onsen etiquette

If it’s your first visit to Japan, you might be put off visiting an onsen because you are not sure of the correct practices or etiquette. Don’t be. Onsens are casual places for Japanese people, and once you have a grasp of the basics you’ll fit in perfectly.

what to bring

Bring your towels with you: one large bath towel for your body, and a smaller one to bring inside the onsen with you. Your hotel may provide these towels for you – the smaller towel is British hand-towel sized but finer, almost like a muslin cloth.

If you have long hair, bring a hair tie with you. If you have particular shampoo, body wash or other product you prefer to use, bring that too, although all onsens have plenty of (cheap) body wash, shampoo and conditioner available. Don’t expect to do anything particularly personal like shaving your legs in an onsen – keep to the basics.

on arrival

Pay your money at the counter, remove your shoes and take a pair of indoor slippers from the floor in front of you. There will be lockers in reception where you leave your shoes and take the key with you. Access to the changing rooms is usually through a doorway with a red noren (curtain) for women and a blue one for men. All onsens are gender separated.IMG_8367

the changing room

Choose a locker with a number or location you will remember. Try not to stand in front of your locker whilst you are getting changed, as you might be blocking access to others. Use the benches. Strip naked and put all your belongings, including big towel and slippers, into the locker. Only bring with you any toiletries you need, your small towel, a hair tie if needed and your locker key which is usually on a wrist band.

Use the toilet before entering the onsen area – as soon as you get into the water you’ll want to go!

If you have a tattoo it may be necessary to cover it up with a plaster – some onsens do not allow people with visible tattoos due to the connection with gangs. Best to ask beforehand.

Don’t visit an onsen with any kind of open cut or wound on your body.

before bathing

When you enter the onsen area, you may see a large container of water with ladles – use a ladle to rinse off your feet before moving further inside. One or more walls will be lined with individual washing areas, each with a small stool, a basin, hot and cold taps, a shower head and a mirror.

Set your things up and give your body a good scrub (you can use your small towel as it’s going to get wet anyway). You don’t need to wash your hair if you don’t want to, just tie it up.

Rinse your body well. You can pop back and leave your personal toiletries back in your locker at this stage if you wish.

If you do wash your hair and plan on leaving conditioner in your hair while bathing, make sure all of your hair is carefully tied up. It is not acceptable to contaminate the water with any type of toiletry product.

bathing

Move gently so as not to disturb the water too much. Bring your little towel with you but never, ever let it enter the water. In many onsens, people use the towel to cover parts of their body as they move around outside the water (draped down their front, for example, or folded and held across the pubic hair area), but in other places people move freely. Watch what others do and copy them. When in the water, find a spot to leave your towel on the side, or fold it and place it on your head.

Typically the water will be around 40-45 degrees celsius, but some are cooler and some even hotter. Be careful you don’t stay too long and get an “onsen hangover” – plan to stay in the water no longer than twenty minutes before cooling down. You can do this by heading back to the shower area and showering with cool water for a minute, or if it’s a cool day at an outdoor pool, just hop up on the side and let the air cool your body for a while before hopping back in.

IMG_8439

after bathing

Don’t shower after bathing – the minerals in the onsen water are supposed to be good for your skin. Use your small towel to dry yourself off a little before leaving the bathing area. There are usually hairdryers available to use in the locker room, and mirrors to help with getting dressed and ready.

Drink plenty of water afterwards, as the onsen will dehydrate you. There are always plenty of vending machines in the reception area.

Soon, you’ll be a natural, and you’ll pop into every hotel onsen wondering how you managed without them!

Advertisements

onsen town

First thing I realise is that I’m going to get the footwear thing wrong. We arrive at our beautiful little ryokan on the main drag of this little hot springs resort town, and immediately our sturdy, Gore-Tex lined walking shoes are spirited away in favour of some plain brown guest house slippers. When we reach our room we must remember to walk no further than one or two steps inside before removing even these items of footwear, and offer nothing to the fragile tatami mats but bare or stockinged feet.

I have chosen a special yukata, or summer kimono, to celebrate Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season. My bright pink floral creation is at odds with the regulation ryokan muted greys, but I love it. A staff member shows me how to dress myself correctly. Hitch the yukata up so that the bottom of the long diagonal collar is aligned with the hipbone. Always fold the left over the right side, never the other way around unless you are dressing a corpse. Tie the first narrow belt tightly around the waist and fold the extra fabric down over it, making sure the lines are straight all around the body. Take your wide obi belt in appropriate contrasting colour and wrap it twice around the folded-down fabric, finishing with a bow to the front. Fold the tails of the bow around itself so that they fall neatly over the front of the bow. Twist the obi around 180 degrees so that the bow is at the back. Voilà.
In Orlando’s case it’s a little easier: put on yukata, folding the left side over the right side. Tie with narrow obi belt around hips. Voilà.

Braving unseasonably chilly weather in a yukata without an under-layer of thermals is unwise, especially if nursing a cold. Happily, both of us have packed some warm undergarments so we are good to go. We pop a traditionalhaori jacket over our yukata, navigate our feet into a pair of tabi (toe socks) and clamber on board a pair of geta (wooden clogs). We are ready.

IMG_8423

We clip-clop our way awkwardly down the street until we realise that nobody is paying us a blind bit of notice. Everybody else is similarly dressed and focused more on not falling off their own geta as they promenade. Different ryokan have different yukata colours and patterns, so you can recognise your fellow ryokan-dwellers and check out what other patterns you like on others.

The canals of the back streets are lined with willows and cherry blossoms. Ignoring the misty rain, we stroll arm in arm along the streets and laneways, peering down an alley here and into a shop window there.

IMG_8283 IMG_8279 IMG_8431

One or two nooks and crannies have foot onsens, where the tired or timid can sit fully clothed and soak their feet in the hot, healing waters.

IMG_8502

Kitsch gift shops jostle for position with old-fashioned rifle ranges and pachinko parlours, where kids of all ages appear to be revelling in the chance to shoot ancient rifles at dodgy-looking plastic figurines of gods and goddesses. Nearby more modern games parlours are almost completely empty by comparison. There aren’t too many dining options, probably because most ryokans offer full board, but there are plenty of ice cream parlours and coffeehouses to pop into between dips.

Our first onsen is, fittingly, Kono-Yu (Hot Spring of Stork), the first bathing house in Kinosakionsen. Legend has it that storks used to bathe their wounds in the marsh on this spot, before the onsen town was founded. On a Monday lunchtime the place is quiet enough. We deposit our geta in a locker in reception before going our separate ways.

The ladies changing room could be that of any municipal fitness centre or swimming pool. I carefully disrobe, folding my haori, obi belt and yukata, locking everything into a second locker. Eyes down and naked, I tiptoe to the door.

The indoor onsen is in the same large, high-ceilinged room as the wash stations. I sit on a small plastic stool and use a basin and shower to wash myself before bathing. I slide into the waters of the large indoor pool, the hot, slightly sulphurous waters a welcome change from the chilly conditions outside. I share the pool with an older lady who alternates between the pool and the wash point, using basins of cold water to refresh her body and lengthen her stay.

The outdoor pool is a few steps away, surrounded by trees and under a large wooden structure which traps some of the steam and keeps the rain away. I sit with two or three older women, staring out at the drizzling rain, breathing in the steamy air and exhaling all my worries and anxieties. Now and again I hop up onto some large stones and cool down before immersing myself again.

Somehow an hour passes in the leafy quietness. I gather my thoughts and cool down with a few basins full of cool water over the body before slipping quietly away into the changing room. There, I expertly (by now) don my yukata, tie my obi, slide the ornate bow to the small of my back and wander out into the cool air, ready for a pot of green tea before doing it all over again later in the afternoon.

a valued customer

It’s a source of real irritation to me that, no matter how much you spend in an Australian shop, no matter how high-end, the likely greeting by the shop assistant at the till will be “Just these today?”. Once I was shopping for a whole new work wardrobe, assisted by a personal shopper. Even with the personal shopper’s discount my bill in one shop was a comfortable four-figure number. “Just those today?”, I was asked as I approached the counter. I almost asked whether she would prefer I shop a little harder just to gain her acknowledgement as a bona fide customer.
So I love shopping in Japan, where every transaction makes you feel like royalty. On a whim the other day, I stop by a Birkenstock shop on Shinsaibashi in Osaka. One pair of sandals and a $100 spend later, the shop manager escorts me right outside the front door before formally presenting me with a heavy cotton bag containing my purchase. With a low bow, he thanks me and I walk away. Fifty metres away at the corner of the street, I look back and he is still there, still bowing low.
For a $100 transaction.
A few days later a lovely shop assistant helps me choose a new yukata (summer kimono) and matching obi (tie belt) in the fashionable halls of Dai Maru. This young lady has almost no English, and embarrassingly I have even less Japanese. But fashion, colour coordination and commerce need no common language, and after an enjoyable trying-on session I spend around $80 on a lovely new black, white and red creation. My purchase is lovingly wrapped in tissue paper and placed in an iconic Dai Maru paper bag, with a clear plastic bag popped in for later in case it rains. The shop assistant asks whether we will browse some more in the South Building or return to the Main Building. When I indicate the latter, she politely escorts me to a set of marble stairs, indicates where I need to go, then presents me with my purchase with a low bow and an “arigato gozaimas-ta”. As I reach the top of the staircase I look down, and the young lady is still there, still bowing until I am out of sight.
I love this country.

tokyo to osaka

The Japan Rail officer on the opposite platform performs a brief balletic ritual as the Shinkansen pulls away exactly on time. In precise and well-practised gestures, he ostentatiously points at his shining silver watch and then at the departing train with a white-gloved hand, signifying its timely departure. Apparently, all of the officers’ watches are synchronised. He gestures to the officers in front of and behind him along the platform. He points at his watch again with his index finger, reciting something aloud – I can’t tell what of course – but I imagine he is announcing proudly that another JR Shinkansen, that technological wonder of Japan, has departed bang on time.
This isn’t my first rodeo, but I still allow myself a brief nod of impressed acknowledgement when our Shinkansen stops with all the doors precisely aligned to the politely waiting queues of people, helped by the platform officer’s ballet in reverse. We take our seats beside an unusually tall man, and the train glides away silently at zero seconds past 12:17.
 

We settle in to brunch, two hastily purchased bento boxes, dumplings for me, eel and tiny fish for Orlando. The ticket inspector strolls past, turning to smile and bow before departing the carriage. It’s such a small gesture in a way, but speaks a multitude about the importance the Japanese put on courtesy and order.
Officially, Peak Hanami starts tomorrow. As we wind through urban and semi-rural areas, more and more blossom-covered cherry trees become apparent, lining a canal here, surrounding a small town park there, popping up one at a time on street corners and postage-stamp-sized gardens.
The train hugs the coast, past wide river outlets, huge wharves and cosy coves. The urban sprawl is unabated, punctuated only occasionally by patches of rural living. Paddy fields sit alongside car parks, apartment blocks alongside traditionally-built homes with ornate tiled roofs. Painstakingly trimmed camellia bushes fill every tiny space in one town, right up to the gates of an enormous Shiseido factory. Now and again the pastoral setting is disturbed by a gleaming solar panel farm where once rows of greenhouses stood. I spot a Denso Tape factory, which casts my mind back to my days as a young gas engineer. 727 Cosmetics seem to prefer billboards in the middle of agricultural land. What’s the logic there?
The towns themselves are not picturesque or charming, really, although many laneways and older houses catch my eye as we speed by. The land around the residential streets are often divided into allotments where potatoes and pumpkins grow. In the less built-up areas you can see how the land has been used in the same way for many years. A narrow laneway survives still, wedged between an old garden wall and a new factory; a crowded graveyard nestles amongst the modern buildings; an old lady dressed in pale blue rides her bicycle in a leisurely fashion past a street of modern two-storey homes.
Every town, large or small, appears to have a baseball park, and I lose count of the number of Ferris wheels I see on the three-hour journey. The enormous Dragons baseball park in Nagoya is decked out in blue and red, the seats huddled intimately around the hallowed turf in the centre. We stop briefly at Nagoya station, swapping one cargo of dark-suited men for another, seasoned with a handful of older women with shopping trolleys. With living space at a premium, I take note of the many clever devices apartment-dwellers employ to dry as much laundry as possible on their tiny balconies. I wonder where I could buy some of them for myself.

Kyoto’s ancient courtyards, canals and rooftop spaces are drenched in cherry blossoms. Part of me wishes we were disembarking here, to revisit its temples and laneways. The platform master once again does his performance, checking his shining silver watch, gesturing with one white-gloved hand towards the front, then the rear, finally pointing in triumph at the digital clock at his workstation. Another Shinkansen departs on time, all is well in the world.
Next stop, Osaka.

down memory lane

On the eve of Christmas Eve, I stroll up the street where I grew up to catch the bus into town for the first time in more than a decade.

The 78 bus is gone now, replaced by the number 40 that crawls through working class suburbs west of the city, over O’Connell Bridge itself and finishes its journey in the deep north of Dublin.

Older women with shopping trolleys wait in line by the electronic sign showing waiting times for the different buses. That would have been handy when I was a teenager. “Remember, you can get any number but the 18 bus”, Mum says. “you don’t want to be ending up in Sandymount.”

I hop on board and my favourite seat: upstairs at the very front. The main shopping drag is busy this morning. Jackie’s florist has lots of handmade evergreen wreaths for front doors and graveyard headstones. There is no hearse in front of Massey’s this morning, although when leaving the house I heard the slow tolling of the funeral bell up at St. Matthew’s Church, which this very day is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of its doors. Impossible to imagine burying a loved one in the week that’s in it.

image

Down through the lower end of Ballyfermot, I have a perfect view across the river to the Phoenix Park and the Pope’s Cross. There is a new cafe at the GAA club down at Sarsfield Ranch, but next door the draughty scout hall I spent half my youth in, first as a sea scout and then as a venture scout, has been torn down. Wonder where they meet now.

As we go under the railway bridge, the border between Ballyfermot and Inchicore, I look with fresh eyes over the big stone wall into the railywaymen’s houses with their symmetrical windows and colourful front doors. They look huge and fancy from the outside, and I can’t imagine how they can be only two-bedroom houses.

Inchicore village is much changed since my youth: they even let women into the front bar of the Black Lion these days. There is a nice looking Italian enoteca next door, and a handful of international groceries selling Turkish, Polish, African and Indian food. Over the Camac River, St. Patrick’s Athletic grounds are now surrounded by newer apartment blocks as well as the old red-bricked terraced houses. St. Michael’s Church is not far from the street where my father grew up, but the bus heads towards Kilmainham and St. James’s Gate rather than down the South Circular Road, so this is as close as I get.

I remember the name of a girl I went to school with, as I pass her mum’s house in Old Kilmainham. The entrance to St. James’s Hospital is more modern now, with the Luas trams driving right into the hospital complex. Past Guinness’s iconic St. James’s Gate and the green dome of St. Patrick’s Tower, the former windmill of the long-closed Roe whisky distillery, past St. Catherine’s church, the site of the execution of Irish patriot Robert Emmet. I know these places not from history at school but from the stories my Dad told me every time we drove or took the bus down this route. His knowledge of the history of Dublin was encyclopaedic.

image

Thomas Street and Meath Street, the heart of the Liberties, are as run down today as they were in my youth. Street sellers call out in their unforgettable Liberties accent: “Get the last of the Christmas wrapping paper, there now five sheets for two euro!” I remember when it used to be five sheets for ten pence. As my father would have said, that was neither today nor yesterday.

The heart of the Liberties has not changed for centuries, the imposing church of St. Audoen’s only in the ha’penny place beside the even grander structures of Christchurch Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral around the corner. So strange that, with the history of this city, we ended up with two Protestant cathedrals and no Catholic one to this day.

Dame Street is heaving with traffic and people. Trinity College is surprisingly bare of Christmas lights but the big old Bank of Ireland is looking great with a huge lit-up tree and plenty of Christmas garlands.

IMG_0162

Round by Westmoreland Street the crowds continue. The Spire rises up into the cold grey sky like a giant silver needle, dwarfing everything on O’Connell Street. Hard to imagine Dublin now without this marker of the new millennium.

IMG_0134

I hop off the bus at the GPO. School kids from Belvedere College are holding a sleep out in aid of the homeless. Clery’s is wrapped up with a huge ribbon of white lights. There is a big Chirstmas crib at the bottom of the tree in the middle of the street: no baby Jesus in there yet though. not till Christmas morning. The last few years saw a fancy artificial tree on O’Connell Street but we are back to a more traditional spruce this year.

IMG_0113

Eason’s is jam packed. Dads queue up with Christmas annuals for the kids. The three-for-two book deals are popular. I don’t manage to escape the shop without a book or two, even though it’s the second bookshop I’ve visited in twenty-four hours. Dublin always reignites my passion for reading somehow: must be all that literary history in the water. I entertain myself for a few minutes looking at the Irish tourist tat on sale near the front doors, and choose a few classic “you know you’re Irish when…” greetings cards to support local small business.

Back outside, it’s not that chilly. The crowds are thickening as the lunchtime crowds start to hit the streets. A day of shopping and family awaits, but for now I stand in the heart of Dublin and try to take in the moment: I made it home for Christmas.

where in the world?

 

singapore weekend

Global cities are well defined in economic terms. They dominate the trade and commerce of their home countries and beyond; they have global decision-making capabilities, and they are centres of distinction and innovation in education, entertainment and technology.

Global cities to me always had a more visceral definition: larger than life, they know they are different, more important, create a larger vortex. And crucially, they don’t care. They are too busy being a global city to think about it too much, and they certainly don’t care what you think. A visitor to a global city is not required or expected to fall in love with the place, to applaud its many merits and achievements. Citizens of global cities really just want visitors to walk at a decent pace, learn quickly what side of the escalator to stand on, spend their money and generally not get in the way.

As a result, of course, we all adore these places. Never mind that New Yorkers are brash and direct, that the rents are as sky-high as the buildings. Those most critical of US foreign policy or cultural domination will sigh at the mention of New York and declare it their favourite city on earth. Never mind that London is congested and chilly, or that the tube has no air-conditioning, or that Heathrow is a nightmare. Everybody wants to go and live in London in their gap year. It’s the buzz, you see.

IMG_2625

Some people equate Global Cities with something more: on top of the economists’ definitions, they also expect them to be multi-cultural melting pots, intersection points for all the races and cultures of the world. To me, this melting-pot criterion is not necessary: you don’t really get that in Tokyo or Hong Kong, and yet they are true Global Cities.

In the late 1990s some academics in Loughborough University, of all places, made a catalogue of Global Cities. In A++ place were London and New York, naturally. In close second at A+ level were Hong Kong, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, Singapore and Dubai.

According to my definition it’s almost right. Hong Kong may technically be part of China but it will always be, defiantly, just Hong Kong. Similarly, Shanghai’s colonial past sets it a little apart from the rest of China and it has its own unique feel and sub-culture. Beijing is inextricably linked with the rest of China, both culturally and economically, but its citizens remind me more of the people of New York than the people of Xi’an. Come and visit if you like, just keep out of the way.

Paris, is, of course, Paris. Enough said.

But Sydney? To me, Australia’s largest city is still far too self-conscious to be a genuine Global City. Yes, technically its economic and political influence is significant both in Australia and in Asia Pacific, so the Loughborough University definition stands. But it tries too hard to be liked, admired, acknowledged. It’s like the younger sibling of one of the cool kids in high school, hanging around with the big boys, trying to fit in. It’s Sandra Dee, or a young graduate with their first proper job, hiding their lack of self-confidence money and swagger, but little sophistication.

Also, to this Old-Worlder, it’s difficult to see such a young city as a real Global City. To me, Global Cities are simultaneously ancient and new, patched together, organically developed, hectic places where you can almost see the growth rings like those of an old tree.

The chaos is only barely under control; the plumbing and sanitation and road works and public transport survive each day somehow, and everybody heaves a sigh of relief. One unfortunate passenger under a tube train, one set of Manhattan traffic lights on the blink, one Star Ferry running late, and London/New York/Hong Kong teeters on the brink of rush-hour annihilation.

That to me is what a Global City feels like.

A weekend in Singapore, then, was an interesting scenario. This famous city state holds around 6 million citizens in an area about the same size as the Tasman Peninsula in Australia, half of County Dublin or the Isle of Man. There are skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, but those in the central business district are so tall that the “regular” buildings further out don’t seem to warrant the name.

I had few expectations except for tales of humidity, pristine streets and underground shopping malls built to shield Singaporeans from the heat above ground. I looked forward to the biggest observation wheel in the world and plenty of rooftop cocktail bars.

Did it feel like a true Global City? I don’t know. Again, the economic influence is undoubted, and the urban landscape is sensational. The shopping is fantastic, the street food legendary, the coffee alone worth the trip. A smattering of world-class iconic structures make the cityscape interesting: the enormous Singapore Flyer and the Marina Bay Sands, a warped surfboard resting on a wicket.

IMG_4322

But…. It was a little sterile. Of course, Singapore is renowned for its cleanliness and order, rules and regulations: no chewing gum, no littering, no durian fruit on the trains.

IMG_4352

The trains run on time, the people all stand on the correct side of the escalator, and they all walk on the left hand side of the pavement. The result is a little futuristic and surreal, if like me you come from an ancient and chaotic town like Dublin. The people were unfailingly polite, friendly, warm and helpful, which was lovely. Whilst it was an incredibly busy place, there was little of the barely-controlled frenzy you often feel in other huge cities. I liked it, mostly.

The vast warren of inter-connecting underground shopping malls was a real eye-opener. I’m not a bit claustrophobic, but I ended up feeling quite relieved each time we emerged chilled and blinking from that air-conditioned fluorescent netherworld into the tropical sunlight. At any given time, six million Singaporeans are hermetically sealed in vast steel-and-concrete tubes, either horizontally underground or vertically reaching for the sky. It can’t be right.

IMG_4321

The rooftop bars were a delight. No matter where you are in the centre of town, the views are sensational. From the understated sophistication of the seventh floor Lighthouse Bar at the Fullerton, to the de trop ostentation of Ku De Ta atop the Marina Bay Sands, we tried them all (or many of them, anyway).

The Lighthouse was just delightful. “You look beautiful!”, exclaimed the (female) manager to me as I emerged from the lift. I didn’t, but I accepted the compliment graciously. A perfectly made Bombay Sapphire and tonic was the way to enjoy the tacky but entertaining laser show across the water at the Marina Bay Sands. Time your visit for 8pm or 9.30pm (and 11pm on Saturdays) to watch the dancing lights in understated luxury.

IMG_4424

Ku De Ta is of course the place to see and be seen, and they keep away the hoi polloi with plenty of rules: men must wear closed-in shoes (women are good to go in strappy sandals). No shorts, singlets, slippers or tank tops. You’d better book ahead even for drinks (but the minimum spend is quoted as S$80 a head, and you don’t get a seat). The door staff on the ground floor will vet you even before you get to the lifts. The result was a spectacular view, no shelter if it rained, a disappointing drinks list, far too much ice and marmalade (you heard me) in my cocktail, very little space to take it all in and a quick decision to move on to the next bar.

The City Space bar on the 70th floor of the Stamford, on the other hand, may look north away from Marina Bay and That Building, but the atmosphere is relaxed, welcoming and much more grown-up. Karen the manager got to know us by name, scored us window seats every time and brought our “usual” cocktails to us with a smile.

The Lantern on the top of the modern Fullerton Bay is a great spot, not too high but perfectly placed to enjoy the unique Marina Bay skyline. It’s a bit after-worky in the early evening, but a great place to watch the sunset and get in the mood for the night ahead.

So is Singapore on my personal lists of Global Cities? No. Is it a good destination for a weekend break, a spot of shopping, a reason to sip a Singapore Sling by the pool, a chance to overdose on kopi peng (Singaporean iced coffee), an opportunity to dress up and bar-hop with the best of them? Absolutely.

See you next time, Singapore.