Bathtime in Old Edo

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Night had fallen by the time I reached Ooedo-Onsen-Monogatami, just a short walk from the Yurikamome Line’s Telecom Center station on the island of Odaiba. I’d planned my arrival carefully, but still I was a bit too early for their discounted evening rate, so I waited on a bench outside the Onsen along with a large group of Japanese tourists also waiting for 6pm to hit. It was a cold December night and one by one people would trickle inside the building only to wait some more, this time in the heated lobby, for when they would be able to enter the Onsen proper. The workers obviously knew what we were waiting for, and finally a woman looked at her watch then smiled and ushered us all in.

We all removed our shoes as we stepped onto the tatami, making our way to one of several rows of lockers we would meet that night.  I locked up my shoes and my winter coat, retaining the rest of my things as I joined the quickly moving line for reception.  The language barrier was minimal, and I was able to purchase my evening rate admission without incident.   I was given a map and a key on a cord that would slip over my wrist and serve as my tab for the rest of my stay.  Then I was directed to the Yukata table.

A multitude of designs hung on the wall, identified by numbers.  I chose a cute pink robe with flowers and requested an LL (pronounced ell ell), the Japanese equivalent of an extra large.  The men and women were directed into second dressing rooms, these filled with another bank of lockers into which I put the rest of my clothes, though I still hung onto my bag.  There were large signs posted on the wall showing how to put on a yukata– I’d had some practice with this from Bon Dances, but once I had the yukata on I realized it seemed a little small.  I flagged a worker down and tried to explain to her that my yukata was too small, could I please have another one?  She didn’t speak much English and I couldn’t remember the words for big and small, so she looked at the tag in the bag then bid me wait as she scurried off.  She returned with another yukata of the same design, presenting it proudly to me, and I smiled and thanked her.

Once she’d walked off I inspected the yukata and realized she’d given me another LL.  What had she thought I was asking for?  But I decided to try it on and see maybe if the one I was wearing was cut strangely.  It was then that I saw I’d already been wearing an LLL, and she must have thought I wanted a smaller one.  It was a bit disheartening to find that even 2XL clothing is too small for me, but Japanese clothing isn’t really made for Westerners, I suppose.  Finally I figured out that if I held the side of my yukata I wouldn’t have to worry about it opening too much while walking.  Dumping the LL yukata into the laundry bin, I headed out into the Onsen proper.

It was like walking onto an ancient Tokyo street.  The ceiling was painted like sky with lanterns strung across, the floor a wooden street flanked on either side by old fashioned shops and restaurants.  A little wooden bridge crossed a stream beside a replica watchtower.  There were fortune telling booths, game stalls of fishing and star throwing, masks and geta and kimono for sale.  Hungry travelers dined on sushi and soba at low tables on top tatami mats.  Everybody strolled about barefoot in multicolored yukata, and despite the modern arcade and photo booths it was a very transportive atmosphere.  I explored for a bit, taking photos, making plans for the evening, but of course the primary reason for visiting was the bath.

For a Westerner unaccustomed to public bathing, the experience can be a little intimidating at first.  I’d visited a public bath on my last trip to Tokyo, but still I decided to ease into things by visit the foot bath first.  The foot bath was actually more of a complex of shallow streams filled with steamy water.  Being mixed gender, everybody kept their yukata on; being outdoors in February, we were given hanten, traditional short winter coats, to wear over them. The streams were lined with rocks of various sizes and smoothness, presumably to act as a massage, but I wasn’t the only one to wince as I stumbled my way across them.  Sitting on benches at the side of the stream we’d dangle our feet in the water, strangers communing in silence, warm and peaceful despite the cold night air.  Also available for an extra charge was a service called Doctor Fish, in which you dip your feet into a pool filled with tiny fish and they nibble the dead skin off your feet.  I would have been willing to try this if it hadn’t cost so much.

By this time I was ready for the full bathing experience.  I made my way into another locker room and, grabbing a towel, stripped down completely.  It was very awkward at first, and I couldn’t help wrapping the larger towel around my body until one of the Onsen workers gently scolded me and told me to leave my towel in the locker.  Feeling very exposed, I clutched my little hand towel and made my way out into the bathing area.  It’s natural to be nervous in such an environment, but that feeling quickly fled as I realized that everyone was nude, and furthermore, none of them had perfect bodies either.  I’m not really in the habit of looking at nude women (not since I left at school, at least) so it kind of comforted me to see other peoples wrinkles and dimples and imperfections.  Besides, I had more important things to worry about– that tricky bathing etiquette.

As I stepped into the bathing area, I was met by a shower to the left, a trough of water with buckets directly ahead, and to my right several rows of individual showering cubicles.  Beyond all this was the bath.  I knew that cleaning off before going in the bath was absolutely required, but I wasn’t sure– was I supposed to use the shower, or the trough, or the cubicles, or a combination?  Was it a personal preference?  All the signs were in Japanese, and I didn’t want to stand around the entire time looking clueless, so I made my way to an empty cubicle in the far corner where less people could see me making mistakes.  The awkward thing about everyone being nude now was that I wanted to be able to see what other people were doing, for guidance, but I didn’t want to come off as a pervert.

Ah, the complications of bathing.

My previous Onsen experience had been much less fancy than Ooedo. The cubicle I sat at had a stool, a bucket, a faucet, a shower head, and a wide arrangement of soaps and shampoos.  I imagined this must be what spas are like, though I’ve never actually been to a spa.  The whole act of sloshing a bucket of water over my head felt very traditional to me, so it was in this way that I washed my hair.  It hadn’t occurred to me that using the hand held shower on my body would send water flying behind me, but in any case, there was no one sitting over there, so I wasn’t too mortified.  After a thorough rinsing to be sure there was no trace of soap, I wrapped my hair with my hand towel and made my way over to the bath.

Bathing area is more appropriate, as there were multiple baths of different sizes and depths and even waters.  One had amber colored water, the other a bubbly white.  There was a traditional hot tub and even a pool of cold water to dunk in if you became overheated.  A sliding door led to an enclosed outdoor bathing area with several build in warm pools as well as individual barrel tubs.  I tried them all, a genuine bath hopper, but I especially enjoyed the outdoor pools for the fact that the air was so cold, and the water was so warm.  It was brisk.

Feeling cleaner than I ever had in my life, I went back out into the changing area, but the pampering continued.  Here there were sinks where you could wash your face with exfoliating soap, blowdry your hair with special cream.  There were individual combs and toothbrushes with built in toothpaste.  There was even a vending machine with such necessities as deodorant, shaving razors, and even clean underpants.  Given my previous underpants complications, I bought a pair, using the wristband from the front desk as a credit card.

Having dressed, I wandered back out into the mock streets of Edo and purchased some dinner, again using my wristband.  Everywhere there were drink dispenses with several types of tea as well as cold water.  I sat at one of the tatami tables, dining on a self serve bento and neon green melon float.  Across from me was a large group of drunken men laughing and enjoying themselves.

Knowing that the trains to Fujimino stop running early, I’d planned from the start to stay the night at the Onsen.  Although private rooms are available, it is quite common for people to come in during the evening and just spend the night going from bath to bath and resting in between.  On the second floor were relaxation rooms, one common and one women’s only, which held reclining chairs with built in televisions.  The room was mostly empty, with a few women napping or reading or watching television.  I found an outlet to recharge my phone and relaxed in the chair, a complimentary blanket spread over me, watching Japanese game shows and occasionally nodding off.  I did not sleep in the relaxation room, however.  Wandering back downstairs to do another walk through of the stalls, which were starting to close in the late hour, I saw that one of the tatami dining areas had been converted into a sleeping area.  Folding screens separated the room into a common and women’s only area, and each part had padded mats laid out in rows.  The mats were surprisingly comfortable and it was there that I spent the night.

I woke early the next morning.  Many girls were still asleep, and I crept quietly out of the sleeping area.  It was early enough that most of the food stalls were still closed, as well as the foot bath, but I returned to the main bathing room to freshen up.  The Onsen is not truly 24 hours; everyone must be out at 9am to give them a chance to clean.  I managed one of the final baths of the morning then gathered up my things, changed back into my street clothes, and returned to reception.  There I paid my bill; the entrance charge, an overnight fee, as well as all the items that had been charged to my wrist band.  The total was higher than my daily budget, but well within my one splurge limit, and I left feeling very clean and satisfied.

There is nothing like a Japanese bath.

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