Monday, 28 January 2013

The naked truth about onsens

There's pretty much only two types of people in this world: those who you want to see naked in an onsen, and those who you do not.

I contemplated this new ranking system as I was floating around in an onsen today and a group of elderly Japanese gents filed in.

Let's just say that it's quite a shock to see the ageing process in ALL it's glory.   Sort of a "Whoomp!  There is is!" kind of moment.

For those unfamiliar with Japanese onsens, they are traditional bath houses which often draw on hot volcanic springs.  While some Australian towns have a pub on every corner, in some Japanese towns they have an onsen on every corner.

Even though all Japanese homes have their own bathrooms, there's something nice about the fact that these onsens still exist as they have for hundreds of years.  And they're not just used by tourists or weary skiers, but by locals who see it as their equivalent to dropping in to the pub for a pint with friends on their way home from work.

After entering an onsen and your gender-specific area, you strip off and put your belongings into a neat little basket.   Before you actually get into the hot pools themselves, you have to wash yourself.   Sometimes these wash areas are quite plush with hand-held showers, plastic stools and an array of soaps, shampoos etc at your disposal.   Other times you are pretty much just bucketing water over yourself.

Once clean, it's time to relax by plunging into the shallow pool.  Some onsens have several pools, including ones outside where you can sit while it is snowing around you.

As onsens draw on natural spring water, there's no pungent chlorine smell.  But sometimes the water is so hot that I can only stand putting my whole body in for a minute at the most.   Clearly the ageing process delivers bravery, and perhaps a substantial loss of feeling, as some of the old Japanese gents happily bob around for a long time like ancient icebergs.

It certainly helps that I know absolutely no-one in these onsens.  It's just me, old Japanese gents and awkward-looking Australian guys who seem worried that this might constitute some sort of homosexual act.

It surprises me how comfortable I am sitting around naked with a bunch of complete strangers in another country.  

When I was little, even going bare chested in some public situations was not something I would entertain.

Back in the early '80s, our pre-school class was selected to perform a Hawaiian-inspired hula dance at the school's fancy dress ball.  (This made perfect sense because when people visit Warwick I'm sure Hawaii immediately pops into their mind.)

The boys were meant to go shirtless wearing just the hula skirts they had made in class using strips of newspaper.  The girls had the luxury of wearing tank tops as well.  As you can tell, the school prided itself on cultural accuracy, not to mention child protection.

But when the big night came, I was so opposed to taking my shirt off in public that I refused.   The performance went on; my top half looking like a trucker in a tank top, and the bottom half quasi-Hawaiian.

How times have changed.  Now I'm paying yen to get naked.

Back in the onsen, I feel like I'm taking part in a Japanese remake of the film Cocoon.   It would be an R-rated film given the significant amount of nudity.  Not pretty nudity or sexy nudity, just nudity.

And so apart from feeling pampered and refreshed by the whole experience, I'm also being given a bird's eye view of the havoc ageing and gravity play on the body.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Catalogue of the Craptacular

Way back in the '80s, before the Internet and Foxtel's home shopping channel, there was a company called Demtel offering an array of craptacular products Australians couldn't possibly have any use for- usually with the inducement of a complementary set of steak knives.

Demtel's ads graced all three commercial television stations touting products which usually ended in 2000 (eg the Abmaster 2000) as if to denote the product was from the future, but had been sent back in time for us to enjoy by kind future generations. At the very least, it made us feel how lucky we were to be living in the"space age" (yes we were still using that phrase then too).

It's been a while since Demtel graced our screens in Australia, but it is comforting to know that a Japanese version exists and, by the looks of it, is thriving.

Much like how apparently there is "someone for everyone", Japan's considerable population has meant there is literally "someone for every product" - no matter how ill conceived, absurd and even potentially detrimental to your health that product may be.

From ladies' wear to household products, the latest collection was proudly displayed in a magazine in the seat pocket of the bullet train I caught today.

The Catalogue of the Craptacular

Not only did this help to pass the time,  but I also believed it increased my brainpower as I tried to work out a) what the product was and its purpose based on the images alone, and b) who on earth would buy this?

Allow me to demonstrate:

Regrowth makeup:  Your friends may think you're younger but they probably won't let you wear their white hats ever again. 

Torture device or ear wax vacuum? At least he seems to be enjoying it... and may never hear again.

WTF???  I honestly don't know what this is.  Something for workers in the porn industry? 

Table blanket: because tables have feelings too.

Not sure about this one either.  Something to do with breathing?  Not sure how the tuning fork fits in.

Ice and snow spikes for heels:  Yes, that's the most obvious solution to wearing heels in ice and snow.

Bird deterrent: I understand the problem, but I just have an issue with the words "bird killer" on the device itself.  Dead birds also look bad on clean sheets.

Warm space suit: Also works as a contraceptive device, friend deterrent, and marriage killer.

The portable bidet: Why swipe when you can carry a syringe of water around with you?

You Jokster-san, that's not your real hair!  They'll be laughing about this down at your golf club for literally tens of seconds.

Toilet seat rugs: now why didn't we think of that?  Oh, that's right, because we don't like sitting on urine-soaked mats.

Madonna headset: I'm guessing Vogue is still big here.

Hot water boots!  Actually, now you're talking. 

And a big congratulations to the inventors of these products.   They must be so proud.   No I mean it really.  I guess everyone can't be working on a cure for cancer!

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Australia Day: dining from Japan's buffet

Imagine all the countries of the world on a giant Lazy Susan in the middle of a giant dining table.

I sit down, give the Lazy Susan a spin, and the country of Japan lands in front of me.

Here's what I would unload onto my Australian plate from Japan:

  1. Alcohol vending machines.   And it's not just the easy access to alcohol which is impressive, but the fact that Japan has these machines anywhere and everywhere - hotel corridors, street corners, alleyways.   If you installed one in Australia, I get the sense that you'd only have to turn your back and it would be vandalised and emptied of its contents before you can say "Asahi".   Which leads to...
  2. Sparkling cleanliness.   No graffiti on the metro, no vandalism of vending machines, clean underground stations.   So many people and so much order.
  3. Politeness.   I'm not sure anyone does manners quite like the Japanese.   Even buying something from the 7Eleven feels like a formal occasion.  The downside is that it makes you feel like a rude, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal.
  4. Cities that work.  Super fast public transport that runs on time in rain, sun and snow.
  5. Harajuku fashion sense.  OK, so maybe not the fashion itself (not sure Little Bo Peep is going to catch on) but I like the idea of it.  It's fun, non-threatening and spices up their metro journey and mine.

Perhaps one thing which can stay on the Lazy Susan:

A cartoon character for every occasion.   Sometimes important health messages aimed at adults are best delivered without a cute animated panda.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Terminal Living

If airports were people, their dramatic range of emotion would make Meryl Streep look a Best New Talent Logie winner from Home and Away.

The excitement and anticipation of departure; the weariness of a stopover; the disappointment and frustration of flight delays; the determination to make a connection; the thrill of arrival; the (sometimes) camaraderie of fellow travellers; and the sadness, dread and sense of loss of the return flight home.

As I prepare to head to the airport tomorrow, sometimes I think I could quite happily live in some airports.

Airports like Singapore's Changi seem to have more shops, facilities and recreation than my own suburb.   Sunflower garden anyone?   

But other airports seem to bring out the worst in people.   Many travellers seem to dread the militant LAX, with some even altering travel plans just to avoid it.

Perhaps good airports also require good travellers too.  People who understand what they need to do.

So that pretty much excludes those who, after spending 15 minutes waiting in line, go through security with $10 in coins in their pockets, only to pull them out and go back through again.

Or people who think throwing a tantrum at airport staff is really going to help their efforts to board that plane.

All up, here's what I think are the top five things that make a great airport:
  1. Speedy check-in.   Now maths isn't my forte, but two check-in staff and hundreds of passengers waiting in a line just doesn't add up.  And does checking in online actually mean anything?  They seem to just reissue your ticket anyway.
  2. Reasonable security.    I once had my hair frisked in Vancouver.   And I didn't have an afro or long locks.
  3. Free wifi or computers.   Seriously, if tent accommodation in the Sahara can offer free wifi, airports can too.  Don't make me register or pay for it as I'm just moving through.  I've been good and arrived early so reward me by giving me something to do.
  4. Comfy seating.   A friend who worked for an airport told me once that they removed some seating in departure lounges to increase foot traffic through shops.   Sound almost cruel.   And not just any seating - ones without arm rests so you can stretch out if no-one else is around.
  5. Quiet spaces.  I remember this carpeted tent within Abu Dharbi Airport where you could just take off your shoes, enter and have a lie down where it was a bit darker and quieter.  While waiting for a flight after 15 hours of travel, this was like climbing into a king size bed.

Given you're more likely to remember the bad airport experiences over the good, perhaps the mark of a good airport is simply one you don't really remember going through.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

All things nice and ice

With another sweltering weekend underway in Brisbane, there's an overwhelming desire to climb into the freezer and stay there until the first signs of autumn.

Last night, a friend and I even took to lying in front of the TV and applying frozen ice packs to our bodies in an attempt to cool down.

So while we crave the cold, in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year they turn the cold into art.

In Japan's Sapporo, the annual Snow Festival celebrates all things nice and ice in early February.   At several locations across the city, sculptors bring to life people, animals, cartoon characters and buildings from blocks of ice.     These range from small intricate pieces, up to massive works the size of small apartment buildings - some complete with lighting and sound.

On my last visit, it looked like this.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A Matt by every other name

You would think the name "Matt" or "Matthew" was so common that it would be almost impossible to mistake.

You would be wrong.

My name is mistaken with such regularity I've started to wonder if maybe they're right and perhaps it's me who's got my name confused.

Just this week a client, with whom I've done quite a few workshops, meetings and email interactions with, addressed me as "Mark" in an email.   Repeatedly.   This is the latest in a long line of faxes, emails, letters and messages addressed to "Mark" (or even better "Mark Hunt" - confusing my last name as well).

Given the frequency of confusion, I used to think that maybe I mumbled, spoke too fast or said my name with a funny accent.   But then this week I heard a colleague give my name to a caller on the phone asking them to email me.  Imagine my surprise to see the email pop up in my inbox addressed to "Michael".

It's all enough to make you wish you had multiple personalities.

Perhaps in response to this identity crisis, I sometimes find myself refraining from using a person's name when I first meet them, not trusting that I've heard them correctly.  It's not until I've heard others say their name a number of times, that I can be confident I've got it right.  It seems to me that the act of introducing each other has so much going on - the smile, the looking in the eye, the angling of the hand for a handshake - that it's all too easy to mishear a name.

Perhaps I just don't look like a "Matt"?  And they'd almost be right.  For the first two weeks of my life, I was a "Stewart".  It was only after hearing nurses shorten the name and call me "Stewy" that my mum decided that moniker just wasn't going to fly.  When it came to my middle name, well it seems that was all just a bit too hard and I was given the same one as my older brother.  It was as though all their naming energy had been exhausted coming up with "Stewart" and then "Matthew" that my parents gave up and just went with the default option.

Still, I can't help think "Matthew" is a fairly common and easy-to-grasp name.  It's not like it's something exotic like "Manrico" or "Manton".  Hey, I'm even in the Bible for Christ's sake - not something people named "Madison" or "Makayla" can say (as far as I know anyway).

At the end of the day, until science advances and I have some clones named "Mark", "Michael" and various other permutations, it seems I'm the one left to attend to the emails, faxes, letters and calls presumably intended for me... or at the very least someone starting with "M".

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Be Prepared... to leave immediately, if not sooner

While I wasn't completely enamoured with the Scouting movement in the mid-1980s, I've certainly adopted its motto of "Be Prepared" to one aspect of my life - packing for a trip.

 In a few weeks time I head to Japan for some skiing.

 The bags have been packed and by the front door for months.

 Apart from the fact that the Brisbane heatwave has made thermal underwear, ski jackets and hand warmers redundant anyway, they were all rolled up into travel vacuum bags (the ones which squeeze all the air out) well before Christmas. They were ready for the snow even before there was snow on the ground in Japan this season.

 And perhaps me walking around my unit with my ski boots on (to wear them in again and check for any pressure points) contributed to the couple downstairs moving out. Perhaps the clunking of heavy ski boots on the kitchen tiles as I did the washing up in them was just a bit too much?  Just collateral damage in my quest I'm afraid.

 During the past few weeks I sometimes wished for an intrusion by the Jehovah's Witnesses as I stomped around my unit in summer t-shirt and shorts - resplendent in my grey ski boots. What would they make of this vision? A half man / half machine who appeared to be getting ready for an impending ice age.   Surely a sign of the end of days?

 This level of preparedness does not always extend to other parts of my life. It's pretty much reserved for travel.

 What if the airline called and moved my outward flight forward... by two weeks? What if I won a round-the-world trip from a competition requiring immediate departure?

Well, I'm good to go.

 While others would be running around madly throwing toiletries into their bag at the last minute, I would be half way to the airport with my dedicated travel toiletries bag (which is always packed and ready for deployment in the field).

Prepared?  Yes I am.

So thank you Scouts.  I can't tie a knot to save myself and have lost my scarf and woggle, but if there was a badge for "Travel Readiness" I think I'd have it in the bag.