Let’s Gunma

I’ve spent the last couple days in onsen—Japanese hot springs—and as I was exiting the bath yesterday, I noticed a sign attached to the door leading to the outdoor baths:

Watch out for foxes

which I suppose was meant to remind us to close the door so that foxes cannot get it. It made me smile, and as I soaked in the hot water, I found myself thinking of a story.

There have been a couple stories knocking around in my head during this trip. As the first draft of Kabuki-ish crawls towards finish, I’ve started to think about the next first draft, the next story. Of course, there is a much editing to do on Kabuki-ish. And Food of Magicians, which is languishing on my desk. But with no timeline for querying now, and no urgency really to publish a novel, it seems perfectly fine to just write and edit at whatever pace I feel like. There is a sort of luxury in that.

The onsen was in Gunma, in a fairly remote corner of the northwest mountainous edge of the prefecture. Local hotels pumped up sulfurous hot water to fill the indoor and outdoor baths. In the town I visited, there were no grocery stores because the area is a national park.

I liked to imagine taking a bath late at night, and there is a strange girl waiting in the water. Maybe it’s three, just after they’ve closed the large outdoor bath, and they’ve finished cleaning and re-opened the space, but no one is using it until closer to dawn. There’s the sound of a river rushing nearby. And, there’s the strange girl, waiting on the other side of the steaming pool. It’s too dark to make out her features. You’ve forgotten to close the door leading inside.

I’ve known someone who visited Japan a dozen times and never left Tokyo, a fact that is completely baffling to me. Even for all of Tokyo’s chaotic organization and materialism fit to happily drown in, it is wandering off, taking a train between the trees and in traveling beyond that I’ve probably been most changed.


The water was perfectly clear. But, wherever it came flowed, it left beyond minerals, sometimes bright white, yellow, or electric green.

In the bath, the water softened your skin. Sometimes the bright greens and yellows floated like pollen in the water, and one bathhouse posted all the ailments such water would help heal: arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, “women’s ailments,” skin disease… I floated in the water until I turned pink and flush, and then returned to the showers to wash with cold water, chilling every limb, before returning to the onsen to start the process all over again.

In the medieval, certain onsen were viewed as a cure for leprosy and attached to hospice temples. There were even medicines that called for boiling down the onsen water to make a concentrate to drink, a practice that the modern, nineteenth century government worked hard to dissuade people of.

Onsen towns sometimes have areas called water fields, or a spot where the hot water naturally approaches the surface. The town pumps that water to different inns and hotels, who then mix the onsen water with other water. This controls the temperature and the chemical makeup of the baths. We hiked up to the water field, but the smell of sulfur was strong, and the water pool was roped off because the air nearby was unsafe. We continued walking, up the mountain, through the hiking trails. Despite the warming of June up here, there were still snow piles tucked in shadowy corners. A cave, with a chipped and peeling red gate, and a sign so faded we could not read the text to tell us what had happened there. Another sign stated that a hunter had taken shelter there with his two dogs, who defended him from a bear. There were variations to the old local legend, all meant to explain the name of the mountain, a merging of the man’s name, dogs, a bear.

A view from above the Manza onsen town.

A view from above the Manza onsen town.

I am a little self-conscious about my onsen experience. But, not for the normal reasons! Many Americans find visiting onsen strange or unappealing, mainly because you go in the baths entirely naked. They are divided by gender. For someone who is not Japanese, more specifically not East Asian, there is an added component of the additional looks and glances, which does not really help one adjust. I suppose it took me two bath visits to get used to the communal nakedness. I came to realize that everyone was naked, I look normal, and no one really wanted to pay attention to anyone else.

Another thing that made onsen interesting was that the ease with nakedness ends the moment most Japanese women enter the dressing room. Often, you wear a yukata, or light cotton robe, provided by your inn or hotel. You take your towel and such down to the baths, enter the dressing room, which might have some vanities, lotions, hair driers, and cubbies with baskets inside. You tuck your things in the basket, take off your yukata—and whatever you might be wearing underneath—and then head into the main bathing area. The interesting thing, is that when it comes to taking off clothes in the dressing room, Japanese women (and of course, not all, but many) become a little secretive and awkward, something funny considering the full nudity that is going to happen in the next room. As an American accustomed to locker room culture—where the locker room is a place where you can be naked without, hopefully, too much anxiety—this inverse is intriguing.

The locker room awkwardness is not limited to onsen. When I attended high school here, we did a swimming unit and had to change from our uniforms into swimsuits. Young women would go through the most ridiculous contortions to put on their swimsuits, burying themselves under towels and huddling in corners to hide their bodies as they changed. High school is a special time. I won’t laugh at anyone uncomfortable with their own body at that time in their life, but when considered to exist in the same society as onsen, the locker room discomfort is intriguing.

Americans, I do think, should be more comfortable with nakedness and our bodies. There is a residual something, a modesty that extends to naked bodies when they aren’t even sexual. When we bathe, however, why should we be ashamed to be naked in a safe space with the same sex? Why should we be awkward and ashamed of how were are formed? For women especially, there is something liberating about reaching the place where you can slip into the water, let go of anxiety, let go of the worries that your stomach is bulging or your thighs are pink, that stupid mole… All the things we know that make us less than something we’re supposed to be—a poisonous thing we’re stuck with. Just that, we’re not all right. There’s a fantasy to be matched, somehow.

But, really, says the onsen, you are all right. Really. This poisonous slime is in your head. Scoop it out. Wash it away.

If you can’t, at least look at the old woman with the lumps, skin spots, and wrinkles, the wash cloth plopped on her forehead. She looks happy. You can be that too, for a moment. Close your eyes, think of the story.

A hiking path leading away from the water field.

A hiking path leading away from the water field.

Steaming onsen water flows down from a hole in the mountain.

Steaming onsen water flows down from a hole in the mountain.