Monday, May 29, 2017

Meeting Extraordinary People in Japanese Hot Springs



When naked in a hot spring, the layers of clothing that display our pretensions, our fashion statements, and our barriers no longer separate our bare selves from others. In a shared hot spring bath, with the right people and the right timing,  connections develop between strangers. The Japanese refer to this bathing phenomenon as hadaka no tsukiai, often translated as naked communion or naked friendship.

My Swiss friend and I, an American ex-pat in Japan,  experienced hadaka no tsukiai at Ogi Onsen Hot Spring Ryokan Kamemeso. First, we soaked by ourselves in the rock-lined indoor bath. Spacing out, I noticed patterns in the wooden walls that were stained by years of daily exposure to mineral-laden steam drifting toward the high wooden ceiling. Through wet windows, I could see four Japanese men in their twenties laughing and chatting in the rotenburu, outdoor bath. Not long later after flushing the stress out of my body and soul in a sweaty but cleansing indoor sauna, I wandered outside where my Swiss friend was smiling and chatting with two of the young men. I joined them. Above the bath, the heavens were cloudy and dark. Inside the illuminated bath, a current of friendship was circulating. Chatting, I learned that one muscular young man with natural black hair dyed lighter than mine was a professional dancer. His friend said that he was famous. I asked if I could take a photograph. He reached behind him and lifted a prosthesis for his lower left leg. He waved it in the air with gusto. He was brimming with confidence, the kind that comes from overcoming great odds and becoming a public figure. His name is Koichi Omae. Koichi san, representing Japan,  danced at the closing ceremonies of the Rio Paralympic Games.

Koichi was in Sadogashima (Sado Island, Niigata) to rehearse with members of Kodo, Japan's foremost taiko (Japanese percussion) group. Their performance was scheduled for two days later in Tokyo. We talked for a while about dancing and his injury. Koichi told me that his lower leg had been severed after a car struck him while he was taking a walk. Koichi also shared that representing Japan was stressful. Despite the hardships, by dint of hard work and practice, sometimes seven hours a day, he had overcome an incident that would have devastated most people. He truly is an amazing young man. I googled Koichi Omae and found two spectacular online videos. The first shows a graceful but powerful classical ballet style solo dance. The second video displays a more upbeat and acrobatic performance of Koichi drumming on his wheelchair, then dancing with it while slipping between  Kodo members as they beat their instruments.I am looking forward to attending a future dance performance by Koichi, Omae, an extraordinarily talented young man.
Photo provided by Earth Celebration Committee
Hot springs are doors to perception. In Japanese onsens, I have met many interesting people–politicians, yakuza, policemen, hot spring designers, painters, and more. These were colorful characters that I  would never have met if not for my hot spring addiction. Through getting naked in hot springs, I have gained insights into Japanese culture. Most of my experiences have been wonderful, but, to be honest, I have met a small number of weird people.

Ogi  Onsen Ryokan Kamemeso is a short walk from Ogi Port, Sado Island. Sado Island is Japan's sixth largest island. Despite having lovely mountains, picturesque beaches, superb seafood, rice, and vegetables, and a wealth of unique cultural attractions, Sado Island gets few visitors. Ferries leave from Myoko, Niigata, arrive in Ogi Port. Ferries from Niigata City bring visitors to the main port city of Ryotsu. Buses cross from Ryotsu to Ogi Port.

Bathing at Ogi  Onsen Ryokan Kamemeso was a delightful experience that I had almost passed up. The exterior of the building is a garish yellow color that gives a false impression to visitors. My friends hesitated to enter, but I convinced them to give it a try after looking at the interior. The inside is clean and artistically decorated with local paintings. You can stay overnight or just visit for a bath for 420 yen per person. Since I did not stay overnight, I cannot comment on the rooms. Click to see their website.

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