Embracing January

I don’t know anyone who likes January. It could be a month of new beginnings and of resolutions, but for me it’s a month of perseverance. Even without hoping to be given anything, the commercialised pink-hearts and overpriced-chocolates of Valentines’ day breaks up the monotony of winter and gives me hope that spring is on its way.

After a two-week vacation in the sun-drenched and colourful islands of the Philippines, I came back with a little colour to my face and many more memories to help me survive these cold winter days. The azure sea, the cocktails on the beach and the mangos growing on trees now seem like a dream. I got to experience more than I could have hoped for; snorkelling with sea turtles, watching a cock-fight, taking small boats between islands, seeing flying fish and dolphins, horse riding, jumping off waterfalls, climbing a volcano and if that wasn’t enough, I swam with 8 meter long whale sharks! Yes, I came back exhausted, and with a stomach bug. It was 14 days of adventure and belly-aching laughter due to the good company I was with. I made new friends, met up with old ones and became familiar with an old way of life; travelling with my backpack and a guidebook. That bug is harder to shake off.

I’ve almost got too much to write about, so it is that excuse I use to apologise for the … errhhh.. a few months it’s taken to blog again.

When I asked a friend how he spent his vacation, he replied, ‘I’ve been travelling in my head.’ His well put phrase sums up how I’ve spent my January. It was a hard fall to come down from the excitement of new experiences in the Philippines, to the everyday routine I have here in Japan. For two weeks in the Philippines, I ate outside, I felt the sun on my face and watched the sunset whilst lazing in the warm waters off a white beach. I chatted constantly with the four friends I went with, and hardly picked up a book until I spent a hung-over New Year’s Day lounging on my bed and reading whilst listening to the heavy afternoon rain. Yet since returning to Japan I’ve been inside under electric lights, getting pressure sores on my bottom from too many hours sitting under my kotatsu, and putting on weight from all the chocolate I received at Christmas (not that I’m complaining about the chocolate).

Yet, in a way, this is a much needed reflection time from the rest of the year. When the sun is shining or there are cherry blossoms or autumn leaves to see, I can’t stay inside. So nature is forcing me to stay put for a while and hibernate through the winter. It’s a time to sleep more, to enjoy the pleasures of eating and to read. When there is nothing better to do outside I love to spend a weekend morning reading a book, watching a film or writing. And dispute the lack of central heating, the short winter days and general greyness of Japan in winter, there is one pleasure of a Japanese winter that can’t be beaten. Bathing in an onsens.

It’s taken me a while to really appreciate the value of onsens. My first experience of getting in a hot bath was the embarrassment of getting undressed to nothing with a group of acquaintances, then soaking in an extremely hot bath until I felt light-headed and that my blood was about to boil. Then, I went to an outside bath in the mountains with my friend. Bathing in the naturally heated hot spring and looking at the snow covered mountains was beautiful and refreshing, but the broad daylight made me more bashful about my nakedness. Yet, it has been these last few months when my close friends and I have spent our Monday nights at a local onsen that I’ve come to love the onsen experience.

First and foremost, it’s a huge step up from taking a shower in my apartment, that is a logistical challenge consisting of turning a number of heaters on before, choosing which clothes to wear afterwards, letting the water run hut before getting in, then after showering towelling off and getting dressed again faster than my body temperature cools down. Thus, this is not an altogether pleasurable experience. Yet at the onsen, the changing room is warm, there are dressing tables to dry your hair afterwards and pamper yourself with creams and lotions.

Secondly, it’s a place to chat. Unsurprisingly, when you are comfortable with baring all in front of your fellow bathers, you become comfortable chatting about things more openly than in other places. It seems like there is nothing more to hide, no pretences to keep up, just being able to relax and enjoy gossiping and joking with friends.

And finally, the onsen warms you up from the inside. You can go home and feel warm until you climb under a good few layers of blankets and duvets and fall asleep. No wonder this bathing experience is so popular in Japan.

But to be honest, I’d much rather be back here…

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