There is a difference between famous and great
The day had come with a clear sky, the sun shining brightly on the mountain ranges in front. The previous day, we had only got a hint of them. Given that our house was centrally heated, it was difficult to gauge the weather outside. Without realizing this, I ambled towards the front courtyard but thrice the speed, I returned back. My clothing couldn’t sustain the piercing cold winds outside. Sun was just an illusion it seemed.
“There is a difference between famous and great”, speaking about Onsens, Kohei had made a remark. And he was taking us to his favorite Onsen in the town. By the time he started his car, the weather had already turned gloomy but the half an hour journey to the Onsen was heavenly – initially through the woods, then crossing numerous river streams frozen on the edges and then a gradual ascent to a country where white was the single color known. The last spell of snow hadn’t melted, and the road provided the only contrasting color in the whole scenery.
We quickly got out of the car and raced towards the Onsen resort, as we didn’t want to be the recipient of love showers of the supremely cold weather. The entry to the bath area had separate color-coded gates for two genders. Time for separation, Prerita had to enter the red gate, and I entered the blue one with Kohei.
Am I really supposed to go naked?
After removing our shoes and putting our bags in the lockers, we arrived in the changing room, which was full of naked men. Quite naturally, it was a pretty big culture shock for me. “So, am I really supposed to remove all my clothes here?”
I decided to follow Kohei. A few minutes later, the 10″x10″, aptly named modesty towel was all that was covering my body. The next step was to enter the main bath area.
For hygiene purposes, you are required to have a proper shower before you enter the hot pool. In a setting similar to a saloon, right next to the hot pool, there was a series of showers. As the hot pool has a temperature in the range of 40-45° C, it is suggested to have an acclimatizing shower before you enter the pool. I just followed as Kohei guided me.
The first time I stepped my foot inside the Onsen, I felt like a potato that’s being fried. It took a few minutes for my body to normalize with the temperature, but once that happened and I got back in my senses, I knew why Japanese people were mad about these Onsens. In the front, on the place of a wall, there was a transparent glass window with incredible views of the lush green valley below. Surrounded by white snow mountains, it was a sight to behold. The mist because of the hot water made it look more dreamy.
However, this was not all. Just beside the window, we crossed a gate that separated outer vistas from the indoor hot pool. We stood outside in the open, with the modesty towel hardly doing its job. It was difficult to accept that outside, it was the same weather and the same temperature, that just a few minutes back I wasn’t able to sustain with all the layers of clothing on. Though I didn’t have anything on my body, I was still feeling warm. “That’s what the Onsen water does to you”, Kohei explained.
There was another hot pool outside, the water temperature was even higher, but my body was well-acclimatized by then. I stayed out for another 10 minutes after which I proceeded towards the indoor area again. Next was the hot sauna, which was a small room tucked in a corner of the hot bath area. I could hardly sit inside for a minute, and my body was fuming with sweat. All pours were wide open, even the ones that didn’t even know of their existence.
Kohei then suggested me to go to a smaller bath with cold water, right next to the Sauna. “Two minutes, if you can,” he said. Oh! Two minutes would have been ages! Just a few moments and I felt like all my body parts were shrinking to half their size. I started counting in reverse in my head, and only after about a minute in the cold bath, I slowly stood up. It felt like a zombie trying to get up from a grave, everything around me had gone super slow. Taking a step outside had taken a century, it seemed.
I didn’t require any instruction for the next step. As fast as I could, I approached the hot bath. While my mind had stopped working, my body was screaming for it. I submerged myself fully into it (except for the head, which isn’t allowed as per Onsen etiquettes). This was a moment that I had never experienced in my life before.
Time had stopped for me, and my body had become weightless. That’s the closest to a space traveler I could ever be. I was hearing the drops of fresh spring water meeting the pool. The bubbles formed in this process had surrounded me. Across the window, the sky was opening up to show new colors. Devoid of any thoughts, I never felt as good ever in my life.
Away from a mess of emotions, I had disappeared into the state of being no one. I had unlocked the secret to the long lives Japanese people live. They grow up in a culture that makes Onsen a part of your daily living.
Also published on Medium.