Knowing when and when not to get your kit off in Japan is something of a minefield for the Western traveller…
Wearing too much clothing can be just as socially unacceptable as wearing too little, depending on the situation. The trick is knowing what to wear when…
On our five week jaunt across Japan, my girlfriend and I were bombarded by inhabitants in just about every conceivable state of undress. The best piece of advice we were given was to simply watch what everyone else is doing and follow their lead. This is what happened…
Reality vs Myth…
Take a walk around the mean streets of Japan and it’s easy to start thinking that the nation’s reputation for a love of nudity is a complete myth. Boobalicious cleavage is a rare sight. Revealing clothing is just not the done thing apart from the odd pair of hot pants or a miniskirt.
Neckerchiefs, polo necks, blouses, chinos, sensible shoes… I’m writing this section of the blog on a train from Tokyo to Kobe, sat directly opposite a woman in her early twenties dressed like Rupert Bear. Even Japanese teenagers look like they’re about to go on a picnic with the crusts cut off the sandwiches…
As a country that prides itself on having an entirely middle class population, smart casual tends to be the uniform of choice from the lowliest street sweeper to the flashiest CEO. This penchant for understated attire tends not to lend itself to exposed flesh.
Which makes it all the more odd that Japanese people seem to have absolutely no qualms about the idea of seeing another persons wobbly bits…
Convenience stores are chock full of porn magazines, none of them on the top shelf. Manga/Anime, the distinctive Japanese animation style popular amongst all age groups and both genders, is basically just tits, robots and explosions.
Naked things in Japan aren’t just for titillation either. Take, for example, the ‘Tanuki’ – a raccoon type creature that in popular Japanese folklore has a reputation for drunkenness, buffoonery and playing tricks on humans. Ceramic statues of the tanuki are often found outside bars and restaurants as a welcoming good luck charm…
All tanuki statues, without exception, have an absolutely gigantic pair of bollocks.
The tanuki’s massive nads, I am told, are a sort of long running joke. There is no real distinction between high brow and low brow humour in Japan. Wee, poo and willies are deemed just as hilarious as the Bard’s most cutting witticisms here…
Then there’s the Kanamara Matsuri Festival (‘Festival Of The Steel Phallus’), held every April in the town of Kawasaki. Sadly my girlfriend and I were not in the country in time to attend, but legend has it that the Kanayama Shrine around which the festival is held was historically prayed at by prostitutes wishing for protection against sexually transmitted diseases…
These days the residents of Kawasaki, celebrate Kanamara Matsuri by parading a massive phallus shrine down the high street.
My first opportunity to strip down in front of the Japanese came at our inaugural visit to an onsen…
Japan sits on the Pacific Rim at a junction between two tectonic plates, resulting in an abundance of natural hot springs. Onsens are the public pools where Japanese people go to bathe in piping hot spring water. There are over 2,000 of them dotted throughout the country.
My first onsen was Ooedo Onsen Monogatari in the district of Odaiba in Tokyo. Inside the décor evoked the feel of a ye olde Japanese village with the brightness and contrast turned up too high.
My girlfriend and I bid each other adieu. Men and women do not mix in all but a very select few onsens… well, they did up until the end of the 19th Century when British and American ambassadors introduced to Japan the idea that flashing your danglies at members of the opposite sex is an act of great shame… so for now we were on our own.
We headed to our respective changing rooms.
Disrobing was unsurprisingly straightforward, save for the sign on the wall explaining that anyone with tattoos would be marched off the premises. Unlike in Europe where tattoos denote extreme awesomeness, in Japan the only people bearing tattoos are the ‘Yakuza’ – organised criminals and mobsters.
Now stark naked with my personal effects shoved in a locker, there was no way to hide the extremely awesome mafia credentials adorning my left shoulder. The changing room was busy – I was paranoid about whether any of my fellow undressers suspected the potential for my wheelchair and I to unleash a tidal wave of organised crime at any moment.
I decided to go the long way around the perimeter of the changing room to get to the towel depot – my left shoulder pointing in towards the wall at all times.
I received two towels – one biggie to dry off with, and a small dish cloth whose purpose was to cover my modesty whilst transferring from pool to pool. Playing the role of ‘stupid foreigner’, I feigned obliviousness to the rationale behind the dish cloth and draped it over my left shoulder.
My nether regions were bare as I entered the pool area. The air was thick with steam. It seemed I was not the only person in there with little regard for the purpose of the dish cloth.
Japanese guys of all ages were swanning past with their junk bouncing around freely. Dish cloths were balanced on their heads, hanging around their necks, screwed up in a ball on the floor… pretty much anywhere but covering genitalia.
I had, not unreasonably, half expected Japanese men to have perfectly coiffured pubic hair in keeping with the national obsession for intricacy and neatness. But alas, no – the most fashionable pubic hair style for Japanese men today seems to take its inspiration from untamed knotweed.
Bear in mind that, as a guy in a wheelchair, my head is at the height of most standing peoples’ waists – this was an image that will be scarred on to my brain until the day I die. Fortunately, the disadvantage of my reliance on a wheelchair in this situation was partially offset by my myopia. I took off my glasses and the scene before me degraded in to a more palatable blur.
Next step was the wash down, which required perching on an unnecessarily small stool whilst showering off shampoo, conditioner and all kinds of body scrubs. A man with staggeringly intricate dragon tattoos spanning the lengths of his arms sat down on the stool next to mine. He gestured as if to ask whether I wanted to borrow his shower gel. I flinched as if to say ‘No, thank you,’ and ‘Jesus Christ, don’t hurt me.’
There were seven pools to choose from. The first one I went in was hot. The second was really fucking hot. The third one was just above freezing. The fourth was really fucking hot, but also milky coloured. The fifth was really, really fucking hot, but only about two feet deep and with jacuzzi jets pointed directly at your nether regions. The sixth and seventh pools were a bit like the first two, but outdoors.
What struck me, besides the feeling of light headedness that goes with jumping from one extreme temperature to the next, was the communal aspect of onsen bathing for the Japanese.
It was a Friday night. There were groups of guys in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties – friends, colleagues, fathers and sons – all joking, laughing, and discussing their woes, work and the wife. In Japan, an onsen isn’t just a place to sit naked in a hot swimming pool – it’s a place to hang out.
There is absolutely no equivalent of this in the Western world that I can think of. The social aspect is most closely aligned with pubs and bars (the Japanese have these too, but unlike onsens they are an entirely clothed affair) and the nudity aspect isn’t completely unpalatable to even the most hoity toity British prude (it’s not that dissimilar to, say, showers after a rugby game) but it’s hard to imagine what being naked whilst socialising could possibly add to the experience overall.
Why not wear swimming shorts? It’s not that being naked in a Japanese onsen feels particularly uncomfortable, it’s just… seriously, why not? What is the benefit of the absence of swimwear?
The answer is probably hygiene – the Japanese are obsessed with that too. Nothing is supposed to go in to the pool area apart from you and the dish cloth.
Later in our travels I was told in two separate onsens that I couldn’t take my wheelchair in to the pool area because the wheels were dirty (even after I hosed it down in front of the staff). On both occasions I just played ‘stupid foreigner’ and went in anyway. No one physically stopped me… the Japanese just sort of seem to get stunned in to silence whenever Westerners break the rules because hardly anyone there ever does it.
The other reason is probably for the feeling of freedom that nudity gives…
Sitting there in a really fucking hot swimming pool wafting my manhood and pubes in front of several dozen Japanese guys all doing the same… it’s far from being the greatest sensation known to mankind, but there is really nothing else quite like it.
The Maid Café
Y’know how I said that everyone in Japan dresses smart casual? Well, that’s not strictly true…
Three times on our trip we saw people wearing tracksuit bottoms, even though they weren’t participating in sport. Another time, we stayed in a ryokan owned by a guy wearing a Nirvana t-shirt.
Also, let’s not forget Harajuku Girls, Cosplayers, Sumo Wrestlers, Geishas, Ninjas, Samurais… all fighting the good fight against neat yet informal attire.
And then there’s the French maids…
It’s hard to comprehend why French maid costumes have been fetishised in the Japanese mindset to the degree that they have (as opposed to, say, nurse or airline stewardess or Princess Leia outfits). Seemingly the fantasy is most closely associated with the ‘Otaku’ – a distinctly Japanese brand of nerd renowned for a love of anime, video games and maids.
Wander through the any electronics district in any Japanese city and you’ll see the maid phenomenon in full swing. My girlfriend and I got our fill in Akihabara – literally ‘Electric Town’ – a district of Tokyo that first gained notoriety as a military surplus radio parts market during WWII and today is arguably the nerdiest place on the planet.
When we arrived in Akihabara, the sound pounding through its tight alleyways was like a thousand broken pinball machines all malfunctioning at once. Neon murals stretched the height of skyscrapers. Video arcades were thick with cigarette smoke. We also found a nine floor comic book store stocked entirely with manga porn.
The maid cafes were situated on the floors above the camera and computer shops at street level. Maids lingered on every other street corner, each one handing out leaflets tempting passers by in to their dens of iniquity.
We eventually plumped for a maid café called Maidreamin’.
“Irasshaimase!!!” squealed the maids. They had an eardrum splitting timbre, and shrieked this greeting in unison every time a new patron walked through the front door.
Inside was bright white and clean, but dimly lit. There were TVs built in to the walls showing maids in action – checking their mobile phones, eating donuts, doing the splits, pointing at their cheeks…
We met our maid, a girl called Yuzuki, who I’ll give the benefit of the doubt by saying was over 18 years of age.
Yuzuki spoke very slowly. She showed us to our table and handed over the menu. It was filled with fluorescent milkshakes, cakes shaped like cute animals, curries and omelettes…
Before we were allowed to order, we were made to agree to stay for a maximum of two hours, purchase a minimum of two items and pay a cover charge of ¥1,000.
“Onamae wa nandesu ka…?” said Yuzuki.
“James,” I replied.
“Oooooooooohhhhh… Master James!!!” she squeaked.
“Onamae wa nandesu ka?” Yuzuki then asked my girlfriend.
“Sam,” said Sam.
“Princess Sam!!!” yelped Yuzuki.
“OK, I order Coca-Cola, onegaishimasu,” I said.
“Coca-Cola……..?” said Yuzuki. She looked puzzled and tilted her head to the side whilst pointing at her cheek. “OK!!!” she chirruped, then giggled and clapped her hands.
Yuzuki whipped out a small toy candle and cast a magic spell guaranteeing a super happy fun time. We were made to form heart symbols with our fingers and thumbs and repeat some magic words. The candle lit up. Yuzuki jumped up and down with excitement.
It was at this point I began to I suspect that Yuzuki may have once been kicked in the head by a horse. She gave us cat ears to wear and told us to shout “Meow!! Meow!!” whenever we needed to get her attention.
Up until this point Maidreamin’ had been fairly empty, save for one businessman sat at a table in the far corner and a lonely looking teenager who for two straight hours didn’t look up from his phone.
But now others had started to arrive – mostly lone men aged 20 to 40 – and the pace of the maids stepped up a gear.
Magic spells were being cast left, right and centre. Cat eared customers were meowing in all directions. There was some sort of raffle going on which we didn’t understand. One maid started handing out glow sticks. And then the lights dimmed…
Yuzuki stood in a circular spotlight on a small stage at the back of the room. A throbbing beat rumbled through the floorboards. Soaring disco violins and a funky bassline kicked in – it sounded a bit like The Locomotion, but more Japanese.
Yuzuki began jerking her hips. She pointed at her cheeks, then pouted, spun around, formed heart shapes with her fingers and thumbs, giggled and winked.
Three minutes later it was clear that Yuzuki had run out of fresh dance moves. She continued to pout, cheek point, spin, heart shape, giggle and wink in no particular order until the music finished half an hour later.
The crowd swooshed their glow sticks in Yuzuki’s general direction to give her energy. The lone teenager that had been staring at his phone all night suddenly grabbed a glow stick in each hand and leapt in to the middle of the room. He began body popping furiously as though his life depended on it.
And then a British guy (about my age and wearing a Sega Megadrive t-shirt) on the table next to ours overstepped the mark by touching a maid on the shoulder. She got angry.
Despite having just witnessed the Megadrive t-shirt guy committing low level sexual harassment, it was a relief to see him confirm that the maid café concept is a tough one for us Westerners to grapple with…
Maidreamin’ was certainly no hands on strip joint. It was a hostess bar of sorts, full of girls fawning over boys in exchange for money, but without tits or arses on show. At no point did any of the maids strip off, or allude to stripping off, or flash a bit of knickers or boob… the point was to immerse customers in a whirlwind of childlike innocence.
And this is where the Japanese (or a sizeable proportion of Japanese males) get their sexual kicks, I think. It’s hard to believe that sexual gratification isn’t intended to be part of the bargain.
The underlying ethos of maid cafés is in complete contrast to Western thinking where sex appeal and skin on show are considered directly proportional. Nudie ladies aren’t necessarily guaranteed to get men hot under the collar in Japan – dressing up kinkily is instead considered more alluring.
Perhaps it dates back to the era of the Geisha when the height of attractiveness meant spending (literally) hours applying makeup, a wig and at least four layers of clothing.
To Westerners it might seem a little perverted that sexual fantasies (and the appreciation of them) are so brazenly on display in an otherwise remarkably conservative country like Japan. I suppose maid cafés make for a fractionally healthier society than a society that encourages nerds to lock themselves in their bedrooms all day to watch internet porn.
The Love Hotel
My girlfriend’s obsession with dinosaurs is something I have learned to cope with over the years. If I added up all the detours we have taken so far on our backpacking trip to see some fossil or footprint or other, I’d say it amounts to at least of a couple of thousand miles.
So when we arrived in the Japanese spa town of Beppu, it came as absolutely no surprise when she demanded we check in to a Jurassic Park themed hotel.
The place was buried high in the hills overlooking the town. When we arrived the building was easy to spot because it was the only one covered entirely in camouflage paint with a triceratops, a crashed aeroplane, a jeep, and a very unprehistoric rhino in the driveway.
We waded past fake foliage and ‘Danger! High Voltage’ signs until we found the entrance. As soon as we opened this door it became clear that Hotel Jzauruss wasn’t just any old dinosaur themed hostelry… it was a love hotel.
Love hotels are Japan’s answer to a chronic lack of private space. It has a 50% higher population density than the UK and only 20% of its landmass is habitable (the rest being taken up by mountains and volcanoes). Most people live in small apartment blocks and tend not to move out of their parents’ homes until marriage. The result is that non-cohabiting couples find it hard to get time alone to boomchickawowow.
In love hotels, couples can rent out rooms by the hour or for the night. The most famous establishments have themed rooms – subway carriages, merry-go-rounds, libraries, igloos, Batman’s batcave… you name it and the Japanese have probably already built a nasty sex den in the style of it.
So there we were in the foyer of Hotel Jzauruss, or Hotel Jurassic depending on whether you were looking at the sign on the elevator or the logo on carpet. I suspected that the hotel had recently lost an intellectual property rights dispute with Steven Spielberg and been forced to rebrand as Hotel Jzauruss to sound less like Jurassic Park.
Half the room was taken up by a wire fence, behind which was another jeep covered in a palm leaves. The other half led down a short corridor with an interactive video screen at the end.
The video screen menu was entirely in Japanese. Cycling through the options, we worked out that both the dungeon and jungle themed rooms were already taken. Disappointingly, there didn’t seem to be a dinosaur themed room either. Bamboo, Asia, Arabia and Japan were all that was left.
We pressed a button and some John Williams-esque music bloomed through the PA system. The elevator doors flung open. A huge animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex head roared over the upturned jeep. Its eyes were glowing LED red and dry ice poured out of its nostrils. Apparently we had selected the Japan themed room.
The music continued in the elevator. We had no idea which floor to go to so took a gamble on the fourth. When we stepped out, it looked like no hotel corridor I’ve ever seen before. In the middle, behind a wire fence, was a smashed archaeological dig site complete with bones, sand, shovels and spotlights. Why archaeologists would be digging on the fourth floor of a building, I do not know.
A phone on the wall rang and a giggling lady on the other end of the line told us to get back in the elevator and go to the third floor.
The third floor had a mock lab in the centre of the hallway filled with dinosaur skulls, test tubes and a flickering computer screen. My girlfriend guessed that the skulls were supposed to be from some kind of therapod, but couldn’t determine exactly which.
We had no room key, but at the end of the corridor a red light was flashing above door number 301. We tiptoed inside and the door slammed behind us. Some sort of mechanism started whirring. By the time we realised what it was the door was well and truly locked.
It was by quite some distance the biggest Japanese hotel room I have ever seen – at least the size of five business hotel rooms of equal cost.
The bed was actually big enough to fit Western people on it. Just above the headboard was a saucer on which there were two condoms. Next to the bed was this hilarious seat thing, operated by remote control…
Aside from a complete absence of windows, the room was quite opulent. It was filled with luxuries that, as backpackers, we had long forgotten how to use – a fridge, a flatscreen TV, a DVD and VHS combi player and a LAN cable. There was also a pachinko machine and a vending machine selling sex toys and lube…
The toilet was nothing fancy, apart from a Dyson Blade hand dryer next to the sink, but the bathroom housed a full sized jacuzzi with underwater lights that faded from one colour to the next…
On the table at the far end of the bedroom sat a dizzying array of menus. One detailed food and drink at surprisingly reasonable prices. Another listed every type of TV pay-per-view porn imaginable, so long as that porn featured quite young girls in maid or school uniforms…
Costumes (for the ladies only) were included free with the cost of the room. On offer were maid outfits, two types of school uniform, police uniform, cheerleader gear, a German dirndl… again, nothing dinosaur related. We immediately regretted having left our velociraptor costumes back home in England.
My girlfriend and I decided to start simple by ordering two beers. The order forms were entirely in Japanese and without pictures. All ordering was to be done via capsule pipeline (one of those weird pneumatic tube systems you see in films set in 1930s offices)…
The point of the capsule pipeline, just like the video menu screen in the foyer, was to remove the indignity of human interaction from the love hotel experience – such is the shameful nature of shagging for pleasure in Japan. But after 20 minutes using Google translate my girlfriend and I were no closer to identifying the kanji character for beer on the order form.
We broke with love hotel etiquette and picked up the phone. The giggling lady was on the other end of the line. After some confusion, the doorbell rang.
Our door wouldn’t open. In fact, it still seemed to be stuck fast, but next to the door was a small cupboard with a flashing a red light above it. Inside the cupboard was two giant flagons of beer.
The whole set up seemed more ridiculous than it did sleazy, but firmly tongue in cheek. Love hotels are neither seen as rare, weird or seedy in Japan. They are an essential part of courtship.
You can always count on the Japanese to answer social problems with monetisable solutions. The atmosphere at Hotel Jzauruss did not feel in the least bit amorous. It fully embraced the absurdity of the Japanese necessity for designated copulating space by eschewing any notions of classiness and romance in favour of flashing lights, gadgets and rubber dinosaurs.
Checking out the next morning was like ordering two beers only a hundred times more complicated. It was only after I sent my credit card to the front desk via capsule pipeline that the front door finally unlocked and fresh air rushed in.
I had heard that some love hotels have gift shops by the exits for guilt ridden adulterers to buy presents for their too-trusting spouses. Instead, we were treated to a cageful of animatronic baby T-Rex hatching from eggs.
In the end, my girlfriend and I’s weird and wonderful journey through Japan hadn’t really redefined our perspective on when it is best to be in the buff. The Japanese attitude towards nudity is just one of many eccentricities in a country built on obtuse customs.
Getting naked in Japan gave us an extremely (and at times overly) revealing insight in to a country and its culture… a country and culture like no other.