- Joseph Polack
JAPANESE HOT-SPRINGS & SWEDISH SAUNA
Updated: Jan 21
My long love affair with Swedish sauna culture and Japanese hot-springs (Onsen) would have continued longer, if it were not for a series of cultural surprises and a growing sense of danger. Reality was catching up with us all. Our old myths were adjusting to the changing times faster than our common sense.
Though our neighborhood Enoshima Island Spa was readjusting to a rapidly growing Covid danger, my old friends in Sweden kept socializing and enjoying their sauna pleasures as ever before. It seemed that Swedish and Japanese reactions to an unfolding crisis were rooted in different perceptions of security.
Since our student days in Goteborg, an access to free of charge sauna around the year was taken for granted. There was hardly a neighborhood in Sweden without a private or public sauna. At many companies, universities, community housing, there were saunas filled up at lunchtime, and people didn't seem insecure socializing with their naked bosses, or strangers.
A co-ed dorm in my Goteborg neighborhood used to follow simple sauna rules: one day for women, next day for men, third day for both sexes, and so on. Because there were neither guards, nor e-ID checks then, anyone could bring local or foreign neighbors to join our nearby sauna community. As Scandinavians traditionally enjoyed unisex sauna naked, many foreign students and employees hesitated at first. Despite our varied cultural heritage, little by little we all began enjoying the camaraderie of sweating nakedness. Though men always respected the only-women days, women could enter on male days. And they frequently did; they felt secure. Sauna wasn’t an erotic zone.
Without even realizing it, we were bonding across gender and social boundaries. Stripping away from clothes felt both liberating and relaxing. Some of us had beer-bellies. The others, tattoos. Some were shaven, the others, hairy. Yet, we all had equally enjoyed our natural human need for sharing warmth and jolly fellowship on the cold days.
Our life journeys followed different paths, but memories of our carefree student-time sauna continued to return during our reunions in different parts of the world. And when a couple of our old-timers ventured into my Enoshima neighborhood, the local saunas and water-filled cave in a nearby onsen, were on the top of their list.
And indeed the Enoshima Island Spa featured online seemed for them like a paradise. The staffers' politeness and cleanliness were exemplary offline as well. The complimentary robes were handed to the foreign couple right before they were asked to separate according to gender. Each had to enjoy the 3 onsen-pools and a sauna along with the folks of the same sex. After the onsen staffers made discretely sure that both my buddies were free of tattoos, they put on their swimming wears.
Then they took separate elevators down to the common spa space furnished with even more splendid pools. Though the indoor pools were too small for a longer swim, and a unisex herbal sauna was almost deserted, the artificial cave with an outdoor pool and waterfall provided a magnificent view over the Mt. Fuji sunset. The people silently, almost religiously, watched the orange colored ocean until the darkness took over the bay.
My visiting overseas friends used to ask me if the Japanese saunas are so lifeless because the locals don't enjoy entering sea in the winter? Or was it because the people wearing tattoos are prevented from bathing together with the other folks due to some old myths?
The Japanese myth of associating tattooing with organized crime rather than with ancient fishing rituals, is slowly being adjusted to our changing life realities. The number of foreigners living along our Shonan coast has been steadily growing. What was once considered to be a cultural norm wasn’t common sense anymore.
And the first thing I did right after moving to my Enoshima neighborhood two years ago, was to mingle with my tattooed and non-tattooed Japanese neighbours in the freezing winter ocean. Nobody objected of having a foreigner joining the annual tradition. In no time we all were bonding with each other by keeping our bodies close.
And sharing our natural warmth in the frosty weather was far more important than our ethnic differences, gender, and social standing. People from different walks of life enjoyed a sense of community.
And yet our jolly atmosphere of carrying the local deities to the ocean during our annual Enoshima Winter Sea Festival (KANCHU MIKOSHI) held on January 19th 2020 was not going to last long. One by one our local outdoor festivals were being cancelled because of lockout. Our Annual Spring Festival (SHONAN ENOSHIMA HARU MATSURI) featuring traditional Japanese drums was cancelled in March. In mid April our Enoshima Onsen was closed as well. The state of emergency was being extended to end of May.
When I bicycled to our Enoshima island yesterday, our once crowded Onsen looked deserted. It seemed that fear of tattooed folks was slowly being replaced by our common fear of an invisible danger.
And sharing the common danger was bringing our cross-cultural Shonan community even closer together.
The reality was challenging the myth of cultural boundaries.