Going Home (家に帰る)
I’m going home! After three years living in Japan I am going to move back home to the United States. I have had a great journey whilst living here and I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything. However I am coming to a crossroads in my life and I feel now is the right time to return to my home country and start something new. Stay tuned for more.
Tuesday, September 10
I started a new long-term work-assignment in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki. I’m spending eight weeks in a prefecture north of Tokyo.
When I originally got the assignment I was less than thrilled. I was living far enough that I’d be staying in a different apartment. During my final weeks in Japan I didn’t want to be removed from the life I had built over three years in Tokyo.
But then I did something that I’ve become really adept at. I found the silver lining in the situation. This gig wasn’t so bad. I actually need some significant alone time to wrap up my life here and prepare for my return. I’m collecting a per diem while on assignment. The branch office here is moving to a new location. This is my first adults-only school, providing a break from kids lessons. The town is very quiet and my coworkers friendly. I can still get back to Tokyo on the weekends.
The positives quickly outweighed the negatives and I regained my balance.
Sunday, September 29
Hold on. Let me try that again.
There, that was better.
I spent the day at Tokyo Disneyland. I literally mean the day, 8 AM to 10 PM, or open to close.
We had a great time. I’m not really such a fan of Disney. I like a lot of their movies, but I’m more of a passing fan. What I really enjoy is the park management at Tokyo Disneyland & Disney Sea. Everything is managed down to the second. The “fastpass” system keeps people motivated for their next ride. The lines are always moving. Even if the wait is three hours the line will keep progressing. The many parades that move through the park are escorted along by dozens of staff members who keep traffic moving. Everything is so clean. The prices are very reasonable considering they have you trapped. The park is constantly being updated for the changing the seasons and to keep people coming back. Tokyo Disneyland is a prime example of the wonder that is Japanese efficiency. Now if only my local DMV would get with the program…
Also worth mentioning is who I went with, my new girl Mitsuki. Mitsuki is a Tokyo girl. She’s fashionable, moves quickly through a crowd, and can read the air. She is fully aware that I’m not here much longer and that our relationship is unfortunately a dead-end. But she still signed up. I’m really thankful for her as she is keeping me moving at a brisk pace and squeezing all the last drops of enjoyment I can out of Tokyo.
温泉 (onsen) is Japanese for hot spring. Onsens in Japan are a really big deal. The country has thousands of baths. From time immemorial, the Japanese have soaked in volcanic water. I have personally visit more than 20 baths myself and would like to offer a little insight about this great Japanese feature.
As many of you know, Japan sits on three tectonic plates. This causes earthquakes, mountains and volcanoes. As a result the country has naturally occurring hot springs where geothermal wells heat pools of water. The hot water is an allure to getting in. So too are the minerals and chemicals that bubble up. The first people to slip into the water likely did so to get clean or stay warm. Modern Japanese people subscribe to the same reasons plus an additional reason: socializing.
Stripping down naked with friends, family, lovers, or even business partners can allow for a deeper connection. Soaking in the minerals and chatting with another is really special and good for building bonds.
Allow me to briefly walk you through a bathing experience.
You’ll enter the establishment and put your shoes in a cubby. Pay the cashier, usually between 500 to 1,000 yen ($5-10). You’ll be pointed to the entrance to the baths and you’ll almost always separate by gender. Once inside the locker room you’ll strip down and but your clothes in a wicker basket. Proceed to the showers and find an open stall. All stalls are open but clearly divided. Each shower head is accompanied by a stool and mirror. Rinse off, soap up and wash off. Once you’re clean you’re ready to get in.
Gently ease into the scalding hot water. Horseplay is not allowed. Be sure to bow to the other people already seated in the waters. If you’d like to be polite, apologize for disturbing the water and quietly take a seat. Now slip into the water up to your neck. Do not submerge your head, that’s unsanitary. If you’re accompanied with a friend feel free to talk at a low volume.
Nicer onsens will often have a variety of pools, usually waist deep, to choose from. They’re separated by temperature and minerals. Move around and find the best one for you. My favorite bath has a mineral that makes your skin tingle and feel very smooth afterwards.
When you’ve had your fill soaking return to the shower stall to rinse off. Dry off and get dressed up. Exit the locker room and move to the communal area. If you’re lucky there will be a tatami room where you can sit at low tables. Order up some soba or tempura for a delicious meal. If you’re like me you’ll want a frosty draft beer to cool off with. This part of the experience allows you to keep talking and strengthen the bonds with others.
When it’s all done return to the cubby and put your shoes off. Give a polite thank you to the cashier and enter the world refreshed.
An important part of the onsen experience, as a westerner, is the nudity. Having been in plenty of American locker rooms I know there are two types of naked men. There are prudes who limit their nudity and focus on the ceiling. And then there are the rest, often old men, who just let it all hang out and have no sense of decency. I definitely fall into the latter category. I don’t have anything the rest of the gentlemen don’t. I see no sense in covering up or blushing.
Japanese onsens are very clean and very pleasant. Taking a bath in one is a real treat and an excellent part of the culture. I’m really going to miss these. However I’ll always feel a little cleaner having shared the experience.