26 September 2012

How to use a Japanese Onsen

There are certain levels of friendship, like Friends You Grab a Beer With and Friends That Will Pick You Up From the Airport. Then there's the people that are really worth their weight in gold: the Friends That Will Help You Move. (Otherwise known as the people I Give Thanks For.)

I just discovered a new category called Friends You Get Naked With. I know; I didn't know it was a thing either.

Chalk it up to my Irish Catholic upbringing or Midwestern parents or American puritanism but I was not raised in a 'naked' family. I had friends whose families seemed more comfortable with a certain level nakedness, like blowdrying your hair in a bra or walking around without a shirt on, but it wasn't really done in our family. My mom once mentioned that when she was little, the word 'naked' really bothered her, and I completely understood what she meant.

It's not to say my parents and family were anti-naked. It just wasn't really our shtick, right up there with baseball, Chinese food, and classical music. We weren't opposed or against it by any means; we just didn't do it.

Then I moved to Japan, land of the onsen, a word which I only had a basic understanding of when I arrived. This country sits right on top of the Ring of Fire and, in a country the size of California, has 25,000 naturally occurring mineral hot springs. Bathhouses are built around the springs, and water is pumped into pools and cooled to a variety of temperatures, from hot-hot-hot to a cold plunge. Some pools are inside, some are out. Some are made of concrete, some look like giant planter pots, some are landscaped to look more natural, with rocks and flowing water. These are onsens, and they are an integral part of Japanese culture and have been for hundred and hundreds of years. It's both a noun and a verb: you onsen at the onsens.

It seems for almost every activity, there is a scheduled onsen after it. Hike? Then you onsen. Ski? Onsen. Raft? Onsen. Stay in a hotel? Onsen.

I wasn't sure about the whole thing, and the first couple times I avoided them. Not only for the naked part -- which is intimidating enough -- but also because of the RULES. I knew there were extremely strict ones, and I had no idea what they were. Breaking the rules is one of the easiest ways to Piss Off Japanese People, so I skipped the onsen.

I finally broke and went to one in Takayama, near the Japanese Alps, after a day of sightseeing. It was connected to the hotel, and there was an English pamphlet that clued me in on onsen etiquette before I showed up. I wasn't hooked, but it felt pretty good. No one else was there, so I was okay being naked.

The next time was post-Fuji, with a group of hikers, including some Japanese women who made sure we all were onsen-ing correctly. This was my first time going with friends. All naked.

Surprisingly, not as weird as I thought it would be.

I went rafting up in Gifu with some good girlfriends. After rafting? You guessed it. Onsen. The onsen was outside, and we sat in the pools under cover as the rain poured down on us. We chatted for about an hour, sitting in the hot water. It was really fun, this naked hanging out. I was beginning to see the appeal.

Most recently, my friend Anna showed me an onsen just north of Nagoya. It was more extensive than the others. This one had the standard inside and outside pools, but it also had a milk dipping pool, a cold plunge pool, and an electro-pulse pool that send waves into your body as you got close to the walls (so weird...). It had a sauna room where you could exfoliate (!) with a salt scrub (!!). You could leave the onsen area, wearing a completely unflattering pajama set, and head to a lobby that had a series of separate rooms each heated to a different temperature that purported to have different healing and health benefits. You set your towel down in the rooms, usually over hot river rock, and laid back in total silence (aside from some cheesy flute and harp music, which apparently is a universal requirement for 'spa ambiance.') We spent the day there, relaxing and sweating, refueling with water and juices before ending the day with sushi and soba noodles.

Can I state the obvious and say that it was at this moment that I became a total onsen convert? I think the sauna and exfoliating may have gotten me. Or the way my lower back felt after the electric pulse pool. If those two things hadn't won me over, laying down on hot river rocks at 57° C and feeling my whole body sweat out toxins totally did. It was amazing. My body felt so good.

I also realized something about the onsens and a culture that is more comfortable with nakedness:

There are no perfect bodies.

To be honest, that's what always kind of threw me about the naked part. I was always self conscience that it would be awkward to be in a room full of naked people. I assumed that I would be focused on my imperfections: cellulite, pouchy stomach, body hair... the million little things I fixate on if I a compare myself to women I see in movies and magazines. Plus, I live in a country of thin, beautiful Japanese women. I'm intimidated by them enough when we are all wearing clothes. Being naked next to them? That sounds about as appealing as, I don't know, being naked next to Gwyneth Paltrow (who would look good naked and be insufferable).

But here's the secret: thin, beautiful Japanese women also have cellulite. And pouchy stomachs. And saggy spots. Everyone looks different while naked, no one looks perfect, and no one looks bad. Being in an onsen was refreshingly healthy for my self esteem and body image. Here was a host of other 'real women' (ugh, what an awful term) and they looked so normal. So non-sexual. So natural. So... well, it was not was I was expecting. It was really, really easy to be comfortable in there.

The onsens in Japan seem to be a community gathering spot, a place where women (and men) relax quietly, chat with friends and family, where mothers wash their daughters' hair and vice versa. It seems to be one of those places that we always talk about as something that holds the ills of society at bay; a place that, if it existed in America, Fox and Friends would always be harping on about, probably something along the lines of the War on Onsens by the Liberal Media.* ( * Um, I don't watch Fox and Friends, so this is a guess.) It's a community touchstone, for sure.

For those that are, like me, a little nervous about the onsen, here is how you get down:

Onsens have separate areas for men and women, and tattoos are not allowed. (I think there is a tiny bit of leeway for gaijin but no sleeves or large-scale ink. If you are discreet and it is small enough to easily ignore, usually you're okay.)

1. Enter the locker room. There will either be lockers or baskets for you to place your clothing and large towel. Get naked and grab your small onsen towel (which is the size of a hand towel, but a little thinner. You probably can buy or rent one at the front desk).

2. Enter the onsen and wash up. There are shower stations with a seat. Sit here, soap up really, REALLY well, scrub yourself with your towel, and then rinse off a couple times. Showering well beforehand is how the onsens stay clean, and if you do a good job, no older Japanese women will look at you sideways. Otherwise, you will be shunned because you entered the onsen dirty, which is kind of a dick move.

3. Enter the onsen. Each pool has a different temperature. Some have bubbles, some are milky with minerals, some have electric pulses that are for muscle relaxing. Just go slowly, keep your towel out of the water (put it on the side, around your neck, or on your head), and if you don't like a pool, you can just get out. No big deal.

4. Once you're done onsen-ing, rinse off again. This is when you can shampoo and condition your hair.

5. Wipe off with your little towel, then head to the locker room to dry off completely and get dressed.

6. Eat out to the lobby to drink water, rehydrate, and eat ice cream (a real must for any onsen trip). Try not to fall asleep right then.

19 September 2012

Japanese kindness.

Two weeks ago, I received a call. It was my first day "on-the-job," which is how I refer to my once weekly volunteer position (which is not so much a day but a two hour window. Anyway! Semantics!). I was at work when a woman called and asked for me. She briefly reintroduced herself. I had met her once before; she was a friend of a recently-departed-from-Japan-friend, and she wanted to know if I had any any plans for this Friday? There was a dance festival and a friend of hers was a performer who had given her two tickets. Would I like to come?

"Of course; that will be fun," I said, reminding myself to speak slowly and in simple sentences. I have a tendency to talk quickly, words upon words falling out of my mouth in a jumbled pile, a trait that drives my dad nuts and can make it difficult for non-native American English speakers to understand me completely. (Is 'native American English speakers' a thing? Anyway, you know what I mean).

We decided to meet up that Friday at 11:30, near a department store downtown. I was there early, and grabbed a bite from the kombini. My new friend, Eiko-san, showed up right on time, carrying with her a Burger King lunch for the two of us. I immediately regretted my 7-11 choice. For a variety of reasons, some about Japanese politeness, some about how my Mama raised me, some about the length of time it's been since I last had BK, I knew I was going to be eating two lunches.

We walked the couple blocks to the theater, and I immediately realized that this was a bit of a bigger deal than I had thought. Not only was I the only gaijin I could see, we were among the few not dressed in full kimono. The lobby was full of orchids, donated from prominent area businesses, arranged along all the walls and spilling in to the foyer. Older Japanese women, scattered in groups, their salt and pepper hair done up tightly, in complement to the delicateness of the flowers.

It was at this moment, amid all the beauty, I was so thankful I put on a skirt. Lesson to self: this is Japan. ALWAYS overdress.

We made our way into the lobby and picked up our tickets. On the way in, Eiko-san introduced me to her friend. He used to be her dance sensei, and it was he who brought the Odori Dance Performance to Nagoya in 1945 as a way to cheer up the city in the post-war malaise. This whole performance was happening because of him, and his gravitas was apparent. He hoped I enjoyed the show. I thanked him and hoped that I was able to convey my thanks.

Eiko-san, from the moment we entered, constantly made sure I had everything I needed. Any question I had (Are pictures okay? Can we eat in here?) she would find out the answer. She was on her feet in a flash, then back down, pointing me to the bathroom, translating the program, explaining to me the Odori Dances as best as she could.

The building we were in was quite deceiving: on the outside, it's mundane 1970s architecture, but on the inside, the theater was beautiful. Molded wooden waves on the ceiling, tapestry curtain, rough hewn wood walls. It was a breathtaking blend of modern and traditional Japanese esthetics and utterly captivating.

I ate my Burger King in my seat because I am nothing if not classy.

As Eiko-san took her seat a couple sections away, the older Japanese women around me took me under their wing in the ultimate older-Japanese-woman-way: they watched me out of the corner of their eye and if I even hesitated even for a second, they gently made gestures and suggestions. If my eyes scanned the program, she would gently point out which dance we were at. When Eiko-san would bound over during an intermission, they would confer with her online dictionary for the precise word to describe the ancient dance.

All this, and we had just met each other.

- - -

People told us that the Japanese are polite, but not especially warm. While I do think that is a bit true, I've noticed that it doesn't take much to scratch that surface and find a wealth of warmth, wanting and excited to show you their life and culture.

There's my Sensei Noriko-san, who invites a host of expat women over to her house every other week to show us how to sew yukatas (summer kimonos). No payment, no nothing. She does it simply to share her craft. She also calls doctors' offices, helps read Japanese notices, and answers question upon question that we bring to her. She and her husband, Daiichiro-san, constantly put together events, shuttling us from maguro (tuna) cutting demonstrations and fish market tours, to calligraphy classes, to fireworks shows and walking tours, all things we would miss should it not be for them. (For my friend Anna's take on Noriko, read this. It's beautiful.)

There's Ted-San, my new coworker, who just happened to have two extra tickets to an Ikebana Exhibit, and would Amos and I like to attend? And, if I don't mind him asking, what does the phrase "you betcha" mean?

The kindness I have met in this country -- the generosity of spirit from people who open their arms and welcome me in, even though my Japanese is terrible and I am simply a visitor -- is astounding. Humbling. I hope that I would do the same should I ever find myself in that position, though, to be honest, it seems like people here make the opportunity for kindness. My experience has created a little section in my heart that beams with love and loyalty for Nagoya and Japan, who, when I arrived, asked me to come in, take off my shoes, and stay awhile. For that I am truly grateful.

13 September 2012

How to Stay Cool in the Japanese Summer -- (You guys I figured it out!)

Okay, I didn't figure it out 100%, but I'm getting closer. Let's back up a bit, shall we?

First: Mushi Mushi (蒸し蒸し). That's how you say 'humid' in Japanese.  It seems to roll off the tongue and perfectly capture the hot, sticky mess that is Nagoya in the summer.  Mushi-atsui so desu ne (むしあついそですね). Hot and humid, isn't it?

(I haven't quite nailed the translation for 'Bloody hell, it's hot as balls out here' but I'm working on it.)

I'm so ready for the transition to fall, and while there may be hints here and there -- cooler nights, cloudy mornings -- it seems the summer weather is hanging on for a bit. Hello, 34C. Hi, 90% humidity. No, I'm not sick of you yet. Please excuse the bead of sweat, dripping down my thigh.

On the upside, the cicadas are gone. I don't mean to celebrate death or anything, but YAY. The surround-sound racket that enveloped me when I walked outside my apartment has subsided. I no longer have fleeting visions of Biblical locust plagues when I walk through our local park. For this, I say Hallelujah.

Ug, I'm sorry. I certainly didn't mean to be posting a photo of a dead bug of my blog. Instead, I really wanted to post a photo of this (and please excuse the blurry hand. How not professional am I?):

I have spent the last several months wondering how on earth the Japanese population, on a overly-generalized whole, looks so pulled together during the hot summers. I would see businessmen in crisp, white shirts, sans tie and jacket but remarkably well dressed. I would see young mothers in shorts with leggings underneath, arms covered from the sun with light cardigan sweaters. I'd nearly collide with older ladies biking in fully jeans and dark sun-visors pulled over their face (and it was almost always my fault for being distracted by them. They, somehow, can still see everything perfectly). People seemed ubiquitously armed with a hat, umbrella, and sweat towel. Linens were unwrinkled, foreheads dripless, and no one seemed to have mysterious stomach or back sweat.

No one, that is, except me. My little Irish ancestry was not happy with this whole situation. Face ruddy, forehead damp, hair frizzy, and sweat FUCKING everywhere. It was pretty gross, you guys.

I tried my best. I layered tank-tops under flowing shirts to try and stay more presentable. I carried a handkerchief. An umbrella. A fan. Wore silk pants. I  still can't count the number of times I had to head home to change after I had sweated through the torso of my (loose fitting, dark colored, highly breathable) shirt.

When my sister was visiting this August, I fully realized how inept my heat-strategy was. We were sightseeing around Kyoto, and while I had gotten better at being in Japan, I hadn't nailed this whole hot weather business. Obviously. I about died. (We pulled through thanks to frequent stops for kakigōri and Sapporo.)

Dying of heat. In a World Heritage Zen Garden.

Then. THEN. Back in Nagoya, I had to run to the drugstore. And I found it.

The cool section.

Woah. There is a business for this keeping cool routine. Special scarfs. Blotting paper. Pads for underarms. Portable fans. Special ice-cold sprays. Special ice packs for sleeping upon. Heat whisking leggings and undershirts. Inserts to keep your shirt collar stiff and sharp. Mad genius, yo.

Of course, when I can almost taste the apples and pumpkins figs and persimmons, I finally figured it out. Whatever. I'm celebrating the little victories here.

When you add these amazing inventions to tried-and-true hot weather experience, the cool biz programs in place by the government, and the understandable yet revolutionary aversion to the sun, you have an (overly generalized) population that makes summers stylish. This is all the more impressive when you think about the energy savings going on in Japan since March 11. All business' air cons are set to 28C (about 82F), summer breaks have been extended, and business dress codes have been adjusted. All in the name of patriotic energy conservation. It's worked too, for the most partenergy use is down 15% in Tokyo alone.

Amos and I laughed as we browsed the drugstore for all the things that we didn't know about, all the things that would have been so handy if only we had known they existed. If we do end up spending another summer here (my thighs are sweating at the prospect), we'd be so much better prepared. We'd actually own shorts, linen shirts and light dress pants before things got miserable. We'd have the special underwear. The "keep cool" neckties shaped like polar bears. We'd rock that shiz and rise to the occasion of Nagoya 蒸し蒸し. I mean, I wouldn't be opposed to enjoying the 72-degrees-and-perfect Seattle summer next year, but should we have to, at least we would know where to start.

Though its hard to pass up a penguin shaped ice pack. I could probably find a use for that guy in any climate.

06 September 2012

How I came to love a Mom Fashion Blog

I wasn't a girly girl growing up. This isn't to say that I was a true blue tomboy either (I did join Little League, only to quit after one measly season). No, growing up I hovered somewhere in the middle; not really girly, not really boyish. I was more interested in books than combing my hair; more interested in being outdoors than how I looked. Think True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle meets American Revolution-era homemade costume, meets games of make-believe school in the backyard, and you have me nailed at age 10.

(Pretty sure I was awesome.)

Couple this with an extended awkward phase that lasted oh, up until my freshman year of college, and that my heaviest weight I've ever been was in high school, and you have a girl who took a little while to come into her own.

(That was less awesome.)

Now? Well... If you look at my bathroom shelf, you'll see these babies.

These are in addition the doughnut shaped netting piece that I bought to put in my hair and make my bun all big. What can I say, the drugstores here are crazy girl land and I can't say no to everything.

I also finally bit the bullet and got myself to the Japanese nail salon for a florescent-yellow-with-bling manicure, and I LOVE IT.

This girly girl interest. Hmm. It's been stirring for a couple years, I think. After graduation, faced with jobs that required dressing up, and paid me to do so, I began to be more interested in clothes. I was also growing into my body, into my style, into ma' self; what I wore just seemed a natural extension. Seattle has its own offbeat, NW fashion, and I dug it. Add this to an amazing second hand market, and the combination was irresistible. (Oh, how I miss secondhand shopping.)

In Japan, though? It's really taken root. Perhaps I'm the last person on the planet to recognize it, but Japanese fashion is amazing. Women (and men) here rock clothes and styles in ways that blow my mind. Let's just say that nothing matches, everything is tailored, and it totally works.

It took me a bit to find clothes here in this expensive land-o'-tiny-ladies, and there are still certain things that are hard to come by. Slowly, however, I'm finding out where to shop as someone who is literally-bigger-boned (hint: big chain stores, like Uniqlo, and international stores, like Zara, are the best bet). Pants that cover my booty are always tricky, and the sky high prices can be demoralizing, but I've emerged, if not a fashionista (ha!), more decently clothed then I've been in awhile.

More then shops however, I've been finding so much great stuff on the internet. Who knew, right? (Wait, everyone knew. I am so late to this party). In all the hubbub, there is one blog that I've come to really love. Now bear with me, because it's both awesome and a bit embarrassing...

It's a mom fashion blog.

I know! Wait! Before you go! It's really good. Promise. Think for a minute: I'm on my feet all the time here, constantly on the go via subway or bike, I don't have to dress up for the office but still would like to look chic and pulled together.

Yup, that's pretty close to a mom. Except for -- you know -- the baby part. That's a bit off, but hear they are available for purchase with your Manaca card (zing! Nagoya humor!) Perhaps it's a bit easier to wrap your head around it if you think of it as an updated-university-student look. Moving around, needing to look nice but not necessarily professional, and reeeeally needing to get out of your sweatpants into something with a fitted waist (... can you feel me?)

So stilletos? Out. I've got to be a' moving. Flat platform sandals? Totally workable. But this mom has a series on "shop your closet," where you make what you already own work for you. Add this to her tips on how to make unwashed hair passable for yet another day, and I am sold. It was just really refreshing, really real, in a online world that somethings makes you think that it's totally plausible for you to be start-up photographer/fashion intern/freelance writer and own a wardrobe of Kate Spade and Christian Lombardi. (How does that happen? Credit card debit? Rich parents/husbands/fairy godmothers? I am le confused.)

Through Ain't No Mom Jeans, I found this video, which is amazing. This girl named Wendy somehow she shows 25 ways to wear a scarf in 5 minutes in a really well done video. I'm in awe. Her fashion is a bit, well, fancy for me, but shoot, the girl can make a video.

I wore the waterfall scarf on Monday, and it felt pretty rad. I had to pin it though because it wasn't quite bike riding ready, but it worked (and I was extremely proud of myself for that one. Look at me! Solving fashion dilemmas!)

Now I'm on a roll. The closet has been cleaned out and organized. I've thrown out ratty gym shirts and updated myself to yoga pants without holes. I've tossed earrings and socks where the pair is long lost, and I even had my own 'shop your closet' session.  I'm headed to a clothing exchange party tonight (such a good idea!), and I have a couple fall items I'm keeping my eye out for, though it's still much too hot here to really be thinking about layers of any kind, unless they involve sunscreen. But soon. Soon. I'm excited.

Late bloomin, you guys. It's kind of fun.
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