High mountains, covered with snow, formed the imposing wall on the horizon. Sunlight fell on the snow, which reflected it on the village, spreading a yellow glow, like sprinkled gold dust. The steep slopes of the mountain, popular with skiers, snaked their way through the army of evergreen trees. The trees were laden with fluffy snow on their branches, which occasionally collapsed in a flurry of whiteness, when sharp winds shook the trees hard.
We were sitting in an open onsen, as the Japanese call their hot springs, our torsos feeling the autumnal chill, while warm, volcanic water invigorated the rest of our bodies. My legs floated in the water, taking painterly liquid shapes, as I perched myself along the wall, my arms holding me up.
We were in the hot springs of Niigata, on Japan’s west coast. It was morning; my friend Ushio was by my side, telling me about a complex mathematical problem he had been unable to solve the previous night. This hour at the springs, he was convinced, would help clear his mind, and he’d be able to fix the proof he was working on.
Does the water really have healing qualities, I asked. It has regenerative qualities, and it can lighten the load you are carrying, and help you look at things clearly, Ushio said.
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Ushio had politely told me the etiquette of onsen: You shower before you enter; and yes, you wear nothing, not even swimming trunks, although you can carry a washcloth. And you don’t stare at the men or women who are also in the water.
The idea, then, was to walk calmly, as if you were fully clothed, and yet briskly, as if you were trying to keep an appointment. Walking quickly also helped because it was cold outside. It was an unreal experience—to walk through that path of stones through an even lawn, as we looked for a more secluded part of the pool, with nothing on.
Ushio moved on his toes, and I kept pace with him. We had three more friends with us—colleagues of Ushio—two of them Japanese, and the third from India’s neighbourhood who had lived in Japan for many years. My subcontinental cousin used the washcloth to cover himself during our short walk. He said I could do the same, it was allowed. I didn’t. Once in the open, in that cool, crisp mountain air, I felt there was nothing to hide.
Months later, I wondered why he had covered himself. He lived in that town; it was a small town, and his face was known. Taking off all clothes before entering the hot springs was an ancient custom here; everyone did it. The Japanese saw it as a form of bonding.
But in the case of my subcontinental cousin, probably it was his sense of modesty that prevented him from revealing himself fully, a deeply ingrained sense of shame associated with the display of the body. That modesty is oddly selective: Many bristle at the idea of their own divinities painted in the nude (think here of M.F. Husain or Chandramohan, pilloried for their art) but think nothing of the angels in the nude that they see in Western religious art. Many even fall at the feet of naked ascetics in certain faiths practised in India. And then there are Khajuraho and Konark—but those ancients can do what they want, modern India rationalizes. Modern Indians are—what’s that word?—decent.
In any event, feeling the shock of seeing a naked body is not a particularly subcontinental trait. Travelling in Europe with American friends several summers earlier in my college days, I had noted how stunned they were when they saw European women going topless so nonchalantly on beaches and parks. I have to admit, the first time I saw rows upon rows of people wearing the barest minimum the laws would permit on beaches, I was taken aback, too. For my American friends it was the first such sight, and they kept taking pictures of the women, training their zoom lenses from a safe distance, lest their boyfriends came chasing; the women stared back angrily, some covering themselves with beach towels.
In Niigata that day, though, there were no cameras. The nudity was aseptic, almost as if in a hospital ward. Taking off your clothes became a functional act. If you tried to cover yourself, it would seem you were acting like the novice monks who followed their Zen Master across the river. The Master had taught them never to look at a woman, nor touch her. When the two novices and the Master reached a river they had to cross, they saw a beautiful woman who wanted to go across, but she could not swim.
The Master carried her on his shoulders and brought her to the other side. The novices were shocked. Later at night, sensing their troubled minds, the Master asked them what was bothering them.
One of the novices said: “Master, you carried a woman across the river….”
“And I left her on the other side. You are still carrying her in your mind,” he said, and laughed.
In the land of Zen, that’s what the hot springs taught us—to shed not just our clothes, but also our inhibitions. Then, slip into the water, let its warmth cleanse and rejuvenate you. And you sit there, admiring the snow-capped peaks.
Later that evening, Ushio told me he had solved the problem troubling him. And he too smiled.
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