate or some other rock.)

Bordering the room are a number of showers.  They’re not stalls so much as they are ‘stations.’

A mirror is mounted low on the wall and above it is a handheld shower head.  A basket of cleaning products sits on a ledge below the mirror containing shampoo and liquid soap.  There’s also a bucket about the size you’d use to build a sandcastle – it is used to rinse yourself and to wash those hard-to-reach places.  And – the part I really wasn’t expecting – a short stubby stool (think a kiddie’s plastic stepping stool) to sit on while you clean yourself.

I walked up to an available shower station and went to sit on the stubby stool – only to fall flat on my butt.  (Squats… need to do more squats.)  Nobody noticed my full Bambi move, and I regained my composure and saddled up to get squeaky clean.

Cleaning yourself before entering the tub is way more involved than the simple spritz-yourself-in-a-crappy-shower-before-entering-the-waterpark you’re used to when going to a North American pool complex.

You need to be clean when you enter a Japanese tub.  In fact, there’s a fine if you’re not and you contaminate the water.  This means scrubbing ev-er-y-where.

While sitting on a low-rise, kiddies stepping stool.

Have you ever tried to throughly wash your body with your knees up to your neck and your centre of gravity way below where it normally should be?  It’s an adventure.

After about ten minutes of washing, re-washing, and washing again, I rinsed off and proceeded to enter the tub.

The moment of truth.

And man – was it warm!  In fact, the onsen’s website says the water stays around 40 degrees celsius (or about 104 fahrenheit.)

The mineral content was pretty high and as a result it took a bit of will power to keep from floating around the tub.  Even so, it was very relaxing.  Probably the most relaxing hot tub experience I’ve ever had.

Letting everything hang out in the tub wasn’t all that awkward.  The water was cloudy from the minerals to a certain extent, so not much below your waist is terribly visible.  (Your ‘modesty’ washcloth, by the way, does not go in the public tub – but rather on the ledge of the tub.  Or – if you want to do-as-the-locals-do – it’s folded up in to a square and placed on top of your head.  I opted to wear the towel for fear of it falling off the ledge and getting my germs in the tub.)

After about 40 minutes of soaking and chatting, we decided it was time to go.  I was sad to leave, but also relieved a bit as you definitely feel the heat after a while.

While some people prefer not to wash the minerals off their bodies, we decided to take a quick rinse before heading back to the change room.  It’s perfectly acceptable as we saw a whole bunch of other locals do it before leaving.

One of the nice things about the change room is that not only is it incredibly warm, but they provide a lot of the supplies you’d want or need after a good bath.  There is hair gel, blow dryers, and other toiletries that you are free to be used by anyone.  It’s handy.

Chris and Will left the change room before I did, and when I emerged, I didn’t see them right away.  I headed out to the car thinking they were there… but no luck.  I ended up waiting in the vestibule (where the picture above was taken) thinking they’d eventually emerge.  It was there I experienced my second earthquake while in Japan.

A magnitude 5.5 earthquake near Tokyo.  (Courtesy QuakeFeed)
A magnitude 5.5 earthquake near Tokyo. (Courtesy QuakeFeed)

The big green plants behind the front desk of the onsen waved back and forth as the quake rumbled.  I thought that some kids were running around the onsen – it didn’t feel the same as the quake I experienced at Chris’ place a week earlier.

Despite a little rumbling to end the experience (that was the source of more laughing than fear), my first (and only) Japanese onsen visit was an incredibly relaxing highlight of my trip.  

Getting naked with a bunch of strangers to enjoy the hot springs might sound terrifying to a lot of people… but it’s a great example of how putting aside North American conventions can give way to a unique experience worthy of sharing with friends – if only to see their reactions as you tell the story.


(As a footnote : the folks over at Japan-Guide – awesome site, by the way –  have a pretty good visual explanation of what an indoor public bath looks like.  Check it out – it’ll give you even more of an idea of how things look.)

Weekend Playlist : Scenes from a Mall

I’m a fan of great storytelling.  It doesn’t matter the form it takes – audio, video, text… it’s all the same to me.  A great story is a great story.  So, on the weekends, something I’ll make a point of posting up is my weekend playlist.


This weekend’s recommendation is a 2008 episode of the fabulous This American Life – the weekly public radio documentary series that appears on PRI affiliates across the US and is buried at 11pm on Sundays on CBC Radio 1. (Why, oh why, don’t we private news/talk broadcasters throw more money at PRI and liberate it from the corp?)


The episode – Scenes from a Mall – where host Ira Glass and his production team descend on a Tennessee shopping mall two weeks before Christmas to tell the stories of a number of people they encounter.


If you have time for only one story from this episode, it has to be act three’s “Santa Fight Club.”  It’ll leave you gobsmacked.

Here’s to a productive – and hopefully enjoyable weekend…

Jet Lag and Train Life

In a somewhat mischievous way, Chris was eager to see me encounter two things upon my arrival in Japan – jet lag and culture shock.


Dude, where’s my lost day?

While a 15 hour time difference is staggering, great advice from Rick Steves (a man whose life I’d love to have – he makes a living traveling to Europe and telling the tales in fantastic guide books) helped me get jet lag under control :

Leave home well rested… use the flight to rest and reset… on arrival, stay awake until an early local bedtime…

Rick Steves : Conquering Jet Lag

Rick is right – staying up is the key to getting off on the right foot.  That doesn’t mean I wasn’t feeling hungover on my first full day in Tokyo, but at least I didn’t want to sleep while I supposed to be awake (and vice versa.)

What time is it in Tokyo?  Take the current time in Saskatchewan, add three hours, and flip AM to PM or PM to AM.
What time is it in Tokyo? Take the current time in Saskatchewan, add three hours, and flip AM to PM or PM to AM.

Adjusting to being awake while North America sleeps surprisingly wasn’t hard at first.  The only time the 15 hour gap was hammered home was when I would post something to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram only to get zero interaction. Afternoon coffee in Tokyo is a little lonely when everyone else around you is texting up a storm and your entire social network is just hitting its REM cycle.  It wouldn’t be until I was sound asleep (and North America was just getting to work) that my phone would start vibrating, gyrating and flashing like a strobe light.

As for the culture shock, I thought I was pretty well prepared.  I mean, I read the guides and had an idea of the social niceties that I needed to adhere to in order to not make a fool of myself – with possibly enough etiquette tips under my belt to wow locals who’ve seen the crazy gaijin do abhorrent things.

And overall, I passed with flying colours on the Miss Manners test (save for wearing my shoes in to a change room at an H&M – that had the young woman who was showing me in frantically trying to explain – in the most pleasant way possible – my clodhoppers needed to be removed.)

Where the real culture shock came in Japan was in the daily life – how Japanese people go about their day versus what we know as a typical day here at home.  Let me explain one example.

Train Life

Sure, there are corridors of North America where the train is a major part of daily life – whether it’s on the GO Trains in the Greater Toronto Area, or the various transit systems that link parts of the US eastern seaboard.  Even in Europe, London and Paris move at the pace of transit

But in Japan, the experience is so much more intense.

Train life is synonymous with work life in Japan.

Commuters stream in to Musashinodai Station - near Chris' place - for the daily commute in to work.
Commuters stream in to Musashinodai Station – near Chris’ place – for the daily commute in to work.

For some “salarymen” in the big cities like Tokyo, work starts early, work ends late, and work can be very, very stressful.  After-work socializing is part of the daily cycle, and depending how late that goes is sometimes dependent on how stressful the day has been (just like here.)

The difference is that the train lines that criss-cross the greater Tokyo area turn in to a giant pumpkin around 1:00am.

If you miss the last train, there are options.  Cabs exist – but are expensive.  You can stagger to a capsule hotel, but the desire to be in one’s own bed is often paramount.  As a result, the party starts (and ends) early.

Train commutes can take over an hour to get from where one works to where one lives.  As the night goes on, the number of people trying to get out of the city and back to the “burbs” grows.  Exponentially.  And the trains become more and more packed like sardine cans.

White glove-clad railway employees – called pushers – staff platforms at most of the major train stations.  Their job is to cram every last body inside the train cars, and ensure that when the doors close, no one is left dangling outside.  Any aversion you have to people entering your “personal space” is best left on the luggage carousel at Narita, because in Tokyo personal space is limited to the physical area your body takes up (and even that can be negotiable.)  Taking the train in Tokyo can be like a gigantic group hug that you’ve just paid ¥300 for.

A crowd of commuters disembark the Keio Line at Shinjuku Station.
A crowd of commuters disembark the Keio Line at Shinjuku Station.

Inside commuter trains during peak periods in the early morning and late at night, it’s a surreal scene.

The first thing you notice is the dead silence (at least during the morning and midday – at night, salarymen who have “kampai”d one too many times can sometimes get a little giddy, especially if they’re in groups of two or more.)  Silence is treasured – so much so, most major train companies have instituted “quiet zones” on cars where no talking is allowed and cellphones are verboten.

Across the rest of the train, you find that people have their own routines when it comes to keeping themselves occupied during commutes that can range anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes (if not longer) to get from home to work.

Paperback books sell for about ¥500 (C$5) and are very popular as a way to kill time. Also very popular – privacy covers which wrap around the outside of the book to keep prying eyes from seeing whether the reader is thumbing a crime novel or a smutty romance.  eReaders, as it happens, are more uncommon on trains as the price point of printed novels is much cheaper than eBooks, especially at used book stores like Book-Off.

Some people load up Android phablets or iPad Minis with their favourite TV shows and binge watch on the commute to work.  Some with Android phones and older “Galapagos” flip phones can even watch live TV as they make their way from point A to point B.

Enjoy some Japanese TV commercials

Cell phones help distract in other ways on the commute.  Cell service is alive and well – even in the depths of Tokyo’s subway network – meaning people can chat back and forth on a cross-platform messaging service like the popular Line, or keep up to date on Twitter and Facebook.  Talking on the phone is a massive etiquette no-no.

Line is a popular instant messaging application used by young and old in Japan.
Line is a popular instant messaging application used by young and old in Japan.

If you aren’t keeping yourself occupied with some form of entertainment, there is always the alternative – sleep.  It’s amazing to see how people sleep on Tokyo trains and subways.  Sitting down.  Standing up.  Holding on to handrails.  Standing against train doors. Squished between total strangers. (It’s not uncommon – nor is it unacceptable – for someone’s head to fall on to your shoulder as they doze off.  You just roll with it.)

I actually saw one guy standing int he doorway of a train car, and I was certain he was going to fall out on to the platform (he stayed upright.)

Sleeping on the train is not hard to do – the gentle rocking of the train lulls you in to a daze, especially after a long day of pounding the pavement.  My eyes closed many times and it was relaxing.  Surprisingly, people seem to wake up just before they reach their destination.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  There is something oddly relaxing about sleeping on a commuter train.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. There is something oddly relaxing about sleeping on a commuter train.

And all of this goes on while people are often packed shoulder to shoulder on trains – often shifting their weight on the balls of their feet (and for the real pros – without hanging on to a train strap) as the trains rumble down the line.

Train culture gives you great insight in to a lot of the other dynamics of Japanese culture.  You gain an appreciation for how people move, how people interact, and the discipline people have about them – all things I’ll talk about in other blog posts.

For a prairie boy (who – mind you – has been on public transit in London, Paris, New York, Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles), it was all a little overwhelming at first and definitely something to soak in.  Culture shock?  Yep!  But a big part of the Japan experience.