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Mastering the Traditional Art of Bathing at Japan's Hot Springs : Summoning his courage and curiosity, writer finds himself in hot water at onsens near Tokyo.

April 18, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Turan is the Times' film critic

ODAWARA, Japan — It wasn't the hot water that brought me to Japan last winter after an absence of 10 years, but once I was back I knew a confrontation was inevitable. A tub and I had some unfinished business to attend to, and one of us was never going to be the same.

"Perhaps the people of no other country are so fond of hot water bathing as the Japanese," Professor Koichi Fujinami judiciously claimed in a 1936 government tourist pamphlet called "Hot Springs In Japan," and it is those hot spring resorts, known as onsens , that are the nation's bathing spots of choice.

Just a few days viewing of Tokyo television revealed the extent of what a more modern guide refers to as "the Japanese mania for onsens ." Everyone, from giggling couples on the Japanese version of "The Newlywed Game" to Gyn and Kyn, the wrinkled, 100-year-old twins, veterans of numerous ads, who are the darlings of the Japanese advertising world, can sooner or later be glimpsed dipping themselves into onsen waters.

I, too, 10 years earlier, had thought of giving onsens a try. In the mountain town of Takayama, roughly midway between Tokyo and Kyoto, I had checked into one, but things had gone badly almost from the start. Walking down the hall toward the water, wearing a yukata robe that barely reached my knees and slippers that didn't quite contain my feet, I inspired peals of pointed laughter from several groups of Japanese women.

When I reached the sexually segregated bathing areas, the situation did not get much better. A boisterous group of Japanese men who obviously knew one another were laughing, talking and casually dealing with what looked to be the very complex logistics of public bathing. They were not especially happy to see me, and I suddenly felt likewise. Like Moses, forced to settle for a Mt. Pisgah view of the Promised Land he was fated never to enter, I looked around, turned around and morosely returned to my room.

When it comes to the country's intricate web of customs and traditions, Japan can make you feel like that, like you have been thrust into the middle of a game without quite understanding the rules. Witness the business of slippers in the inn section of the onsen's traditional rooms. You leave your shoes at the room door, wear one set of slippers to get from the door to the tatami mat floor and go barefoot on the tatami .

Trips to go to the bathroom raise the ante. You walk to the edge of the tatami , put on the first set of slippers and exchange them at the rest room door, which may or may not be in your room, for ones clearly labeled, usually in large block letters, TOILET. Late one night in Takayama, I stumbled into the bathroom without making the change and the fear that the slipper police would nab me was so strong that when I came through passport control, I half feared my infraction would appear on some computer screen and I'd be rousted and humiliated after all these years.

But that frisson of irrational fear notwithstanding, it was an older and hopefully more mature man who re-entered Japan. I was now married, with a pair of stepdaughters, one of whom was spending her junior year abroad at a Tokyo university. Not knowing my dark past where hot spring resorts were concerned, she had arranged for her mother and me to visit not one but two different onsens , both in the mountainous Hakone region in the impressive shadow of Mt. Fuji itself.

This time I vowed to be better prepared. I called on pleasant memories of time spent in a Japanese-type spa in Santa Fe, and I carefully studied the amusing pictures the Japan National Tourist Organization, ever mindful of cross-cultural difficulties, provide to show just what you do and how you do it in a Japanese bath.

As it turned out, after spending a week in Tokyo, which was more modern, more crowded and more like "Blade Runner" than I remembered, some time at a relaxing onsen , if only to escape hordes of holiday shoppers and the avalanche of cards celebrating the arrival of the Year of the Rooster, started to seem like a fine idea.

The first onsen on our list was a corporate spa owned by auto maker Isuzu, intended mainly for the company's employees but where friends of my stepdaughter had arranged for our stay. Looking no more impressive than the clubhouse of a Midwestern golf course from the outside, it was the picture of elegant tranquillity on the inside, quiet, restful and serene in its simplicity.

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