Friday, January 28, 2011

Some notes. ( by raine vasquez)


I have an affinity for prefacing my thoughts with disclaimers; an activity that, according to an old Professor of mine, was the result of either bad writing (if something must be disclaimed then it should have found its way into the content) or lack of confidence. In this particular instance, I hope that it is the latter. For what follows is the transcribed journal of my thoughts during a month-long trip to Japan. As such, it lacks the much needed citation, revision, omissions, and clarity that I’d have it possess. What is presented, however, are some personal reflections on my interaction with Japanese culture: fractured, incomplete, unvetted. In summary: it is a blog. But in the spirit of a disclaimer, I’d like to list those authors (my need to cite) whose writings were influential in my experience in Japan, and, in some cases, formed the foundation upon which I felt compelled to expand: Donald Keene, Roland Barthes, Jun’ichiro Tanazaki, and John Whittier Treat.


The Uninitiated

Visiting Japan as an Uninitiated, a Westerner with little or no knowledge of the language (visual, linguistic, or otherwise) of the Japanese people, affords one the chance to experience the signs of another culture without the bias that language carries with it. Language, both speech and script alike, carries innumerable signifiers of cultural implicature that alter interpreted meaning. This is implicit in the language but the affected meaning is always on the side of reception. Examples: accent, ethnicity, social status, and inflection; within a language every speaker has a perspective. It is my status as an Uninitiated, my ignorance, in effect, that washes the language clean of these signifiers.

Adrift in a Void of Meaning

Roland Barthes, in Empire of Signs, points out that “language carries with it these signifiers that keep us from accessing certain levels of communication... As an outsider we can view a semantic culture free of linguistic barriers.” However, we should beware this sense of freedom in our analysis; while we do not have access to the syntax and historical weight within the language, it is that language which has formed the semantic culture. Our exile is thus transitive, without the linguistic there is no semantic; We are adrift in a sea of meaning, unable to drink for fear of dehydration.

The Gesture

Respite. An island: the gesture. A level of communication presents itself to us as soon as we acknowledge the fissure between our linguistic bodies. The gesture takes the place of language, beautiful in its clumsiness, and simple in its syntax. This language has been bleached of excess; it is not burdened by class or politics (were we to find these in the Other we remain unable to position ourselves in hierarchical relation to him/her). Misinterpretation, that ghostly figure that haunts our complex languages, is foregrounded in the gesture. This language becomes about misinterpretation: its elimination.

The gesture is a histrionical performance: the actors personify their roles in outrageous caricatures: the angry becomes Anger. It lacks the subtleties of spoken language, shedding sarcasm and irony. Despite the implicit hierarchy between a native and an Uninitiated the ground is made even through the elimination of these excesses; one must convey a message rather than a position. It is the navigation of common ground in order to bring each other to the same place: blunders are made by both sides, two steps forward one step back... at last! the epiphany! Oh, you mean...!

Death of the Gesture

However, this form of language requires that one of the performers be an Uninitiated (although both may occupy this space). Thus, we will quickly lose our even footing, as we cannot be immersed within a culture and maintain our position outside it. We assimilate: the signs will not remain empty. The more we become aware of cultural distinctions, propriety, and language, the the more we become subjected to the restraints of language. The gesture retreats to the background in advance of language; culture will impose and language will thicken around us. The gesture becomes simply an accompaniment of this language as the politics of communication strive to dominate meaning.

So it is that this avenue of simplified communication begins to recede as suddenly as it appeared and we are ushered unceremoniously into that complex

tangle of linguistic inference.

The Otherness of Japanese

The encounter with Japanese culture poses the categorical: is this thing Japanese? yes or no? More to the point: is this thing strictly Japanese? Our inability to answer this question in the affirmative frustrates. Japan lies somewhere in the shades of differences, yet we can answer with certainty only to the similarities (and even this is tentative, at best, in our growing global state). The Otherness of Japanese is a statement about our own culture rather than Japans. Many times, during my trip, one Professor or another has exclaimed at how Japanese a thing is, whether it be the everyday aesthetics of wrapping, gift giving, or the dawning of face masks to prevent the spread of illness. The implicature of these statements is, of course: see how specifically not-American these activities are?

Japan the Mirror

Kant, in Critique of Pure Reason, has pointed out the impossibility of knowing a thing in itself since we cannot step outside our own perspective in order to view it. Through this condition the encounter with Japan becomes a mirror: at every turn an encounter with some form of myself, whether it is what I am or what I am, distinctly, not. What follows are not my meditations on Japan, rather they are considerations of myself in Japan: they are self-reflections.

This is being especially provocative, of course, since it is certainly possible to close the gap between ourselves and another culture through interaction and education(Although the degree to which this can be accomplished is something about which I remain skeptical since it is seems impossible to trace ones own cultural lines).

Japan the Irrational, Disorder in the Streets, De-centered

My first expansive view of a Japanese city (Osaka, from a raised crosswalk) afforded me several reactions which I felt the urge to put to paper; In the order that they arrived: awe, wonder, and confusion. The first two responses are self-explanatory: the city seemed overwhelming, sprinting eagerly to conquer the horizon. But it is this skyline that bred confusion. It’s chaotic and disordered. Skyscrapers cast shadows over residential houses and tiny plots of farmland alike. Contemporary shopping malls dominate entire blocks before giving way to traditional Japanese architecture which is itself situated beside rusted tin shacks. A lack of zoning regulations, or simply different ones, bequeathed a city where the skyline rose and fell as randomly as the mountains that ensconced it.

The cities of the West are, in contrast to Japan’s, composed with an order that parallels that driving force of Western thought: progress. The Western city is to be navigated, not digested. It is a serious of steps, a grid or a circle, where all roads lead to the center. This center is clearly marked by those infamous silhouettes that grab for our attention like the edges of a Brice Marden painting (suddenly the sky is a backdrop, its magnificence usurped by those symbols of our dominance, hence: skyline). This cluster of skyscrapers, our metaphysical, monetary, and political center, also carries the psychology of upward mobility. It is a place to go to and come from. There is an immediate sense that something is missing in Osaka: there is no sense of direction. There is no center against which one might set their compass; No towering markers of urban sophistication to orient the self, and the rest of the city, against.

Adding to this sense of irrationality are the streets themselves. Most of the surface streets of Osaka do not have names (street names are seldom used in Japanese postal addresses, the exception being the Chinese cities of Kyoto and Nara). Similar observations, on the streets of Tokyo, led Barthes, in Empire of Signs, to see Japan as irrational: “an apparently illogical, uselessly complicated, curiously disparate” system. For Barthes this is a reminder “that the rational system is merely one system among others.” This statement, however, is problematic: it is a virtue of the Western conception of rationality, a binary system, and a categorical one at that, which does not allow for the existence and proliferation of another rational system. One or the Other is more rational, more efficient, and our own rationality demands the immediate adoption of that system. Thus, Barthes is required by Western axiom to view the Japanese system as irrational. But if we accept Japan, ever adaptable Japan, as a rational system then perhaps we might learn where tradition and reason meet: that line where an overhaul of the system ceases to be the rational decision.

The streets of Yamakawa-cho, a rural town nestled in the mountains of the Tokushima prefecture, are also unmarked. Asking for directions here (to the post office, grocer, bus stop) will often result in the construction of a hand-drawn map. Without the benefit of street names this map turns vendors into landmarks, revealing the streets for what they truly are: negative space. This shift in emphasis, from the street as object to the path as subject, forces us to construct a city full of people rather than a grid full of names. The town also highlights another difference between our two systems: the grid. The avenues of this sleepy town, often barely wide enough for a single vehicle, cut across the valley at whimsical angles. They run the perimeter of the randomly shaped plots of land, occupied by houses or small farms, that rise and fall in steps. This system seems to have found no rationality in the grid; a stark contrast to the rectilinear pattern stamped across the U.S.

Japans food, like its cities, has also been de-centered (an aggressive term that occupies a specific perspective). In the West, an entree is often placed in a privileged position: steak is the meal, the potatoes are the compliment; satellite dishes are organized around the main course or are simply nutritional after thoughts. In Japan, a meal becomes the location of an activity rather than a process: the Japanese dish is presented as a palette to be sampled and mixed according to individual aesthetics: flavors are combined the way a painter mixes colors. The meal is made up of a myriad of dishes, each equally portioned and carefully partitioned so that no color will bleed into the next. The balance is striking: the pinch of a strong flavor, pickles or octopus, is countered by a larger portion of the mild or bland: rice, miso. But the aesthetics of this palette extend beyond the flavor of the food: the combination of textures, smells, and colors are all considered: carrots are cut into flower shapes, the white of the rice is emphasized with the bleeding red of a pickled plumb, the soft fleshy texture and rich pink of raw fish is set against a bed of crunchy green lettuce.

The de-centered cityscape and non-concentric streets of Osaka may seem disordered and irrational to Western eyes, but it is through this shift in perspective that we come to see the ontological relationship between reason and culture: it is not reason that our endeavors serve, like some Socratic Ideal, but rather reason serves our endeavors. The rational cannot be shrugged off (“merely one system among others”) because reason is a means: the goal must be ascertained before it even comes into the equation. This becomes evident in Yamakawa-cho, where the streets preserve Japans ancient farming structure (one can’t help but speculate that those farms have remained exactly the same for generations) over switching to the more “rational” grid. It is also apparent in the Japanese meal (different but not irrational) that hierarchy was simply never the point.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

12 minutes remaining

on my laptop before it runs out of battery.

I had some octopus balls the size of fists at a flea market recently. An old lady sat next to me, chewing for quite some time. She took something out of her mouth, looked at it, and it was a piece of octopus completely in tact but chewed clean by her toothless mouth. She stuck it back in her mouth, kept chewing, and got up - or... more like her angled body rotated to her feet. She then pushed in her chair, an inch at a time, until it was under the table, and eventually made her way out.

There needs to be a toothless little old lady with me at every meal.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Awagami factory has been hard at work making paper despite our 21 person invasion these past 8 days. Two short women, one stout the other thin but round faced, their heads covered with round white hats stand apron clad all day long in a small glass enclosure in the middle of the factory, picking tiny black spots out of gampi fibers soaked in icy water. A loud beater behind them pounds endlessly at times, but they don’t seem to notice. Scooping small bowls of fiber saturated water which they clean with tea spoons, they ensure the purity of the silky white threads that go on to produce the world’s most expensive paper. In a far corner of the factory another woman using these cleaned fibers casts large sheets of gampi, each perhaps 30”x40,” rocking the large bamboo screen in and out of a fiber filled tub,

pulling perhaps 15 sheets an hour. Across the factory a man wearing a rubber apron and boots is mixing a dozen 5 gallon buckets of kozo fiber with pulp and the albumin like juice of the neri root. He then pours the buckets onto an enormous screen 3 meters square which is then rocked and gently hosed until the fibers settle into a thick even sheet. This enormous sheet is then pulled over a vacuum suction bar, where the water is drained allowing the paper to be moved to a drying board. It takes two workers to move a sheet this large, and when they are finally dried they are rolled into enormous tubes for shipping. The color is warm liked whipped yellow butter, heavy in weight, glass-smooth to the touch on one side, slightly rougher on the other. I have

never seen such large sheets of paper, and of course I wonder what on earth I could do with one -- how long would it take me to fill its area with drawn images? What if I made a mistake? I am quite sure these papers must cost several hundred dollars a sheet. Shizu tells me that Awa Washi makes these sheets exclusively for Hiromi Paper in Santa Monica, California. Who buys them from Hiromi and what happens to them then is a mystery; for me the pleasure in contemplating what I would do with such a sheet of paper is enough of a luxury.

Our next task is actually to learn to cast sheets of paper, and then to remove them from the casting tray and properly press and dry them. For this Fujimori-san has the patience of a master craftsman who loves his craft and enjoys passing his knowledge to others. He treats us to several demonstrations as a group, and then invites two students, Sarah and Liz, to try their hand at casting as we watch and he coaches. Each day since as he inspects our progress he works patiently one on one with many of the students including myself when he feels that a little refresher on technique will result in better sheets. That the man is a master is beyond question, his body dances through the casting of each sheet – as joyful a pairing of man and material as I have ever witnessed.

The first step in casting a sheet of paper is to mix the fiber and neri into the water. The wooden tub (all the tools are either wood or bamboo), is filled half way with cold water into which we add a melon size ball of fiber and an amount equal to a nice salad bowl of neri. A kind of swinging wooden rake made of wood braces and diamond cut bamboo blades is hooked into place so that the blades reach down into the water. The rake is rocked back and forth to break up the fibers and distribute them evenly in the mixture. After about 60-100 swings of the rake it is removed and the stirring continues with a bamboo pole for about 5 minutes. Fujimori-san tells us to listen to the sound of the water while it is being stirred, as this will inform you whether or not there is enough neri. Not enough neri and the fibers will clump and the paper will be uneven. I never seemed to get an answer as to if there can be too much neri.

The paper fibers will be scooped out of the water onto a tray which consists of a lockable stretcher and a bamboo matt. The tray hangs by two small ropes attached first to a metal spring and then to a wooden bar that jets out over the tub. The top of each tray has two wooden dowels that run the depth of the tray and serve as handles. If everything is properly set, you can hold onto the front of the tray’s handles with minimum effort and the rope will allow the tray to dangle a few inches above the water level. Now comes the hard part. Fujimori-san begins his little dance, which I call the Awagami shuffle. With his feet shoulder width apart, he quickly dips the front edge of the tray into the water, picks it up sharply and spills the first run of water out the far side. This quick action lines up the fibers across the matt, and creates a smooth “top” side to the paper. He does this a second time, and then on the third swing he gathers more water into the tray and rocks it back and forth allowing the fibers to spread evenly and in all directions as the sheet of paper begins to form. Depending on how thick you want the paper, you can stop here or keep dipping several more times. Rock too much and the wet fibers slide all around and the sheet is ruined. Don’t rock enough and the fibers don’t spread evenly. Plunge the tray into the water vertically and all should be fine; move it slightly backward or forward, and the fibers jump off the bamboo matt. Fujimori-san makes it look so easy every time. Believe me, it’s not!

Once the paper sheet has formed on the tray, you place the tray on two wooden bars that cross over the bath and let the remaining water pass through the fibers and the bamboo matt. I won’t go into it, but I lost many a finely formed sheet just by poorly adjusting the bars and losing control of the tray. The tray is now opened, and the fiber covered bamboo screen is lifted over your head and turned upside down as you turn around 180°. A wooden tray is set with a wet blanket waist high with two wooden posts on the near side. This is where you “unload” the sheet, again not so simple. As you begin to drop your arms from over your head, you first lower your right hand holding your left high so that the paper only touches the matt on one side, using the wooden posts as guides. Then gently lower the rest of the sheet. You remove the bamboo matt from front to back, using a bit of water and pushing from the back of the matt with your right hand if the paper fibers stick. Additional sheets are turned out on the previous sheet, a small ribbon placed on the old sheet to help in pulling them apart for drying. Now turn around and start again. Every 4 or 5 sheets of paper you will need to add more fiber and neri to the tub.

Over four days, when the piles of paper began to mount, we pressed the paper under heavy weights and a large press; the river of water that drained out was impressive. The following day the sheets are removed one by one and dried either “hot press” style or “cold press” style. For cold press, the more traditional method, the sheets are laid out singly on wooden boards to dry in the sun or alternately in an aerated room. Hot press involves laying the sheets one at a time on a stainless triangular steam dryer, which is a large metal box filled with steam that we rotate as one side becomes covered with drying paper and another side need its papers removed. Both options have their advantages, hot press working much faster, and cold press in general producing a nicer piece of paper for printing. We had a minor calamity with the cold press today when a board blew over and several sheets blew off other boards which were outside. We quickly moved the remaining boards in doors to dry overnight.

Of course, RISD students being who they are, these general rules and instructions were quickly modified to satisfy their voracious visual curiosities. All manner of plant material and fibers were inserted in the final layers of sheets; fiber colors and textures were altered; sheets were artistically crumpled on the hot press; sheets were folded and creased and laid with ribbons. Students experimented with mixtures of different fibers including gampi. Though I have enjoyed every step of this process, watching the students get into it in their own very individualized manners today and yesterday has without a doubt been the most satisfying part. And of course, watching our resident art historian Elena Varshavskaya become a bonifide paper maker, and really enjoying it when she hadn’t planned on participating, that too has been a real joy to watch.

We will be sending the paper back en masse to RISD where some of it will be used by the students for their final projects for this course. The rest is theirs to keep or use as they see fit. I have a wood block print I want to print on my sheets, and plan on carving the blocks in February. Stay tuned, as we hope to find a venue to exhibit some of the paper and all of the final projects at the end of the term.

Daniel Heyman

My apologies, as this post and the one before it contain quite a lot of technical information which is rather dry. My goal is that these notes may serve as a reference as much as a travel log.

Friday, January 14, 2011

How We Went to the Awagami Paper Factory and Made Paper; Part I

I have made paper before in my life, but I have never climbed a steep road through rice paddies to find a field with rows of young mulberry saplings ready to harvest for the soft fibers of their inner bark. I have made paper before, but I was cheating. Paper, like babies, seems to arrive with the storks. Until you actually go into a field planted with rows of kozo, as the Japanese call these trees, it is hard to really understand that in essence paper is an agricultural product and nowhere more so than here in rural Japan.

With a group of 19 students and a colleague from the art history department at RISD, I have been in Yamakawa, Tokushima Prefecture for just 5 days, and together we have made around 400 sheets of beautiful 100% pure local kozo paper, or Japanese washi. I have been thrilled in this short time, even awed, to participate in the production of paper almost exactly as it has been done for over 1200 years, when paper making first came to the island of Shikoku.

After a breakfast many Americans would find more foreign than a Turkish toilet, we left the hotel on our first morning and walked up into the terraced hills under the gaze of the forested Mt. Koutsu. We climbed past the farm houses with their grey ceramic roofs, the ubiquitous small canals used to irrigate the fields, bamboo forests, cedar trees strait and tall. Along the way we met Shizu Fujimori, the daughter of Mr. Yoichi Fujimori, the current leader of the Awa Washi company.

Awa Washi is the name of the company that runs the Awagami Paper Factory, where we have been for the past week. Just ot give you a glimps of the longevity of this enterprise, Awa Washi is currently under the management of the 8th generation of the Fujimori family. This company and its principle product, Japanese handmade washi, was designated an Intangible Cultural Property of Tokushima Prefecture in 1976 and Mr. Minoru Fujimori, the father of Yoichi Fujimori, was selected as Master Craftsman and awarded the Metal for Technical Excellence by the Japanese ministry of Labor. His son, Yoichi Fujimori, currently runs the Awa Washi production, and introduced machine made paper in addition to continuing the tradition of handmade paper. His 2 daughters work for the company out of Tokyo, and one of them, Shizu, is currently acting as our translator.

Dogs bark from a nearby farm, their noses up against a tin gate. We follow Shizu up the hills, to a small field with a small garden shed, where her father and two other men are busy at work. The field is not very large at all by American standards, maybe half an acre. It contains perhaps ten rows of kozo trees, each about ten feet tall and 3 feet apart. They are more like elongate bushes than trees, as several shoots spring from the same foot. These long stick-like trees have few if any branches, mostly near the tops. We are instructed to cut the trees to 3-4 inches from the base, leaving a stump where next year’s growth will sprout. We cut down two long rows of trees, and then cut the branches into 4’ lengths and bundle them up with strings. The side braches are cut off and discarded. The bundles which we carry to a small truck, remind me of the many old Japanese prints of workers carrying bundles of sticks on the Tokaido road. Perhaps some of those pictured were working for the Fujimori family and making paper?

Fujimori-san is a very patient man. He is calm, his voice quiet. He shows us a smaller bush, with small bundles of white buds on the end of each shoot. This is mitsumata, the second of the three varieties of plants that produce fibers for Japanese paper makers. Mitsumata grows very slowly, 3-4 inches a year, but the fibers remain soft and you can cut several years growth at once. The kozo fibers from older branches become hard and wooden, so these are cut every year. The third kind of fiber is called gampi, and it has never been domesticated as far as I know. Gampi fibers are the most expensive; they are soft like silk when you touch them. The paper they produce has a lovely sheen and is extremely strong. In olden days, gampi fibers were used for the production of money. We cut the mitsumata bush as well and bundle the sticks.

Halfway down the hillside, we turn down a long drive that disappears into a small forest of cedar and bamboo. Here is located the Awagami log cabin studio, where we will spend the rest of this day and the next first steaming the branches, then removing the bark. The kozo bark has three components, and though they can all be used to make paper, it is the inner most and whitest bark that will give us the nicest sheets of paper. The outermost bark simply flakes away in the process of twisting the bark and pulling it off the branch. The wood part of the branches is discarded at this point.

The second layer of bark, what we are calling the green layer, is slightly slimy at this point, and needs to be scraped off the white inner layer. For the rest of the first afternoon and the entire next day we remove the green bark from the white using knives. At this point any imperfections such as scabs on the bark or little black spots needs to be removed or it will end up in the paper. We sit in a circle, a blanket on our laps and plastic gloves over cotton ones on our hands and pass the hours telling stories, or rather, Elena and I told stories. It was cold, and we often took tea breaks to warm ourselves up, though not often enough! Mrs. Fujimori made us some wonderful thick ginger brew that was sweet as molasses and almost as thick. In spite of the cold and tedious nature of the work, the setting was beautiful. Throughout we were very aware that this is an ancient process, demanding its own timing. Fujimori-san tells us that the picking out of defects from the bark was traditionally done by farmers who had spare time in the cold winter months. Think of winter quilting sessions in 18th century America and you might approach the feeling.

On the third day we went to the main factory in town, where we met Fujimori-san and Shizu-san in a conference room on the second floor. The room is lined with art books on one side and has large glass windows that over-look the factory down one floor on the other. There is an electric tea kettle that is always on, and a bowl of sweets on the side table. We are told that this room will be ours for the duration of the workshop; we will eat lunch here as well as access the internet, and leave our belongings while we work downstairs. Downstairs we are shown how the fibers are washed and boiled with soda ash. At this point we combed through all the fibers by hand in very cold water, once again looking for bits of wood or black spots, removing any and all imperfections.

Now, believe it or not, we begin an activity where we actually get hot and sweaty. Its lasts the rest of this day as well as most of the next. We beat the fibers, placing them on wooden blocks and pounding them with short wooden bats to break up the long strands of bark to release the fibers. This is more pleasant than it sounds, as we can get into the rhythm of the beating, sometimes with a baton in each hand. The fibers fold like millefeuille pastry dough, the dark ochre color turning softer and more buttery. The noise is more than sufficient to block out any conversation. There is a certain Zen in this activity as well. When we are done, we have three grocery sized bags of fiber, hardly much at all I think to myself. It turns out I was way off.

Daniel Heyman

Thursday, January 13, 2011

When the bus stopped

When the bus stopped at the end of the long bridge over the deep ravine, and the driver said that the Fuigo Spa was down the steep drive to the left and we would have to walk, I knew that knowing Japanese would really be an asset on this trip. Unfortunately, it was an asset I didn’t have.
“But that is a spa onsen, and we are looking for a simple country inn, the Fuigo Inn, not the spa.”
“This is it. The road is too steep for the bus, you will have to walk. “
“Are you sure? We are not looking for the spa (nor, I thought can we afford to pay for a spa as we are barely making the budget last as it is). We are looking for the inn.”
“Fuigo Spa,” the driver said emphatically, gesticulating towards a road sign I could not read. “Walk-ee!”
“Did you call? Did he call them,” I asked Elena, my colleague the art historian who as it happens does speak a bit of Japanese.
“He says we are here. I will ask him to call the inn.”
I looked down into the ravine. The oval roof of a Japanese bath house, steam escaping from a roof vent, sat cuddled between the steep tree covered hillsides. It was dark and we couldn’t see much, but there was a red-roofed building attached to the onsen, clearly it was a very nice place. Clearly there was a mistake.
“They are sending a van to come and take us and our bags. He says to take the bags out of the bus.”
It was dark, getting cold and we were high up in the mountains, far from a real town. My internal clock was still a bit jagged, and we were all tired after the long trip over from the US and two intense days of sight-seeing in Osaka and on Awaji Island. Normally, this kind of adventure turns me on, but with 19 college students, my head was full of the repercussions of a night trying to find the right inn after being abandoned on the side of the road.
When we descended to the onsen and were asked to remove our shoes at the door before entering, my queasiness did not disappear. Wouldn’t it seem normal for a group to show up for a bath, without the question of hotel rooms being broached? A few halting conversations between Elena and the inn keeper, more of a non-conversation it seemed to me, where not much was actually communicated even though both parties seemed eager to exchange information (I really envisioned a long night ahead)– and then, like a magic bottle opening, we were simply handed keys and told to be at dinner at 7.
“Please take a bath before dinner.”
I guess this is where we had reserved. Wow!! A week at a rural onsen, what could be better?
In case you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting a Japanese public bath, known as an onsen, let me explain. As Americans we are driven (I might say obsessed) by an overall pursuit of everything individual. By that I mean we want what we want, when we want it, and how we want it. No personal request is ever out of line, no individual pursuit is ever denied. The “I’s” have it. We download our lives to watch alone from our rooms, ears covered by buds not hearing those around us. We text under the table or brazenly out in the open, clearly projecting our desire to be elsewhere and with other people. We like it that way, it corresponds to our sense of individual entitlement. We request any number of ingredient changes in restaurants, we eat on our own schedules, we make our own friends. Though it may seem completely normal for an American to live this way, it would be unthinkable in many other cultures to posit the self as the center of life. In France or Italy the family often comes first and no one complains, and friends tend to also be friends of the family. In Japan where privacy is a place in your head more often than actually being alone, everything seems to be about the group, not the individual, and being a good member of a group is de rigeur.
Consider: In the US, the higher you pay for a hotel room, the nicer the private bathroom is. A motel might have a press mold plastic shower with a moldy curtain. A four star hotel in Chicago had better have marble floors in the bathroom and two sinks, so that husband and wife can each have their own, otherwise you are perfectly in your rights to demand a better room. In Japan, the nicer the hotel, the nicer the public bath facilities. I have been in several hotels at a variety of prices ranges in Japan, from rural to the most urban and I can tell you that a wonderful hotel will have a superlative public bath. A smaller hotel will have a simpler public bath. Guests at both hotels will bath in public before dinner.
So what’s so special about a Japanese bath? After many visits in many towns and cities, I find that the most striking aspect of these baths is a palpable sense of community. Though getting clean is what you do, communing with your neighbors is why you go back often. Here at the Fuigo Spa, in rural Tokushima province, many many miles from anything that might resemble a city, in a bamboo covered hollow surrounded by floating rice paddies and neighborhood Buddhist temples, these two steamy rooms, the male and female public baths are the public square. I don’t know about the women’s side, for obvious reasons, but on the men’s side, there is constant chatter, the ring out of ohio gozimus in the morning and kon bon wa when someone enters in the afternoon. Call me a romantic, but I assume that many of these men have known each other their whole lives, growing up in this town, working, marrying, and raising children all within the confines of this idyllic valley. The bath is not just the place with the best hot water and cleanest hot tub; it is in fact the city square, the coffee shop, the park bench or the church basement, and these men come here for community. And for the children that come with their parents, or the young adults, it is the playground and the hang out.
As with many things Japanese, taking a bath in a Japanese onsen has its rituals that must be observed. For one, you cannot wear a bathing suit; this will prompt someone, almost anyone, to ask you to leave. However, one does not simply strip bare and plunge into the steamy hot waters and admire the view. (Out the very large curved wall of windows of our onsen is the small pools of the river complete with a tumbling waterfall and the wonderful vermillion steel bridge which soars overhead reminding me that I am in the country of Hokusai and Hiroshige.) When you pass the indigo stained banners that serve as a gateway entrance, there is a dressing room, with small square lockers and plastic baskets for your clothes. You bring only a tiny towel for washing in with you to the actual bathing room. Beyond the sliding doors, the inner sanctum, noticeably warmer, divides into two sections. On the right, there is an area of very low plastic stools each paired with a plastic bucket, in front of mirrors, spigots and shower hoses. Next to each set up is a tray with shampoo as well as cake soap. The first ritual, without fail, is to perch yourself on the little stool in front of a mirror and wash your whole body, and I mean really thoroughly wash yourself using the soap, the towel and the shower hose. I have seen men sit before these mirrors for over fifteen minutes washing. You can shave if you want to; brush your teeth if you need to.
Only when you are completely squeaky clean, then you go over to the hot tub for a good long and relaxing soak. It feels so good and should not be rushed. No one rushes this part, though I have wanted to as by this time I am thinking about getting to dinner. In our tub, there are two special areas: one with bubbles that rise from the floor and another with strong jets that massage your back if you sit in front of them. The water says, let go, take this moment and be here now, relax. Heaven on earth.
To the left from the entrance there is another small area containing a sauna – too hot for me –often as not filled with a few chatty old men. There is also a shower that throws down two powerful jets, so that when you stand under it, your shoulders get a good massage. Opposite is a row of chairs for sitting and chatting, and between the massage shower and the main bath is a smaller round tub, with very cold water. I have taken the plunge twice, and that is about enough for this trip I think. The last ritual, of course is to dry off and get dressed, but here, as with everything else, there is a special Japanese twist. For those who live nearby, they simply dress and leave, often stopping in the TV lounge area on their way out. For hotel guests however, there is no need to re-dress in street clothes. Each guest is given a long blue and white cotton robe and a with a fabric belt, as well as a pair of sox for walking in the hotel and a dark blue over coat, a sort of mix between a shawl and a robe, that ties in the front. Many of the guests wear this outfit for the rest of the evening, while dining in the hotel restaurant, or sitting around smoking or talking. For me, I go as far as wearing this outfit on the walk to and from my room, where I will change back to ordinary clothes for dinner. Still, it is fun to walk around in this get up – a bit like a pajama party with people you don’t know.
So if there is a better place to land for the nights after long hours beating mulberry branches into fibers for paper making, I can’t think of it. We simply lucked out.