Uchiko isn’t famous for much – nature (a polite way of saying it’s in the remote countryside), mikans (“famous” insomuch as they grow them, like the rest of Shikoku), a Bunraku theater, and a little merchant street with old houses, the name of which escapes me at the moment. Ironically, it’s the latter item that drew us to Uchiko – as many a foreigner who has visited Japan with a copy of the Lonely Planet in hand knows, interspersed between the black and white text pages are several full colour plates featuring photos of places – famous and off the beaten path – all around Japan. One of the random plates towards the back showed the scene of this very quaint looking shopping street with lots of buildings in Shikoku which caught my eye. As you may have guessed, it was the very same merchant street in Uchiko, so being in Shikoku, I thought it prudent to satisfy my curiosity and stop by to see if it really looked the same as in the picture. It was, I am happy to report, more or less just as advertised.
Anyway, there’s not much to say about Uchiko other than it really was quaint, just as in the pictures, and had lots of lovely old houses which people still live in. I really dig places like this in Japan, where people still live in old restored houses (like the “samurai district” in Kanazawa, the thatched roof farm houses in Gokayama, or some of the few remaining “machiya” in Kyoto for example) to this day. It’s neat, in the same way that an old colonial-era house still standing in the middle of New York or Boston is. I’m not sure I’d recommend making Uchiko a number one priority for a trip to Shikoku (that honour would definitely go to the Iya Valley) but if you’re in the area it’s a nice place to kill a few hours.
After fooling around in Uchiko for a bit, we wearily returned to the car, as the morning’s strenuous exertions in the Iya Valley and an afternoon of high speed driving and jumping pictures in Uchiko started to catch up with us. This also marked the second day we had slept in the car as opposed to a hotel to save money, and while this was all fine and good in terms of sleeping, it did slowly dawn on us as we pulled away that it was having somewhat of a deleterious effect upon the pleasantness of our body odor – a fact drawn into sharp relief as we found it necessary to roll down the windows to get some fresh air in and around our sweaty icky selves.
Ironically, if there is one country where it’s not a problem to camp out in a car for multiple nights in a row, it would be Japan. This of course, not only because it’s incredibly safe here (as opposed to America where you’d likely be jacked, raped or murdered in your face), but also because the country is literally dotted with thousands of onsens, sentos and other assorted public baths where anyone can just swing by and bathe their dirty, dirty selves for a few hundred yen (the US equivalent of a few dollars). Even most fancy onsen hotel resort complexes will let you use their baths for a small fee, even if you’re not staying at the hotel itself.
Now this works out great for your average road-tripping traveler provided you’re okay with the sole catch which is that you basically have to strip down naked and hang out with a bunch of naked old people in a tiny pool of water. It can be a bit disconcerting if you’re not used to it, and some Westerners (and I don’t blame them) are kind of reticent about the entire affair. It’s cool, you know – bathing for us is kind of a private affair (much like pooping and nap time) and one that many are strictly of the opinion shouldn’t be shared with strangers.
For me, though, the real issue is not so much hanging out naked with a bunch of other people though, as it is the fact that I don’t like absolutely hate more than almost anything else – being fully immersed in water. And when you take a bath in Japan, alas, being fully immersed in water is kind of the entire focal point of the affair.
Now you may be asking yourselves – but mistar panda, why do you hate being immersed in gentle, life giving water so? And I’ll tell you, dear readers – it’s because that unlike many of you, I was once sexually assaulted by a fish whilst swimming in a lake, a terrible and traumatic experience that instilled in me a horrible fear of being immersed in water that borders on the hydrophobic.
(Curious? Click here to read more… if you dare)
In addition, there is one other thing that bothers me about taking communal baths in Japan, this one having to do more with issues of cleanliness than of nakedness or fear of being violated by sea monsters. See, in theory you are supposed to wash yourself thoroughly before you get into the bath – it’s really just for soaking. And while that is all well and good, in reality, with hundreds of people getting in and out of any given public bath daily, what do you suppose are the odds that at least a few of them may have missed a spot or two whilst scrubbing down? Long time readers of the blog already know how I feel about gooches – now just imagine the same water circulating in and out, day after day, bereft of the sanitising effects of chlorine, lapping up against the gooches and crotches and smelly armpits and stick toe junk of hundreds and hundreds of strangers, swirling about and here you go, all nekkid and happy-go-lucky, jump into that cesspool of teeming bacteria and human debris and microscopic poop particles and invisible molecules of nether region flesh lifted off by the circulating waters and here it comes oh, oh oh hey hi to you, all up and about you, splashing and lapping up against your body, your neck, your face, heaven forbid you should splash and it accidentally hit your mouth or eyes or nose.
Lots of people act all offended when you suggest that bathing in public baths is dirty. Horrified looks on their faces, they clasp their hands to their mouths in outrage, suggesting perhaps you are ignorant of the fact that one is supposed to wash before entering.
“Everyone is clean before entering the bath!!!” they will squeal.
But I know the truth. And deny as they will, deep down inside, they too, know the truth.
And that is why I generally avoid public baths – because the only gooch liquid that should ever splash upon my face is… well, none, really.
My two (not at all irrational haha) reasons above notwithstanding however, by the time we reached Matsuyama, things had gotten to somewhat of a stinky head. With several days of travel still left ahead of us, and no hotels in the near future (we needed to save money), we needed a bath in a desperate way, potential poop molecules and sea monsters be damned. And as luck would have it, when it finally came time to break my long standing public bath embargo, it turns out Matsuyama was the place to be.
See, Matsuyama is famous for a variety of things – a lovely castle among them – but perhaps none more so than Dogo Onsen. I won’t bore you with the particulars of Dogo Onsen – you can click on the link to read all about Natsume Soseki and Botchan and their relationship with this little bathhouse – but suffice it to say that if one is going to get all soaked in the dirty water with other naked strangers, there’s few places better to go all in.
Like most public baths, Dogo Onsen is segregated by gender so Starbucks girl and I split up at the door. Being cheap, I bring in this ratty set of Mr. Donuts Pon de Lion towels we had in the car to use instead of renting a towel, and after buying a little thing of shampoo and soap from the attendant, I shuffle off to the men’s changing room.
I enter the changing room to find it jam packed with men in various states of undress. I pad around until I find an unoccupied locker, then, whilst carefully trying to preserve my modesty with a ratty old towel sporting a faded orange cartoon lion that is far too small for my panda bulk, I begin to change. The irony of course being that in a few scant moments I’m about to be prancing around fully naked in front of other naked people, so there’s really no point in being modest now, is there? But yet, we cling to our illusions.
After I finish stuffing all my gear – including the big towel – into the tiny locker, I stand there, as nekkid as the day I was born, save a hand towel sporting a teeny tiny lion shaped like a donut censoring my junk. Naturally feeling a bit awkward, I decide it is time to head to the bath. Whereupon I encounter the first major obstacle of the evening: I failed to locate where the entrance to the bath actually was before stripping down to my birthday suit.
One wouldn’t think that this would be a big deal since the entrances are usually marked, but for some reason, standing naked in the changing room of Dogo Onsen, I couldn’t for the life of me identify which of the many, many doors led to the bath. So I and my crotch-level Pon De Lion Donut towel companion decided to do the only thing we could – we started walking around trying different doors.
It turns out that a naked man covering his crotch with a cartoon wash cloth walking around a small enclosed room opening and closing various doors tends to make people anxious and pretty soon most eyes on the room were on me. This, in turn made me quite uncomfortable, and with an increasingly frantic pace, I began flinging open and shut doors with abandon until suddenly I hit up on one sliding weathered door with a this teeeeny tiiiiinyyyy yellow wrinkled paper sign – handwritten! – that read “entrance to bath” tacked on to the corner of one of the frosted glass panes. Ahem. Would it have killed them to make the sign, oh I dunno… maybe bigger than 2 inches wide? Nevertheless, upon finding the entrance to our salvation, I let out a semi-embarrassed huff and slide open the door, carrying my bright red panda self and donut beast towel companion into the bath and away from the host of uncomfortable stares behind us.
Anyway, once in the bath, I pull up a stool and get to the business of washing up. After having scrubbed my body clean, it was time for the bath. I’d show you a picture, but pretty much the only thing that makes people more uncomfortable than a naked man running around opening doors whilst covering himself in a cartoon lion towel is a naked man running around with a cartoon towel and a gigantic camera. In other words, I didn’t bring my camera in the bath
The sides of the bath were made of a smooth, rounded stone, and in the middle there rose an ornate stone column from which water continuously flowed, circulating the bath in such a way that the currents flowed in towards the center – a fact with which I was about to become intimately acquainted. Lining the sides of the bath were several dozen naked men, soaking in the water and enjoying a chat with their homies. Looking around, it looked like I was the only person who was here by his lonesome – apparently I didn’t get the memo about bringing my homeboys to the shower with me.
I walk over to the edge of the bath, then slowly ease my way into the warm water. It feels surprisingly comfortable and refreshing and I close my eyes for a moment and strive to focus on the feeling of relaxing, soaking, feeling clean and fresh. I envision all the dirt, grime and sweat from the morning’s mountainous expeditions slowly lift off my body and dissolve, taking with it the stress and exhaustion of the grueling schedule to date. I feel great – lighter, as if a huge weight had been taken off my shoulders, as if I was light as a feather, bobbing, floating, levitating, being carried away by a gentle current.
I open my eyes to find suddenly the two distinct peaks of my feet poking out of the bath surface as I appear to be inexplicably prone and…. levitating in the water. Levitating – floating, if you will, and not only floating, but floating away from the edge of the tub.
“This is weird.” I think to myself, a moment before panic starts to set in.
The thing about floating is, it sounds cool and relaxing, until you realise that you are essentially helpless and at the mercy of the current. A current which is currently sucking me towards the circulating black hole fountain in the middle of the bath, the bath filled with naked strange men who are looking at me with quizzical looks on their face.
There are certain rules of etiquette to be observed in the Japanese bath and while not all of them came to mind immediately, I was fairly certain that swimming was strictly frowned upon. But in about half a second, the edge of the tub was about to slip out of grasp and I would have no choice but to either break into the doggy paddle birthday-suit style or else float away like a naked piece of driftwood to be drowned for all to see. So in a moment of desperation, I fling my arm out and manage to grab hold of the slick, smooth water-covered sloped marble lip of the bath edge.
Have you ever seen one of those action movies (think like Cliffhanger) where someone falls over the edge of a building or cliff and the hero leaps and grabs them, and their eyes meet and the camera keeps cutting between close ups of that and of their hands slowly, agonisingly slipping out of each others’ grasp while they say something like “I’m not going to let you go!” or “Don’t you give up on me!” or sometimes just “Hang on!”? And you keep waiting for the inevitable, when they’re going to lose their grasp and the unlucky victim plummets to their death? Well, that is sort of how it was with me and that slippery marble lip. The current was dragging me away and my already-limited purchase on the smooth surface was becoming more and more tenuous by the moment.
By now, several of the men near me had noticed my rather distressing plight and an awkward whisper began to circle through the bath as my fingers began to slip, slip, sliiiiiip from the edge. Sensing that disaster was near at hand (oh god, the last thing I needed was for the fireman to be called to rescue the helpless gaijin floating in the middle of the most famous onsen in Japan (though what a blog entry that would have made, eh?) I decided to act with the last of my strength. With a tremendous grunt – “YEEEAAARRRGGHHHH!!!!” I kicked out with my feet, arced my body as if a panda-shaped boyant dolphin, and lurched back towards the edge of the bath.
My exertion – which flung my donut-lion modesty towel from my body and set it floating about in the current towards an old man near me who instinctively recoiled in shock (whether due to its ratty cuteness or the obvious result its loss had on my modesty at the moment of maximum floating panda-outstretchedness) – proved to be successful (thank god) and I managed to secure a better grip on the edge of the bath and with another gutteral utterance, dragged myself towards it, whereupon I flopped in a most un-modest manner over the edge (woe be the person who got a peek at the full panda monty in the process) as if a drowned man crawling ashore having narrowly escaped death. All in all, pretty much the most dramatic bathing experience I’ve ever had (the time I almost electrocuted myself with a mixer withstanding) – and, I dare say – probably the most dramatic exit to an ofuro Dogo Onsen has ever borne witness to. I will leave it to you to imagine what the reaction was amongst the naked men in the bath, but suffice it to say that if I am ever called to account for a list of my “most awesome moments as a man” this will probably not make it onto the list.
After pausing a moment to catch my breath on the soaking wet tiles surrounding the bath, I slowly stand up, reach into the bath to take back my modesty towel (swished wordlessly towards me by the old man towards whom it had floated), and then make my way back into the changing room, my face – and dare I say, my entire body – a bright shade of red.
If you understand this reference, you my friend, have been in Japan too long.
As I pass through the door, my mind begins to churn through what just transpired in the bath from hell behind me:
“Did I just actually start floating helplessly in the bath!?” being the first incredulous though through my head, followed soon by the notion that while I wasn’t certain exactly how high the mineral content of the water was that particular day, that was probably a pretty sure sign that I ought to reduce my buoyancy sometime in the near future. (if there was ever a clearer sign from god that one ought to lose weight, I hesitate to think what it might be)
I manage to get changed and groomed without further humiliating incident, and in short order am back outside Dogo onsen and on the safety of dry land (not to mention clothed), leaving memories of the hell bath behind, though the trauma only further cementing my firm conviction that pandas have no business being fully immersed in water. I walk around, take a few pictures while waiting for my companion (the calm serenity of the bath as seen from the outside only belying the floaty horror that awaits within) and just generally try to relax from the bath that was supposed to be relaxing.
Sunrise over the Inland Sea
After a while, my friend comes out and we jump back in the car – my answer to her innocuous “How was your bath?” being naught but a stony silence – and head off back towards the highway, back towards the North. We make camp at the last rest area right before the beautiful islands of the Setonaikai – the famed “Inland Sea” of Donald Ritchie fame – that separate Shikoku from the mainland.
Tomorrow we would bid a fond farewell to Shikoku and head back to Honshu and onto two of the most famous sites in all of Japan – the beautiful Miyajima and the haunting Atomic Bomb Memorial in Hiroshima…. not to mention some newspaper chewing deer.
Now listening to: “Aurosonic & Morphing Shadows feat. Marcie – Ocean Wave (Original Vocal Mix)”