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.

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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.

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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.

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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.