Magazine article The Spectator

Lost in Translation

Magazine article The Spectator

Lost in Translation

Article excerpt

Tokyo, I am not the first foreign visitor to observe, is a city obsessed by cleanliness. The streets are clean, the cars are clean, the buildings are clean and the people, despite being famously dirty-minded, like to keep themselves clean too. Trouble was, after 12 hours on a plane from London, a night out in Roppongi and a morning spent pouring money into a cacophonous slot machine in a smoky Shibuya pachinko parlour, I felt filthy.

I asked the concierge at the Century Hyatt (like the nearby Park Hyatt, of Lost in Translation celebrity, only cheaper and not as good) if she knew of an onsen nearby, so I might sluice my grimy body and purify my jetlagged mind.

I'd heard about onsen from my brother Christopher, an experienced Japan hand. 'If you're brave enough, ' he'd texted me before I left, 'naked bathing in a natural hot spa can't be missed.' The concierge smiled sweetly and told me I probably wouldn't like the nearest one on account of it's being 'very old' and also 'for locals'. It sounded ideal. She shrugged and gave me a map.

I found the Juniso Onsen opposite the corner of Shinjukucho Park West, in the basement of an uninspiring apartment block. I blundered as soon as I walked in. 'Shoes!' shouted a crone, and sped across the room towards me, pointing at my trainers. I surrendered my New Balances, coughed up the 1,900-yen entrance fee (just over eight quid) and 200 more for towel rental, and walked through the curtains underneath the sign saying 'Males'.

In the changing room I undressed in what to anyone looking -- mercifully, no one seemed to be -- might have appeared an almost impossibly self-conscious manner. I stopped short of actually whistling to indicate my incredible nonchalance, but I believe I still managed to strike a number of insouciant poses while removing my trousers, hopping on one foot and gripping my locker key between my teeth. What enviable froideur.

Truth is, I've never been all that comfortable disrobing in front of other men. At school there were some high-pitched boys who actually wore swimming trunks in the communal showers. I wasn't that bad, but neither was I a towel-flicking Adonis who would primp and preen and strut about in the nude after rugger.

Nevertheless, I stowed my gear and strode into the bathhouse, carrying my little towels before me. Immediately, I felt seven Japs' eyes upon me. Sorry, bad joke. Actually, none of the men present paid me a blind bit of notice. They were too busy soaping themselves up or wallowing in the hot bath.

Mimicking the actions of a paunchy bald man who'd walked into the room just ahead of me, I pulled up a plastic stool at one of the many washing stations arranged along one wall, squirted some liquid out of a communal bottle of soap, hosed myself down and then made an ungainly attempt to slip quietly into the bath. …

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