Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan
My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.
That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.
As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.
There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.
I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.
One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.
Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.
We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.
News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?
Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.
The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.
Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.
When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.
Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.
And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.
Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.
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