Craig Mod
Tokyo & New York & SF & elsewhere
Hi co-founder. Writer. Travel lover. More at:

Public onsen roofs

November 23rd, 2013, 11am in Nozawaonsen, Japan

I bathed under that beautiful roof.

The yuruyu (ゆる湯) or, gentle water, into which I had dipped myself was anything but gentle at 44℃. Not to say it wasn't comforting or warming — it was — but it was approaching the upper bounds of comfort and warmth, just a degree or two below scalding.

Next to it was the atsuyu (あつ湯) or, hot water. The water the real men — the farmers from this little village — dipped into. I placed my hand in the atsuyu, tried to count to five, couldn't make it past two, pulled it out, shook it, doused it in the yuruyu to cool it down, pulled it out again and stared at the line of red around my wrist extending to my finger tips. I had flash cooked my hand.

Onsens are strange places. And in this particular onsen — a tiny wooden public shack erected above a natural boiling water spigot, barely insulated from the freezing cold air just outside — the steam swirled and filled the small room.

Within that steam emerged a boy, maybe eight or nine years old. Or, I thought I saw a boy emerge. He stood there between two hunched old men — barely more than whittled pieces of petrified wood in the shape of men slowly washing themselves.

The staring began. This happens at public baths — the staring at the white guy by kids. They usually don't stare long, but this boy — if he really was there — seemed to have a touch of Down's Syndrome, and was therefore immune from whatever social embarrassment pulls away the gaze of others.

He smiled and stared. He sat down on the cold floor and began soaping himself, continuing to stare and smile at me the whole time. I dipped myself into the yuruyu and sat back. I looked up and saw the steam intermingling with the slats in the roof — the photo above — and thought, I should take a picture of that once I get out.

The little man continued to soap and stare. Each time I peeked over, there he was — or wasn't — mixed in with the steam, staring and smiling without malice, washing himself vigorously.

I nodded to him as if to say, Hey there, and this seemed to give him permission to perform for me. He jumped up, covered in soap, and between the two men got down on his knuckles and began executing a series of pushups in this exceptionally small space, just a few feet from me. The men paid him no attention.

The boy, or illusion of the boy, completed his pushups and stood — naked and dripping with suds — and pointed at me with one hand and then took his other arm and curled it into a bodybuilder pose. He slowly shook his head forward and back at me as if to say, I am so much stronger than you, smiling his malice-free smile the entire time.

He then transitioned into a series of moves that were similar to those which wrestlers perform to pump up the crowd. This, I assumed. To tell you the truth I really didn't know what was going on, although it seemed harmless enough, and the old men made of ancient wood were unperturbed. The boy whipped his arm around slicing through the steam like Randy "Macho Man" Savage and then, placing his hand to his ear, made some primal yell and pointed at me once again.

I smiled and nodded and said — Oh, you think you're strong, eh? and rose from my yuruyu. I squeezed past him — he still in his pose, finger following me along the bathhouse — and made my way to the atsuyu. Maintaining eye contact the whole time, I began to descend into those scalding waters. My feet seemed too shocked to protest though my legs immediately began to prickle with all signs indicating Abort! Abort! I felt my future children fade as the waters rose above my waist and made it in as far as my nipples when, in a convulsive and violent reflex, my legs straightened and shot me up and I screamed like a little girl and hopped out of that horrid torture tub and bounced between my feet trying to cool off in the chilly air, jazz hands waving letting out a groan — Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

The old men slowly turned to see what was going on, and then, seeing it was just me, turned back without expending another ounce of energy. The boy just stood there, shaking his head and pointing at me, his finger stretched out, other arm raised high in the air as if to say, I won, I won you poor, poor creature, you. And although he still smiled, it was different. Still without malice, but now tinged with pity, just the slightest hint. He had met some strange unknown creature and bested him, proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that he was stronger, I was weaker.

I lowered myself back into the yuruyu and tried to fight back the tears of having turned my body into a shabushabu ingredient. I looked up at the roof again and it was still beautiful and I thought to myself, at least I'll get that photo. I closed my eyes for a little while and when I opened them again, the boy was gone, and the old men still scrubbed.