Friday, 23 January 2015

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

world-map osawano


Another onsen-themed post this week which is also apt since it talks about the freezing winter weather. Oh well, at least the days are getting longer.

Actually, onsen have been very much on my mind of late since I’ve joined a gym (aaargh!) which has a sauna and steam room. The thought of ending up in them helps me get through the nasty workout bit, plus when I’m in there, I’m always remembered of good old Japan.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

Japanese Musings XII: Engrish

Japanese Musings XIII: Valentine’s Day

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

The cold, the cold. I returned to Toyama after a vacation on the sunny shores of New Zealand and that was the first thing that hit me; it’s bloody freezing here, and that's official.

japan snow 2Getting used to the cold

Of course, I appreciate that central Japan is not as cold as some places in the world. I'm getting a wee bit fed up already of Canadians going round and telling me how warm it is to minus whatever Winnipeg or super-cold Saskatchewan, or that the snow here is not the right type, it's too dry and fluffy, or wet or whatever, I simply don't care. All I know is that Toyama is considerably colder than a). New Zealand where I just returned from and b). England where I'm used to. And Blighty is not a place renowned for its great weather.

However, perhaps the most amazing thing about it all is the Japanese response to it all which is mixed to say the best. Now, these guys have supposedly been dealing with the freezing cold since time immemorial, and indeed in some respects this is evident. A scattering of snow (enough to close down most of Britain), is no sweat to the Japanese. The snow ploughs come out and (now this one impressed me) most roads have a sprinkler system down the centre which is simply turned on and the snow is washed away. That is impressive, the rest however, is far less so.

I have commented before upon Japanese houses and the fact that the architect of most of them was as a child it seems, a big fan of LEGO, Denmark's greatest export until the arrival of Aqua onto the world music scene. My little aparto is built out of plastic, walls, roof, stairs, floors, the lot. Whoever thought of that one should be shot. Not only does it look bad, gets too hot in summer, but in winter has an unbelievably low level of heat retention. Go out of the apartment for an hour or two, and you come back to somewhere that somehow manages to be colder than the outside world. How they manage it I don't know, but they do. Of course, this is not so bad, since you can always warm the place up if you have enough money to pay for the leccy. But can you, in a country where central heating is an unheard of concept. Time and time again this amazes me, a country that is so technologically advanced can at the same time be so dire with the basic things in life, (e.g. keeping warm).

So, its cold and I am further hampered by the dialect that I was brought up on. For in Stoke, when it is cold it's a bit nippy. This is not politically correct in Japan.

To escape the cold and ensuing cultural faux pas one must think of alternative ways of staying warm and it is here that one of the great Japanese cultural institutions comes into its own: the onsen.

Now, I know many of you may remember me mentioning onsen in the past and have perhaps been puzzled as to what they may be; a type of pub perhaps, or a coffee shop where one may consume caffeine with friends? Not one bit, an onsen is something pretty similar to a hot spa, a public bathhouse extraordinaire.

I have to admit that when I first considered leaving the green, green grass of home and heading for the Land of the Rising Sun, then one point which did worry me immensely is which institution shall replace the humble local as the focal point of one's existence. Now it is true that the Japanese have bars, where one may talk to the masses, just as one does in the local, if you speak very good Japanese. If you do not (that's the category that I fall into by the by), then they can be hard work. The locals still want to talk to you, but cannot. This does not stop them of course and indeed it probably makes them more enthusiastic. Thus half an hour of conversation eventually ends in them learning that I come from "somewhere near Manchester, England", that I am a teacher in Osawano, that I like Japan, karaoke too and that I am not married. The only fact I garner from them is that they do not speak English.

Dejected as to where my life would lead it was then that I discovered the beauty of the onsen; instead of the pub one can instead go with friends to the onsen and sit and talk crap for hours on end. Of course there are several major differences, the lack of alcohol is of course the biggest black mark on the onsen's card, and also the fact that the sexes are separated, so fascinating discussions with the ladies about which barman they fancy is also impossible, but nonetheless it is not too bad an alternative.

Of course I did not get into onsen immediately, and for good reason. Onsen require nakedness in front of strange people, and I am British. British and public displays of nudity go together like Afghanistan and freedom of religion. Yeah, maybe its ok for our friends across the water in Scandinavia to go prancing around in the buff together, but for the average English gent it simply is not the done thing.

japan onsen 1Onsen in the snow

In fact, it (unsurprisingly), took rather large quantities of alcohol for me to first 'bare all' and get into an onsen. However, once done, never forgotten and since that fateful day I've been getting naked ever since. A regular Sunday afternoon outing ends in an onsen, as do many mid-week evenings.

You see the thing is, not all onsen are the same, why they are in fact all unique. Some have saunas, others do not. One may be special because of the fine view, whilst another may be memorable due to the waterfalls or mineral contents of its water. There's also massage chairs, jacuzzis, shallow baths, temperatures of baths, and of course value for money to take into account. This is a serious business!

In fact, the rather sad fact about it all is that I'm now fast becoming something of an authority upon onsening within the ken, and onsen-going has reached such heights that a society has now been formed, of which I am a founder member. Myself and people equally without purpose in life have been known to sit in bars and discuss the relative merits of rotemburo (outside pools), saunas, jacuzzis and cold baths.

This is a fact of life in Japan, and one which I would love to elaborate more on.

Except I'm cold, and so I'm off to the onsen...

japan snow 1A couple of inches…

Next Musing: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

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