Before I begin, it is only fair that I warn you that I am now insane. Please bear this in mind if you feel the instinctive need to frown at my decisions or suggestions.
Back in the UK my company said to me, where would you like to work in Japan? Hmm, I said, anywhere is good ‘except’ Hokkaido as I hate the cold. Three months later I get the call. Congratulations Poncho, you’re going to Sapporo!
Yay. Thank you ever so much, you mental delinquents.
Knowing I would experience a Hokkaido winter was the first moment I dipped my toe into icy madness.There was however one opportunity that everyone said I should try at least one, given the conveniently life-threatening weather. All my friends and even the California girl kept telling me how it was an experience to try onsen in the winter. I was not so keen. Being set on fire is also an experience and yet I’ve never had a sudden desire to try that either. When I finally gave into peer pressure and agreed to go for it, that was the second drop into madness. Ankle deep now, in case you were wondering.
Me and the California girl took the hour long bus journey there, into this rural town famous for its hot springs and natural. Not that I could see any of that beauty. Not with the heavy snow coming down all day and the bus veering round corners as though it were on a race track. After we arrived, we learned that buses only come by three times a day and that there was a very real chance of being abandoned if we didn’t keep track of the time. Did I mention onsens are all about relaxation by the way? Nothing relieves my stress like the idea of being abandoned in hut-like building in the dead of winter. Up to my knees now.
I separated from the California girl by the changing rooms and agreed to meet back in an hour. I had never been to an onsen before but I’ve had enough people whine at me about it, that I felt like I knew exactly what I was doing anyway. So I barely flinched at all when an elderly naked man walked headlong into me as I entered. My clothes slightly damp from the collision, I naturally took it my stride and pretended this was completely normal. Waist deep madness.
I quickly undressed and left my clothes in the basket, with all my usual paranoia. I expertly hid the basket in the changing room in fear of my mystery thief. Onsens are so relaxing, let me tell you. I entered the indoor bath and took the initial shower. You’re allowed to bring a towel for your modesty’s sake, and half the Japanese men inside were carrying them but one, my hands are bigger than that stupid towel and two, what is the bloody point? You’re in a room full of naked men. They’re all built the same way. You’re not going to see anything new. Or if you do, you should probably let the gentleman know in case he needs to see a doctor.
Almost everyone was in the outdoor bath but I was only waist deep in madness at that point, so I still had half a body’s worth of logic and sense to destroy before I could walk outside into the snow. I sat inside the indoor bath, choking a little on the ominous steam erupting from it and plunged to chest deep madness. When you see steam floating off the water, it’s usually a sign that it’s not too comfortable. It was 48 degrees according to the signs. After 5 minutes inside, I was convinced that if I stayed any longer I’d be infertile for the rest of my life. Give the cooking an hour more and I’d almost be ready to be served up for dinner (refer to your cookbooks for detailed instructions on the best cannibal dishes). So I leaped out of the boiling water, panic-stricken lobster style, and wavered until the dizziness and second degree burns subsided. Chest deep into madness is deep enough to think ‘maybe I’ll like the outdoor bath more if it’s cooler’.
I stepped outside and the wind lashed me. Oh yeah, it’s -8 degrees out here and I’m wet and naked. I knew there was some small reason I was anxious about this. Just the prospect of hyperthermia, nothing too serious. I dashed through the snow to get into the water as soon as possible and thankfully, it was indeed cooler than it had been indoors but just hot enough to keep off the cold. The snow came down harder so I lowered myself further into madness, now neck deep. I can’t deny it was beautiful. We were literally sitting in a pool up a mountain, surrounded by rocks and woodland, everything painted in pillowy white and massive snowflakes tumbled down across it all and melted before they reached the water. Except the ones that landed on my head. The off-putting thing though was the difference between the men’s and women’s baths. From over the wall, I heard all the women and even the California girl now and then, chatting, laughing and generally enjoying themselves. In my bath, we had a gloriously awkward silence. They were a miserable lot. They stared glumly into the water as though they were pondering over what they’d done with their lives. Even the scary yakuza guy with the tattoo across his back looked depressed.
It was going well until I noticed my head was hurting. Confused by the sudden headache, I reached up to my hair and found the cause. The snow that had taken refuge in my hair had decided to liven things up by freezing. My hair was now rock solid, held together by streaks of ice. My head was the only thing not protected from the elements and now with every breeze and every minute longer my head grew colder. It was at this point I dunked my head under the water to melt the ice, and my descent into madness was officially submerged and complete.
I enjoyed the experience much to my surprise. I even rinsed off with heaps of snow before I went back to change. I’d recommend other people to try onsen in the snow one day. Now bear in mind, as I clearly stated at the beginning, I am insane now so please don’t listen to my advice. I walked naked into the snow, suffered a tremendous temperature induced headache and then rolled about in 3 feet of snow afterwards.
I obviously cannot be trusted.