I dreamed last night that I’d joined a group of young people on a car trip to a historic northern town. The place was home to a rather morbid tourist industry, for Jimi Hendrix, in this alternate reality, had drowned there in his car, while trying to cross a river. (Cars were amphibious, but only under calm conditions.) In fact, we arrived by driving across the fatal lake, and I was quite nervous about it, somewhat cramping the style of the carefree whippersnappers I was with. While browsing the town’s emporia (which sold various Hendrix-related merchandise, including a computer-generated simulation of how he might have escaped his sunken car and what his music would sound like had he lived), I gathered that younger visitors frequently capsized their cars on purpose upon departure, in order to achieve maximum identification with Jimi. Usually, they were able to swim to safety, but occasionally, they drowned. It seemed that my young driver was especially determined to swamp us, after our day’s shopping. I sat in the back seat, trying to imagine how to squeeze through the undersized rear window, in the likely event of down-flooding. As fate would have it, there came a loudspeaker announcement that someone had just drowned, and the news sobered my driver just enough to induce him to give up his pursuit of the ultimate Jimi Hendrix experience. “I guess we’ll just do it next time,” he said, and I hastily agreed, “Yes, of course. Next time. Next time.”
I dreamed that I was watching a sparrow being chased by a hawk. The sparrow tired; the hawk did not; and the distance between them narrowed. The hawk attacked with its beak, and the sparrow fell crippled to the ground. Thereupon, the hawk perched at some distance and seemed content to bide its time, waiting until later to claim its prey. Dozens of other sparrows, fellows of the unfortunate one, settled around it and began pecking unconcernedly through the grass, confident that the hawk would leave them, at least, alone, when the time came for it to finish its work. And so the wounded bird continued to limp among his teeming community, friendless and doomed.
During a recent visit to my public library, I was intrigued by a DVD that did not have a picture of an exploding helicopter on the case, and since films without exploding helicopters are generally my favorites, I decided to take it home. Just a Sigh (France, 2013) was written and directed by Jérôme Bonnell and cast with Emmanuelle Devos and Gabriel Byrne as the leads.
The absence of exploding helicopters always promises a decent drama, and for the most part, I was not disappointed, although the drama of Just a Sigh is a little blasé in a European way. The protagonist, Alix (Devos), is a struggling stage actress who might be described as a late bloomer but who is beginning to suspect that her career, and her life, may never really bloom at all. She gets along poorly with her sister Diane (Aurélia Petit), in part because the latter is more conventionally successful and happy. In fact, Alix has a maladjusted, Holden Caulfield air about her, although, at 43, she’s got a few years on Holden.
While on a Paris-bound train from a show in Calais, Alix spots walking-wounded Doug (Byrne); their eyes meet, and an exchange of pain takes place. They bump into each other again in the city, which, in any culture, is a sign that they are fated to meet. They strike up a conversation, which steadily increases in intimacy. The tactics of their seduction are comically complicated when a clueless academic horns in, but Alix and Doug give him the slip, make their separate ways to Doug’s hotel room, and hop in the sack.
I don’t remember much of what happens after that. It comes out that Doug, an academic of the jaded variety, is in Paris for the funeral of a past love; and the film ends, as one might expect, with uncertainty as to whether or not Alix and Doug will make their tryst more permanent. However, I lost my concentration during the sex scene, owing to technical distractions. My DVD player, so ancient that it is also a VCR, tends to show images with a reduced brightness, and thus the hotel room setting appeared so dimly that I could barely make out the lovers’ making out. Furthermore, as I fiddled with the TV remote to boost the brightness to eleven, I noticed that the color was distorted: Whatever flesh was not in darkness was tinted a throbbing purple. I grew desperate at the controls, but I could not restore Ms. Devos and Mr. Byrne to their natural hue. Neither actor is a spring chicken, frankly, and the dark magic of my DVD player made each resemble a decomposing corpse. Mr. Byrne’s cheeks and biceps glowed as though from gangrene, and Ms. Devos’s sagging breasts, which she must have been contractually obligated to reveal, called to mind two dead blowfish in an oil slick. I felt like I was watching a necrophiliac orgy in a morgue or perhaps the suicide of two people making love in the core of a nuclear reactor. My own face began to turn blue from laughing. I coughed out my popcorn and, as I said, ceased following the film’s subtleties.
My friends think it might have something to do with the cable box being on top of the DVD player.
This is my bench
under the wisteria trellis
on the other side of the world,
where, looking outward to the east,
I behold impermanence
and, looking inward to the west,
Here are a few pearls of wisdom concerning hot springs bathing in Japan.
- Know Before You Go. Try to distinguish between a mere communal bathhouse (OHURO) and a true hot springs bath (ONSEN). The latter, of course, will require access to a volcanic vent of some kind; but most towns with onsen will advertise them heavily, for they are a huge part of the tourist industry.
- Learn the Rules of the House. Onsen can be complicated. The larger establishments will have a small locker at the entrance, in which you store your shoes. Put in your 100 yen (which is usually returned when you leave) and take your key. Then, check your shoe locker key when you buy your entrance ticket and get your main locker key, which will usually be on a wristband (cause you gonna be nekkid in a minute, with no pocket to put it in). You will also need to know what amenities (like soap and shampoo) the house has available, either for free or for purchase; if they are not provided, you will have to bring them. Most experienced bathers invest in plastic baskets for their soap, shampoo, and towels. If they live in an onsen town like Hakodate (where I am now), they keep their baskets in their cars, enabling them to bathe on a whim, without having to return home for supplies (or for bathing). At any rate, when you enter the locker room, find your locker and put everything in it but your locker key. Smaller onsen might have wicker baskets instead of lockers, in which case, you might feel more comfortable leaving your wallet in the car or at home. Some bathers carry a washcloth into the bath area proper, to employ as a fig leaf, but you can go in buck nekkid, with nothing but the locker key around your wrist, and no one will call you daffy.
- The Washing. As most Americans know, in Japan, you don’t wash in the tub; you wash before getting in the tub. At an onsen, you do your washing while seated on a little stool at a washing station, which includes a hand-held shower head and a larger spigot for filling a little plastic or wooden bucket, also provided. The washing stations are in a row, before a long mirror. You will have to sit your ass down on the little stool, which is about six inches off the ground. Americans, unaccustomed to squatting, may find the action difficult; and Americans also tend to be more portly than the average Japanese, in which case they will find their bellies on their laps – or their laps on their bellies. Anyway, in this rather unnatural posture, you will wash yourself. You may use the hand-held shower sprayer, or you may fill your little bucket with water and dump it over yourself. You usually can control the water temperature, but many of the “on” levers are time-sensitive and will shut the water off after a few seconds, sometimes leaving you with a face full of soapsuds. This mode of washing is not as efficient as an American shower. You will find it especially challenging, whether you are portly or not – I should say no matter how portly you are – to wash and rinse your nether parts, while sitting on the stool. You may want to get back to your feet to do it, but rising again will require some exertion and will result in your standing nekkid next to another man, with his head about waist-high. Therefore, you will probably just have to discover some way to get the water down there while seated. The hand-held nozzle will do the trick, if you are aggressive with it, but you will have to get over your self-consciousness (if you still have any, that is) and forget how it looks. Warning: Some of the larger establishments might have one or two American-style showers in the room, and you will be tempted to sneak into one of these and get your washing done much faster; but these showers are for rinsing off the onsen water when you’re all done. If you use soap in there, you may get a talking to (by a nekkid man), as I did once, supposedly because you will have created a slip hazard with your soap but really because it’s not fair for you to shampoo and wash efficiently while no one else can. You must conform to the custom of the house, even if it means lathering and rinsing your bum, one cheek at a time, while doing a gyrating lap dance with a water jet, sitting on a low plastic stool with a hole in the middle of it.
- The Soaking. Now that you’re squeaky clean, you’re ready for the onsen proper. All onsen will have at least one indoor pool, and most will also have an outdoor pool. If there is more than one indoor pool, they probably contain water of different temperatures, usually medium, scalding, and boiling. There may also be a special, “herbal” pool featuring a treatment du jour such as aloe, lavender, chamomile, and so on; and some bathhouses include a pool of cold water, for polar bears. Go ahead and try as many as there are (except the polar bear water). The hotter baths you will only be able to stand for a minute or so. Note that when you move while immersed, you will get burned. This is because your body is cooling the water; so when you move your leg, for example, you are moving it out of cooler water and into the real soup. Stay in each pool until you are miserable, and then move to the next one. When you feel that your chest has turned into a pot roast, it’s time to step outside.
- The Air. Here is where your experience will turn delightful. The outdoor pool, if there is one, will be situated on a terrace or in an enclosed garden-like area. By all means, take an additional soak in the outdoor pool, but your objective, after your body temperature is maxed out, will be to get out of the water (take it easy as you climb out, or you might faint) and to find a nice place to sit down, where you won’t be disturbed. It may be a rock (which will leave an interesting pattern on your tooshie) or a lawn chair (the plastic will feel icky at first contact – splash some onsen water on it first) or a flat tree stump. Your body will be so hot that the season won’t matter; you can stay out in the open, even in winter. I myself enjoy winter bathing for the unique experience of hanging out nekkid in the falling snow, with the public address playing atmospheric music-box sounds, and ice forming in my hair. Even in summer, though, the air feels marvelous (it will always be cooler than what you’ve just been in), and if the sulfur of the onsen has done its work, your lungs will have opened, cleared, and expanded to such a degree that every deep inhalation will seem to fill your whole body, your whole world, your whole soul. You will lose your anchor to the earth and expect to float off the ground. If you are in a truly exquisite onsen, the outdoor pool will have been designed with a dreamlike view. A few hours ago, I was perched on a rock next to the outdoor pool at the Isaribikan, hollowed out and euphoric, gazing across at Mount Hakodate, all sparkling at night, while squid boats bearing isaribi (the bright squid-attracting lights that give the Isaribikan its name) rounded Cape Tachimachi and formed a dotted line across the water (just like in the photo, except that I’m a man and I was out of the water). My skin was tingling, as it dried in the caressing breeze.
- The Rinse. The light, unlocked feeling will stay with you, even after you remember yourself and sense that it’s time to go to rejoin your family or friends. You will need to rinse the sulfur water off, back at a washing station or in the shower, if there is one. As you do so, you may wish to try one last sensual experiment: Use the plastic or wooden bucket to douse yourself with cool water. It sure feels nice running through your hair and down your back. Then, dry off, get dressed, and go home feeling like a million bucks.
- Answers to Questions You May Be Afraid to Ask. Many Americans fantasize about uninhibited exotics and assume that coed bathing is common in Japan. It isn’t. About 99% of Japanese onsen, every one I’ve visited, are segregated by sex. If you happen to find a KONYOKU (coed onsen), it will probably be empty or filled with elderly people who, presumably, aren’t the reason you want to go. If you want to get nekkid with your significant other (of the opposite sex), you can try a family (KAZOKU) onsen, but you will find it about as romantic as an ordinary bathroom, which is pretty much what it is. I’m also not sure if groups of unrelated people would be allowed into a family onsen. There is one other thing you may try (besides going someplace really sleazy, in which case, I can provide no insight): At some of the outdoor onsen, the male and female pools are separated only by a partition; it may be possible, if no one else is around, to lean out beyond the partition and give your friend(s) on the other side a little peep show.
- One More Thing. Until recently, tattoos in Japan would mark a man as a gangster and a woman as a prostitute. Attitudes concerning tattoos are changing, but many onsen may still bar your entry, if you have one. Once, however, I was at a large onsen, toward closing time, and suddenly, about twenty men with full-back tattoos came in all at once. I suppose that that particular onsen had made some kind of deal with the yakuza, allowing their members to get in for a few minutes before the end of business. So there I was, standing nekkid in the shower, surrounded by twenty gangsters. In the event, I didn’t look at them, and they didn’t look at me. It was as though there were a nekkid gentlemen’s agreement.
Background: When I lived in Taiwan as a youth (1988-92), I worked at a local shipping company, and “Susie” was in the sales department – outside sales (calling on clients, not just handling the paperwork in the office), an unusual job for a woman. She had an untamed, Amazonian beauty (how surprised I was, seeing her years later [as narrated below], to find her shorter than I am). Back in the day, I had feebly hit on her a couple of times, unaware or uninterested in the fact that she was living with a guy; but then I actually started to hang out with her and her boyfriend, “Joe,” at their bar, named Joe’s Place. He was a lot of fun. By the time I left Taiwan, they were married, and she was pregnant. During my 2010 research trip to Taiwan, I got in touch with her again. She explained that she was divorced from Joe, who’d become a journalist on the Mainland. Her son, whom she’d raised alone, had recently been killed in a car accident. What follows is the last diary entry of my 2010 trip.
Friday, April 16, 2010 – Taipei, Taiwan, ROC
The plan today was to have lunch with Susie, but she’d cheesed on me, fanged my gezi [‘released my pigeon,’ i.e., stood me up], by eleven, after I’d spent two days relishing the fantasy of being her hero, her shoulder to cry on, her saving ray of warmth.
There was a vague fallback position of my hanging around until fiveish and trying her again. So I ran downtown for a fast Mos Burger (the 五彩 burger I wanted was apparently a seasonal thing, available only through last Sunday, when I’d decided I loved it). I read in my Times a review of Kick Ass, and the old Spontaneity kicked in. I began playing the game of Taipei one last time. I feinted toward Taida Hospital; then I doubled back to the Station, buying a shirt and a 方大同 CD in record time and then taking the [Taipei Metro] to magnetic 西門町, where I checked out all five theatres and finally bought a ticket at the old 絕色, with only an hour to kill. I was enjoying myself and also enjoying childish revenge on Susie (ditching her back, in other words), while feeling a little guilty about it at the same time.
I loved the film.
I called her from the stairwell on the way out. She invited me to Neihu, where I would have enough time to be with her for five minutes before having to rush off to keep my dinner date with [another couple of friends]. Rockpile’s ‘Girls Talk,’ recently my manic soundtrack, began to play in my head again, and I raced off to the Ximending station [of the Metro], out the Ban/Nan [line], transferring to the Wen/Hu [line], up those long escalators (where I saw the best leg effect ever: transparent black stockings over long anorexic legs, coming up well above the knee and terminating in a fancy pattern just an inch or two below the hem of the young lady’s short shorts, leaving an thin band of exposed flesh between the shorts and the darker pattern at the top of the stockings) since you’re not supposed to see the fancy pattern at all, it was like she was wearing her underwear around her calves)
The little car curved and sped, and I ran down the escalator, and soon there was Susie, and all was forgiven, and we hugged, and we walked back to her yingchou [social meeting with clients], and she observed that I wasn’t a boy anymore, and she smelled of drink, and we reached the yingchou, where I worked the group for a while in the customary manner.
Five minutes passed, and Susie said she’d drive me all the way to Nangang for my big dinner. We got in her Toyota, and she began telling me about how she’d raised her son alone – raised him to be her ex-husband’s son, even sending him to the mainland to spend Chinese New Year’s with his dad. She soon realized that (but could not understand why) her ex-husband wasn’t acting like a father; so she stopped sending the boy to him. When Joe took five days to return to Taiwan to see his body, she gave up trying to understand.
But she didn’t give up trying to return her son to her ex-husband’s family, where Chinese Culture deemed he belonged. I listened with no clear idea what this meant, whether he would take their name or be interred among their graves. No one, not her ex, nor anyone from his family, has come to claim the boy and take him from her. And yet she thinks she must return him to them.
She was crying.
Her Singaporean boyfriend called and at the end of their conversation she said ‘I love you’ to him three times. I’d never heard a Chinese woman say it to her man, not even once.
Susie said I should go home and raise my daughter, and that’s what I’m going to do tomorrow.