Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Nudity and Cats in Equal Measures But Not At The Same Time

Hi Friends (capital F to show that you're Important)! Apologies for hiatus - but I have a better excuse than the usual combination of minor depression/hangover/abject laziness: a visitor from across the world!

Yes, this last week I played hostess with the mostest to my friend Nicole, on the second leg of a trip that includes Australia, Japan, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Europe, the UK and Abu Dabi. I don't even know where most of those places are (ok, all of them). She arrived in true travelling style, clad in a blue ski jacket and wearing a backpack that was fully as big as the average Japanese man (entirely possible that that is precisely what it contained, she is vicious when provoked). I spied her through the gates of the train station (not difficult, as she was sporting a Japanese man on her back) and hollered to her in a most un-Japanese fashion. A familiar face! But she was dozy as fuck from an 11 hour train trip and simply stood there, gawking at the unfamiliarity, clearly afraid that if she moved one foot, she would fall down the rabbit hole. So I approached the woman manning the ticket box with an expression akin to that which one might wear upon dropping one's only child onto the train tracks, feigned some frantic Japanese accompanied by some manic facial expressions, and she waved me through, clearly afraid that I might spontaneously decombust in Dickensian fashion if left to brew a moment a longer. I ran up to my errant friend and grabbed her from behind, upon which she screamed and jumped, clipping me violently beneath the chin with her luggage.

Her first words to me in Japan? 'Oh! You look like Princess Leia!' (I was wearing my new favourite fashion accessory, a luciously furry pair of leopard print ear-muffs. Also probably because I'm alarmingly attractive and hold myself with royal poise). We hugged, we laughed, and then I towed her back through the gates, where the ticket-woman was still peering anxiously after us, clearly expecting that her acquiescence would be taken advantage of, and that we were primed to sprint for an un-paid-for train. She was probably subsequently soothed by the obvious fact that Nicole was so exhausted that she could barely walk.

It was so strange, and yet so wonderful, to have something so familiar in such a foreign environment. Nicole is one of those people who radiates comfort and surety and capability, as if you could lock her naked in an underground dungeon for a year, and when you finally went in to check on her decomposing corpse, she would be sitting there calmly watching Scrubs and eating Pad Thai, having fashioned clothing and shelter and a television from the very walls themselves, and created full meals from the animals and vegetation contained therein. She would then talk you calmly through your reasons for imprisoning her thusly (she is a Psychology major), before laying you flat with a single blow (she is a Combat regular and alarmingly strong).

So even though every Japanese person in the vicinity of the station was noting her for her strangeness, both in attire and in appearance, I was being transported back to New Zealand and to high school by her presence.

Nicole was my very first visitor in Japan, and as such I was eager to show her the best time possible. I was eager to show her everything. Everything. I perhaps took this too far on Tuesday, when I encouraged her to partake in public nudity, in that very Japanese manner: the Onsen, natural mineral hot springs that bubble from the volcanic mountains, and can only be properly enjoyed as God intended it: naked.

We bussed out to Jozankeii, a mountainous area about an hour out of Sapporo. The scenery was beautiful, but I was preoccupied with attempting to un-fasten my bra through nine layers of clothing, fearful as I was of unattractive red lines on my breasts. Why was I mindful of my naked appearance, given that I would be appearing only to a pool-ful of sweaty Japanese pensioners? Welcome to the depths of my psyche. Dive in. The water's very, very, very cold.

Turns out, the only really awkward moment was that first strip, where everything is revealed for the first time. Each onsen goer is provided with a 'modesty towel', a strip of white towelling approximately the size of the tea towel. So it is the choice of the wearer whether to use said tea-towel to cover either both tea cups or one's bowl. I opted for the former, though I was very aware of the latter. (NB: the pubic wax is not a phenomenon embraced by the Japanese. They don't shave, they don't wax, they don't trim. Thus, though everyone was naked, Nicole and I were the only ones who really LOOKED naked, if you get my drift, which I imagine you do). By mutual consent, Nicole and I walked side-by-side, thus avoiding the very pertinent 'who gets to study whose butt' issue. The first step in onsen-ing is the clean down, as the pools themselves are filled with natural hot water and are not improved by the addition of Western perspiration. This involved sitting on a little stool in a long line of naked Japanese woman sitting on little stools, soaping up, and rinsing down. The appropriate procedure was a little obscure, and Nicole's face must have revealed it as such, as a tiny, tanned, bird-like old woman took it upon herself to squat before her and demonstrate proper use of the shower head and soap. Nicole handled herself, and the little Japanese breasts jiggling before her nose, with aplomb. Once we were suitably sanitary, the little lady proved to be a useful guide, as she then showed us through an obscure door to the outside onsen.

I don't know why ANYONE would use the inside onsen.

The air was freezing, probably two degrees below. The pool itself was about knee deep, steaming hot and faintly sulfurous. It was designed to look natural, as if carved out of the very mountains, and so was surrounded by boulders, all of which were thickly capped in snow. As we quickly sat down, so best to hide goose-pimpled flesh and winter-white thigh, snow began to fall, melting immediately as it met the steam. It was infinitely, amazingly relaxing, and the absence of swim-wear only seemed natural in the perfect environment. Nicole and I quickly relaxed into comfort in our nakedness, and did out best to appear as the natives did. This was unsuccessful, and not only because we giggled nearly constantly. We had been told before entering the onsen that the modesty towel should be removed before entering the water, and that the best thing to do with it was to put it upon ones head. So, before entering the water, I encouraged Nicole to fold up her towel and balance it upon her head, in the manner of someone practicing deportment with something easier than a book, which we both did. Upon surveying the other occupants of the pool, however, it became apparent that 'putting the towel on your head' actually meant 'wrapping it elaborately like a turban so that your hair doesn't get wet'; and that our attempt made us look like three year-olds who had dressed themselves for the first time and ended up with pants on inside out and backwards.

It didn't detract from our pleasure any.

After the onsen we partook in curry. Whyyyy there was an Indian restaurant in the midst of such a very Japanese situation, I know not. I did not complain. Onsen and naan bread - the makings of a perfect day.

Topping this experience the next day was going to prove difficult, I knew, but I think I was successful in my quest, when I managed to locate for Nicole a uniquely Japanese experience: the Cat Cafe. These establishments are principally to be found in Tokyo, but there is one in Sapporo, called, appropriately, Love Cat. Good. We had no idea what to expect, and having an open mind proved to be the best possible approach. Upon entering, we were instructed to wash our hands thoroughly. We then entered a room, about the size of the average living room filled with: cats. About 17of them. All fully grown and large, all perfectly casual in each other's company. Sitting in the midst of these cats was a Japanese salary man, clearly on his lunch break, playing with the cats like a toddler. The room was filled with towers and couches and toys and cages and - yes - catwalks, for the entertainment of the langorous moggies. It was a truly weird experience. Nicole and I had no idea what to do. We couldn't have been more awkward if we were naked again. We perched on the couches and watched the sole other occupant of the room indulge in what was clearly a well-developed feline fetish. It was interesting, I'll give it that, but there was one cat with a diaper on, and no kittens, and it DID smell funny. The proprietor of the establishment did her best to give us our full half hour $8 worth, furnishing us with toys and catnip and attempting to teach us the names of each kitty (I should have told her not to bother, I can't even remember the names of my students) and I can say that I'm glad I went, if only so that I can say I have done so, and state definitively that I will require smothering with a pillow if I ever demonstrate ANY tendency towards becoming the fabled crazy cat-lady.

So, all in all, an interesting week in Japan, in which I was able to abandon my (flawed) attempts to assimilate with all things Japanese, and flagrantly indulge in being a tourist.

Nicole left this morning, but not before a pretty serious earthquake shook her up some. Snow, nudity, cats and an earthquake - the woman can't say she got anything other than a full, unadulterated Japanese experience.

In other news? My lovely manfriend has been snapped up by INTERAC for a full-time, four-month teaching job in Niseko, a skiing village about two hours out of Sapporo. I am pleased for him. I am. I am. But I am also deeply sorry for myself and my new single status (we are not actually separated, I just like alliteration and exaggeration in equal quantities), as living alone does not appeal much at all.

That said, his departure prompted the purchase of a lovely new MacBook, so the flashy technology and bountiful me-time will no doubt result in relentless blogging. And TV series watching. And red wine drinking. And, mayhap, my first step in the direction of Crazy-Cat-Lady-Hood. Pillows at the ready, readers.

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