JAPAN ENTRY NUMBER 4:
THE NAKED AND THE NUDE
I start this blog on the plane from Seoul to Manila. The Japan phase of my trip over, I'm starting a fortnight of new life in The Philippines.
More customs/immigration to come... and in a burst of honesty-- I've checked the COUGH list on The Ebola Card. (Crossed out NOT APPLICABLE) Let's see what happens.
(I'm adding to this blog on the plane BACK from Osaka... actually back from Taipei where I transferred from a Manila flight. I still have the cough... worse than ever.)
Flash back to Osaka:
The Japanese have a phrase: hadaka no tsukiai, literally naked relationship. It refers to a special bond formed by being naked with your friends or co-workers. More on this later.
Before we get naked, let's go to the first Drink Club of the trip. Check out this crew at a take-your-shoes off restaurant.
[NOTE: If you know me, you know I wear army boots... always. In a take-your-shoes-off culture like Japan... army boots are a pain in the ass. Others slip on, off, on again. I have to untie... loosen pull my feet out...usually the tight boots pull my socks off in the process. I've got to put my socks back on... then finally step into wherever. It takes me double digit minutes to cross a threshold. In Japan, a raised platform always means TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES. Everywhere has a raised platform.]
This drink club is in an izakaya... one of those eateries with raised tatami platforms where you have to (you guessed it), take off your shoes when you sit down, and put them back on again when you go for a piss.
What a great crew! Takashi, Kazu Yada, a Hong Kong co-worker of Takashi's who calls himself Jerry... and is one of the best new people I met on this trip. (Yeah, I saw him naked,,, we'll get to that in a little while.) Plus there was PYOKO!!! Drink Club Goddess® ... my heroine, the woman of my dreams... the beginning and the end... THAT PYOKO!! Have I died and gone to heaven?
Over dinner Takashi asks me... “Hey Mykel, what do you want to do in Osaka?”
I explain that I've done the Skywalk, and Okonamiyaki and Takoyaki... I want to do something new.
“How 'bout SPA WORLD?” asks Takashi.
“Sounds like science fiction,” I say. “Like planet of the apes.”
“But isn't a spa where you lie on your stomach and someone with strong hands beats your muscles until they hurt?”
He looks at me like I've asked if a crowbar was a place where blackbirds get drunk.
“No!” he says. “It's like an onsen... but indoors. And there are all kinds of pools and showers. We could be hadaka no tsukiai.”
“Do boys and girls go there together?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says, “but they're on different floors. I thought you liked onsen, Mykel. It's the same thing.”
[In fact, one of the reasons I'm in Japan is to go to an onsen... with monkeys. It's been a long time dream of mine.]
“You're right,” I tell him. “Besides they don't call me Mykel ATM for nothing.”
“ATM?” he answers. “You mean like a bank?”
I shake my head.
I shake my head.
“ATM,” I say. “Anything That Moves.”
Conversation stops for a few seconds.
“So we meet at Spa World tomorrow at 2PM!” he concludes. “Who's coming?”
“Me!” says Jerry, “I've always wanted to go there.”
“I'm in,” I say, leaving the double entendre for the (non-present) English-language native speakers.
FLASH TO SPA WORLD: It's in a faux luxury building that I wouled have called kitch at the time, but after seeing the Philippine Hotel Paradis, will just say is... er... a bit much.
Outside is a statue of some creatures arising from a hunk of marble.
There's PAN blowing a flute, a horse, and another figure who seems to be fighting off the advances of the horse.
The building itself has faux marble pillars with a white-on-blue SPA WORLD sign, in English, over the same thing, but metal on metal, in Japanese. Here we are in front, ready to take the... er... plunge.
Inside, there is a little wooden space ground level. Then, a platform with a cashier and a lot of little rooms off to the side. (As I write this, it occurs to me that Takashi might have paid for everyone, but my memory often fails me.) After paying, you climb onto the raised platform.
My fuckin' army boots.
On the platform is an advertisement for a special HIP SLIMMING massage, available on the third floor.
“Can you pay extra for a happy ending,” I ask Takashi.
“Slim hips are the happy ending,” he says.
I let it go at that.
From the platform an attendant shows you the way to the SHOE LOCKERS, where you lock away your shoes and take the key. Then you move to the CLOTHES lockers.
We enter that locker room and find a few lockers together. Stripping down-- as in any lockerroom, sideways glances get covered with blinks and random dumb conversation.
“How 'bout that Bird Series?” I say
“What are you talking about?” asks Jerry
“Hawks against the Swallows,” I continue, “two birds.”
He sniffs a laugh.
There we are: naked, clothes locked away... unlike a gym lockerroom where you change from one set of clothes to another, here you change from one set of clothes to NOTHING. At least that's what I think... but we walk naked from the lockerroom into another room where we select longish blue robes (reminds me of hospital gowns) and put them briefly over our naked bodies.
Those robes, it turns out, are only for elevator travel. The same elevator carries men and women... and there's a prohibition of revealing the good parts to one another.
Takashi pushes 4 and the elevator goes up. There are no girls with us in the elevator.
“They switch floors,” explains Takashi, pointing to a coded calendar inside the elevator.
“Here's the schedule. You have to check it before you leave the elevator to make sure you don't get off on the girls' floor.”
“What if I WANT to get off on the girls' floor?” I ask.
“You might leave a bit...” He says something that sounds like dabokusho, I guess it means trouble.
Off the elevator... into the locker room... three lockers together... Bang! Off come the clothes. We're naked now, hadaka no tsukiai friends... with friend parts dangling... mine a bit shrivelled... lucky I guess in relation to the alternative. We go to another room to pick up towels... included in the price of admission.
“Don't look at my ass,” says Takashi... whose slim white nether parts contrast beachedly with the rest of his tanned body.
“How did he know?” I think to myself.
“Just checking to see if you need that hip-reduction massages,” I say. “You don't.”
The three naked us stroll into the first bath, a clear... rather shallow... pool with one guy... about 40, chunky, with bad skin... already sitting in it. I step in, surprised at its lack of scalditude....
NOTE: Japanese baths are notorious for their heat. Even the public baths... sentos... are supposed to be hot enough to boil a lobster. This was hot... but not killer hot... Tabasco rather than Death Sauce 2000. Comfortable really, easy to settle in... only necessary to hold the good parts for a few seconds before releasing them to the luxury of the water.
“Don't grab yourself there,” says Takashi. “People will think you have a disease.”
So there we are... in the shallow bath... water clear and warm. The good parts floating free. They look like three tiny baby butts... just breaking through the surface.
We sit by the side of the pool across from the guy with bad skin... We talk about Japan... work... life... girls... my plans for my future time in Japan.
“I want to do this with a monkey,” I tell Jerry. “Just sit naked in a hot bath... talk about the weather... life in Japan... Just sit next to a monkey, put my arm over his shoulder...”
I put my arm over Jerry's shoulder... he does not flinch... he laughs, in a very non-simian way.
“Share a banana... ask about the wife and kids,” I say.
“In Nikko?” asks Takashi.
“I heard that the monkeys in Nikko were too unfriendly,” I answer, disengaging myself from Jerry. “They have monkey gangs... they're really racist. If you're not a monkey they attack you... you're an illegal alien... Sometimes they hit you, steal your camera... No thanks. Those monkeys need to learn a little tolerance.”
He nods. “Yeah,” he says, “I heard that too.”
“I'm going to Nagano,” I tell him. “They have nicer monkeys there. Welcoming, liberal monkeys who enjoy diversity.”
He doesn't get it.
“Let's go to another bath,” he says, standing up. Jerry and I follow... down a short hallway... we pass a bunch of other naked guys. One of them has his upper arm wrapped in a bandage. At first I think, “Uh oh... there's gonna be oozing pus in the water.” Then I remember: Public baths don't allow tattoos. It's because of their association with the Yakusa. The bandage probably covers a tattoo.
We pass a few other naked guys-- several with bandages. I guess tattoos are becoming increasingly popular here... I'm waiting for the full body guy who comes in bandaged like a mummy... maybe covered with Saran Wrap-- if it's a fresh tattoo.
As fashionable non-Yakusa tattoos increase, the character of these baths will change. They'll look less like nude locker-rooms, and more like hospital wards for burn victims.
Before we enter the next bath, we go into a side room filled with... salt. Great sacks of the stuff... course... like kosher salt. Takashi takes handfuls and starts rubbing it on his skin. Jerry and I follow suit, pretending we know what we're doing. The salt dissolves into my wet skin. I rub it everywhere... in some places, it hurts more than others.
After we're covered in salt, we head to the next bath... this one a bit hotter than the last... Is that steam I see rising from the surface? Slowly we step in and sit our salt-covered naked bodies down on the shallow bath floor. I feel like I'm making soup.
From salt bath to outdoor bath. I take a plunge... breast stroke across the pool..
“Mykel,” says Takashi, “it's not a pool. You don't swim here.”
“Should we go for a massage now?” asks Jerry.
“Happy ending?” asks I.
“Costs extra,” says Takashi, not shaken a bit.
“Wow,” I say, “who was YOUR English teacher?”
He looks at me and smiles.
We hit one more place before returning to the lockerroom to rid ourselves of our nuditude. It should have been weird... being innocently naked with people... especially one I've met so recently. The whole event was just fun... not arousing... not embarassing... just fun... even for an ATM like me.
FLASH TO LATER THAT NIGHT: Jerry and I are meeting Pyoko at her favorite tachigui bar. One of the few Japanese customs I dislike is the penchant for doing almost everything standing up... especially drinking.
[ASIDE: I guess there are some Americans who also love to drink standing up. Often, I go to a U.S. bar and the tables are empty... there are empty seats at the bar... a crowd of people will be standing... elbow to elbow... chatting and drinking... maybe with a few seats taken... by their coats and shopping bags.... like standing means “I'm on the sex prowl.” I just don't get it.]
In Japan, there's more: They have standing bars, standing noodle shops, standing takoyaki stands. Will there be standing toilets for girls? Standing hotel rooms? I'm going to a wedding reception in a couple days. Are they gonna have a standing reception? (Yep.)
Tonight, Jerry and I are meeting Pyoko. Takashi's gotta work.
[NOTE TO TRAVELERS: One of the hardest things to understand when you're visiting friends is that those friends have lives outside of you: work appointments, sex liasons, day-to-day stuff. Their lives don't get put on PAUSE when you arrive. Sometimes, it takes a while to get the message.]
We meet at the station close to the bar. Pyoko walks us though a maze of streets until we get to a series of toilet-stall sized bars. She stops in front of one and bows with an openhanded gesture like the maitre d' at the 21 Club before the an international celebrity enters.
We walk in. Pyoko follows. It turns out SHE is the celebrity!
Everyone greets her and waits as she introduces us. One of her long-time buddies comes over to ask where we're from, why we're here, and what we're drinking. It isn't long before we become friends and he joins us for a picture.
Hey, this is fun. Standing and drinking isn't so bad... you can walk around that way, give gravity a chance to empty your stomach... look less paunchy... It takes less room. Maybe I'm beginning to get it.
Ah, so much more happened in Osaka, but I've got to move on to Kyoto and the story of Frog Berry... and Lola.
But before we go, I have to mention a most unusual invention. I it saw on Japan's largest indoor walking street. Everybody knows that bagels are fragile. If you drop one, it bruises. So what does the world need?
A BAGEL CUSHION... only in Japan.
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