As Warm as a Bath

Courtesy of Leilani Rapaport
Leilani Rapaport, right, poses for a photo with friends at the Gero Onsen hot spring resort in Gifu Prefecture.

Leilani Rapaport shares her experiences as participant of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, which is administered through the collaboration of Japan’s local and national government authorities and promotes grass-roots internationalisation at the local level.

Warmth surged through my body as I stepped into the bath. My friends and I let out a collective sigh. Steam rose and formed beads that hung from the ceiling.

This February, we visited the Gero Onsen hot spring resort in Gifu Prefecture for a friend’s farewell trip. After checking into our inn, we walked up a hill to Onsenji temple. Seen from above, the buildings appeared quite old and neglected.

Many onsen towns are located in mountain valleys, offering an escape from city life and a glimpse into a large but sometimes forgotten part of the country. Gero was named one of the nation’s top three onsen hot springs by Confucian poet Hayashi Razan about 400 years ago.

We wandered past souvenir shops, foot baths and depictions of frogs. (In Japanese, the sound a frog makes is “gero.”) We talked about life in Japan and our dreams for the future. Some friends would return to their home countries within a year. Some planned to stay, and some would wind up staying because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Understanding that our time together was limited, we lavished appreciation on each other and the onsen town. We crossed a bridge back to our inn, and a shiver shot down my arms when I saw someone in an open-air bath in 2 C weather. I was ready to soak, too.

Of course, nude bathing doesn’t appeal to everyone. In the U.S., nudity on TV is treated like swearing. The first time I entered a public bath, I felt both self-conscious about my body and completely separate from it. It was like stage fright, except there was no audience or performance.

Thankfully, a friend was there to guide me through the steps. First, shower to get completely clean. Once in the mineral-rich bath, rest a small, wet towel on your head to keep heat from escaping.

My life in Japan has been greatly enriched by friends such as the one who was soon departing. When I first arrived, she drove me around to buy furniture and was available whenever I had life- or work-related questions. She taught me how to separate trash. She organized numerous trips to beautiful places, giving me a sense of wonder and comfort in my new home. She even planned this last hurrah, which will surely remain one of my top three memories in Japan.

— Originally from Hawaii, Leilani Rapaport studied video journalism at the University of Oregon. She taught English in Mexico City before arriving in Japan in 2017. Since then, she has been an assistant language teacher on the JET Programme in a town in Toyama Prefecture.