A getaway to Nikko made me ponder on twilight, naked bodies and the onsen culture in Japan.
Edited in English by Kathelijne Bonne.
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On the impossibility of truly understanding Japan
Tokyo is beautiful and inviting, but I get the feeling I’m living in a theme park. Any outing, no matter how leisurely, becomes a tourist adventure. A little alley, a temple, a supermarket, the first floor of the buildings, the high-rises, the subway stations, the art galleries, the museums, the books.
One ends up drowning in so much culture. I wonder if all this is necessary.
Then I come to the conclusion that much will be left behind and I relax. Lafcadio Hearn said that it was impossible to get to know Japanese culture even after many years. It has many layers that we do not get to see. I feel that the countryside forces us to slow down our minds a bit and find some internal peace.
One weekend, obeying our urge to escape the city, we went to Nikko. Just two nights, I wouldn’t sleep longer yet in a ryokan.
LIGHT AND JAPAN
There is always something laborious about moving around. After overcoming several inconveniences that have to do with getting out of Tokyo and traveling by public transport with children, we arrive at the hotel. A massive building that looks as if it dates back to the seventies and starts to crumble, stuffed on the inside with endless carpets.
At half past five it is already dark. We are far from everything. And we have nothing to eat. The countryside of Japan is dimly lit, which is a good thing. The light pollution in Spain is remarkable. Here everything, in general, used to be quite dim. Tanizaki talked about this in In Praise of the Shadows,. However, Japan seems to have moved on from all those shadows. Notice that, even in Tokyo, I have seen people walking their dogs with flashlights. They put neon lights on the dog. This makes me think that the demand for light is everywhere, but in Japan the following principle seems to reign:
If you want light, pay for it.
Looking for something to eat in Nikko
I lie on the futon in the room for a while. We are tired from the trip, which was actually a short one. Futons are practical. And we’ve chosen this type of accommodation because they are a bit cheaper than a hotel. But there is one drawback.
There is no bedside table.
It seems that Japanese people don’t read in bed. My neck hurts a bit because I’ve been reading for almost three months in uncomfortable ways. But it doesn’t make us less happy.
We venture into the streets. We are hungry but we think that a country as advanced as this one will surely not abandon us. But we are wrong. The personnel at the hotel are not able to tell us where to eat. Besides, everything is by reservation and dinner there is very expensive. Oh well, we can walk.
We set off for the adventure. Hitting the road. Streets are laid out in straight lines, vending machines selling everything at 1000 yen. We always fall in the temptation, and it is already the second time that we buy a very cute lantern (how could we not?).
We continue on our way, now better lit. I see several places on Google Maps, but this app is not to be trusted in small Japanese towns.
We walk along the Kinugawa river. It is said to be beautiful, but we do not see it. Actually, it is a canyon in which, on one of its sides, several onsen are located. In this case, they’re mega hotels with hot springs. I have always thought that the hot spring environment is weird, but in Japan it is such a common thing that I guess we are the weird ones.
I, with my western mind, think that in a hotel they have to feed us and I also think that the customer is always right. But in Japan things are not like that. Without a reservation, nothing can be done.
We get into one of those onsen places, starving. We wander around like headless chickens. Illiterate and dizzy. Low music apt for a dentist’s parlor. Mostly jazz. People pass by silently with their yucata. Some have a microphone, maybe they are going to karaoke. Their hair is wet because they come from the onsen. There is a souvenir store where they sell some sweets made with black beans. Origami. Socks to wear with traditional geta. People walk slowly, you can’t hear them. Their gaze, often lost. No eye contact whatsoever.
Why do Japanese people never look at me?
The guests we see are in bath attire with their yucata, wooden flip-flops, shuffling feet.
Our dinner consists of some junk food in the Lawson’s parking lot, the konbini. It is the only thing that saves us. The gondola is already half-empty, but we can still snatch a few things out. A sad sausage, a rice triangle. I settle for some potato chips.
We chat in the dark.
The loneliness of the night is a companion
In the night I go downstairs to get some fresh air. Everyone is asleep and I love that moment when my family is silent and I am wandering around. I feel accompanied in that silence and in that darkness.
I put a large sweatshirt over my pajamas and Japanese flip-flops. If there is one thing I learned from Japan, it is that at night people are always out and about, half in their pajamas. You can go to Lawson in a sorry state and it’s always fine. I’ve seen a lot of sandals with socks, oversized clothes, jackets. Messy hair. It is fantastic.
So, in that state, I leave the room. I look for the exit, but I get lost. The corridors are endless. The place has an interesting air of a trade union hotel. The display windows are strange. They are full of puppets, dolls, masks. And there are lounges. And chairs. Armchairs. Spaces. All rather empty and devoid of people.
I see a shadow.
Someone passing a broom. The straw broom in Japan is an institution and the sound when it scrapes the ground is very characteristic. A gentleman nods, which I reciprocate.
One always gets the feeling that the night never ends in Japan.
Naked bodies like uniforms
I must say I’m not much of a hot spring person, but then I end up having a good time. I always get a bit of a hangover from the whole thing, but here I am again in yucata going down into the water. The ointments, the shampoo, the creams, the warmth of the water, what’s not to love? There are other women.
We are all naked.
I look at them, because I think that’s the way it should be. It’s hard for me because I’m very much a people watcher, but I don’t want them to think I’m a pervert. In general, I don’t like public dressing rooms, club bathrooms, or exhibitionism, nor am I interested in nudist beaches or the cult of the nude body.
It’s strange. Japanese society covers up a lot, even in summer, but in the ryokan there’s a whole different vibe. I think I’m far away and no one knows me, and besides, everything in Japan is so decent and clean that you end up trusting it. That’s why I don’t mind being naked out in the open..
The naked image of me vanishes in the steam of the mirror. I disappear. I am only a shadow. And I immerge myself into the warm waters of a pool.
I enjoy it. I forget myself. I’m just a body. And then I go outside. I can hear the sound of the river nearby. I imagine the koi in the pond and wonder if fish do sleep. The night doesn’t give much coolness. Barely a breeze. I walk in the dark along a stone path. I don’t quite know where I’m going.
But the women seem to know.
I follow a naked body in the dark because it serves as an arrow marking a path and I don’t know where I’m going.
In Japan there is not much idea of individuality. The group rules. I think the naked body is also a kind of uniform, we just wear our skin. Note that in many onsen, tattoos are forbidden. Does it have to do with not showing a trait of individuality that Japanese society has traditionally condemned?
I arrive at the open-air onsen and immerse myself. I surround myself with warmth. I lie down on a soft stone. I rest my back and gaze at the stars.
The sound of the water that never ceases.
Japan and the third world
The next night we are again walking in the night. This time, we have been more cautious and have taken the train to a nearby town, which is supposed to be more lively. I am glad to see people. And I’m glad for more things.
One of the things that relieves someone from the third world like me, is to see that those countries that we consider advanced, are just as third worldly as we are and I say this as a compliment because I do not look for countries with pretensions of advanced powers, trips to the moon, sustainable development with inclusion, etc. Nor touristy places full of people bragging about curing diseases or creating global peace.
In Nikko, there is nothing like that. You see tourists, sure. But you walk one block and you have the same bizarre things we see in any country in residential neighborhoods: an abandoned sofa between the trees, rubble, grey houses. Google Maps routes that lead nowhere. Half-abandoned factories. Even some garbage on the ground.
The forest and something that looks like an old fridge. Or is it a sofa?
It all coexists with lush nature and beautiful temples. And even in the tourist attractions there is something of decadence.
That kind of things give me a familiar feeling that I like. In my walk through Nikko, the gray towns closely resemble those of the province of Buenos Aires. The austerity of the construction. The absence of luxury. A spirit of undertaking that never was. The only thing missing here are the stray dogs. And there is always that feeling that there was a time of splendor when everything was better.
It seems that the hotels along the Kinugawa River were built at a very specific time when people began to consume tourism in a much more massive way. Everything always has to do with the arrival of the train and communications. Wherever the means of transport advances, people arrive and intervene in everything, and I remember the words of Paul the protagonist of Houllebecq’s Annihilation.
«Unfortunately, it was impossible to avoid the realization that a pleasant landscape today was almost necessarily a landscape preserved from all human intervention for at least a century.» P.77
Increasingly, we seek spaces free from human intervention or, contrarily, we may think that, in that same intervention, there may be beauty.
But something must have happened in the middle for everything to look as if it is starting to fall apart.
It doesn’t bother me though.
We walk through the darkness again, because the nights are long: at five o’clock it starts to get dark. The suspension bridge is beautiful, it crosses the river and takes you to the land of the bears. And a shiver runs down my spine because I read that Kinugawa means «angry demons» and I rather don’t cross it. I get halfway across and turn back. I have no spray and no bear bell.
In my wandering around town, I see a window. A Hello Kitty glimpses through frosted glass. It is illuminated. What a feast to have some light showing the way.
Hello Kitty is always present in the Japanese landscape.
I wander into any hotel I can find. Looking for a coffee. Not that I feel like drinking, but I take refuge in the idea of coffee. And of the little table, and a book. But there’s nowhere to sit except in the public restroom.
The last day we navigate along the Kinugawa River in a beautiful wooden boat. The guide is telling us things we don’t understand. This illiteracy of ours is amazing. There is a lot of peace. We hear a bird. The incessant music of the water. The tireless voice of the guide does not bother us. It is part of all the natural sounds. Like a melody that accompanies. I like to listen to the talking, even if I don’t understand a word of it.
The rapids come (could these be the infamous demons?). I hold on tight but nothing happens. And then comes a tranquil slow stretch, it becomes so slow that a dinghy from the tour company has to come and tow us back to shore.
The romanticism is lost, but I don’t mind because it wouldn’t be fair that the poor man has to row while we watch. I applaud with my free hand, as the other clings to the rubber boat and, in the meantime, we wave to some people who are crossing the suspension bridge.
Here we are, waving to strangers.
And the light of this landscape is special. It always seems to be getting dark. Japan already seems to start the day getting dark. Autumn. A faint sun that never warms.
It bathes the landscape into something that is fading away.
Have you been to Nikko? See you in the comments!
 Traditional Japanese flip flops.
 Own translation from the Spanish version. No English version available.