there's this candy here--Milky. well, there are many candies here. each of them is a new world to me because the japanese are not stuck in the same old cherry-grape-orange-lemon-lime flavor rut. one teacher gave me a morsel last week that had the word "throat" in japanese on it. um. that was the only word on the package that i could read. i had NO idea what to expect. but i guess it's supposed to make your throat feel better by coating it with sugar. the old candy/cough drop trick. yuck. but they have candy that tastes like salty plums, green tea, black tea with cream and sugar, mango citrus, black currant, banana, and milk. not milk caramel, not milk chocolate--just milk. this is a weird, weird candy. when i first tried it, i scrunched up my nose because it reminded me of drinking milk that's been warming on the counter for too long because you poured it, got distracted, and then felt like you had to drink it because you didn't want it to go to waste. i like milk just fine, but a candy that tastes like it...eew. my tactic for ridding myself of this weirdness was to distribute the rest of the candies to my coworkers so i didn't have to eat them. one of my favorite people, a cute, hip "office girl" about my age said in simple, straightforward english, "mommy taste." i was like, huh? she held up the Milky candy and said, "commercial says 'tastes like mommy.'" double EEW. this is breastmilk candy!? remind me to forget i ever tried it.
a few weekends ago, i had the opportunity to take part in one of japan's oldest traditions--seeing your coworkers naked, that is: going to the onsen (hot springs bath). this idea wasn't hugely daunting to me since women and men are normally separated, but i did expect it to be a Little strange. perfect strangers and friends are one thing, but people you see every day that you Kinda know is something else. i've read stories about frank verbal assesments of a foreigner's body right then and there. i know you're supposed to bathe before you get into the hot water, but i didn't really know if that was a quick rinse or what. is everyone going to be watching while you wash? THAT doesn't sound fun. in order to limit the awkwardness, i convinced a few of my friends who are onsen-savvy to take me for a test run the night before my big sleepover christmas party (bonenkai) with the entire staff of the high school. on a road worthy of mr. toad's wild ride, we wound deeper into the mountains for a car sickish thirty minutes. i crawled thankfully from the shoe-sized vehicle and we headed for the womens' dressing room. then you take a deep breath, strip down, put your clothes in a locker with a basket, slide open the door to the pools, and face the eyes of anyone who's there. no one was there. my first thought was, this place is beautiful! it was comfortably and warmly lit, and it seemed very clean. to the right were about eight shower stations, each with two low walls and its own little stool, bowl, and array of lathering and washing products. there was also a low wall separating the pool from the little showers, so no one could see your back while you were bathing. you sit facing the showerhead, which is at eye level when you're sitting on the stool. you can push a button on the faucet to fill your bowl for rinsing. what i began to realize is that the onsen is largely about bathing, not soaking, so people spend a long time at the shower buffing and lathering their skin or whatever. it did feel marvelous. then we submerged in the clear water and i was struck with just how normal it felt to be there. ahhhh. there's also a tiny cold pool where you can cool off before getting hot again. i put my legs in, and it was like a refreshing drink of water for my body. the outside pool was even nicer. there are smooth river stones in the bottom that feel good on your feet and legs. a sauna made the experience perfect and complete. i felt prepared for the following night.
the next day my favorite teacher drove us to hongu, about an hour from kumano. the traffic was thick, so we had to stop on the bridge stretching from mie to wakayama. i didn't mind. dusk falls over the river:
our room was down a hallway that looked almost like any other hotel, but you take your shoes off at the door and step into this:
murakami-sensei grabbed me by the hand and dragged me to the window where naked men and women were soaking below our window in the mixed-sex outdoor pool. she asked if i was going to join her there later and i said no way. we went downstairs for dinner.
this was my place setting:
this tasty bite came later. looks appealing, huh?
after many refills of my tiny beer glass and a chance to try the many mysterious things in front of me, i pulled out the camera. here are the office girls, etsuko and harue.
yes, i did sing karaoke for the first time in front of everyone (with the help of arata, another of my favorite people), and yes i did bathe with my teachers, but it was all very comfortable and fun. we even stayed up talking about boys till early in the morning, just like a real sleepover. i got a chance to feel closer to some people i didn't know at all before, and i felt like even more a part of my school. i didn't want it to end so soon.