Onsen: A Japanese Bath House Experience

While in Japan, I experienced a lot of earthquakes due to the nation’s position of numerous tectonic plates. Besides earthquakes, these plates also give rise to the volcanic activity in Japan, which includes Mt. Fuji and natural hot springs. Historically, these cultural springs have held special significance in Japan with many serving as public bath houses.

On one special weekend in Tokyo, four of us ladies planned several Japanese cultural experiences and finished off the weekend with a trip to the Ooedo Onsen, a hot spring spa, in the Odaiba area of Tokyo.

This experience was one that I met with both excitement and apprehension. While I knew it was going to be a unique exposure to more rich Japanese tradition, I was a little anxious about the exposure of an all-nude bathing experience. Yes, the baths are gender segregated.

I knew that we would be given a small towel (wash cloth or hand towel sized) to bring into the bath house (which cannot enter the bath) where we first are required to soap up, cleanse ourselves, and rinse off before entering the hot spring baths. I was surprised to find all that the Ooedo Onsen had to offer. Upon entrance to the spa, we were given our selection of a yukata-bathrobe and an electronics wristband that served as our locker key and our purchasing device throughout the onsen. Kendall, Kelly, Paige, and I changed into our yukatas in the initial changing room, locked our stuff in our locker, and headed for the baths.

Before reaching the bath locker room, we passed through a large mixed-gender area full of food options and entertainment for families, couples, friends, young, old, and anyone in between. It was designed to have a summertime evening festival feel, which was accentuated by the fact that everyone was wearing a yukata (traditional dress appearance). We also passed the massage area, which got us thinking.

The bath experience were something else, and in order to enjoy it, I decided I had to dive right in, no looking back. And no regrets. The six hours that we spent at the onsen were incredibly relaxing and fun. The bath area included several hot baths at varying temperatures: 28-29C (~83F), 40-41C (~105F), and my personal favorite (after exiting a hot bath) was the 19-20C (~66F) cold bath. Call me Minnesotan, I guess. Some of the baths were even outside. The locker rooms also had a couple dozen post-bathing stations, each including lotions, creams, hair products, sinks, mirrors, stools, and so much more.

The rest of our afternoon included lunch, a massage, the outdoor foot spa, the baths again, a snack, and back to the baths one last time before leaving. I think it is safe to say that I have lost my locker room nude-shyness forever. The four of us will always share our onsen experience.


Japan Earthquake Log

It only took a couple days of living in Japan to experience an earthquake. I was so surprised at the feeling of my first that I wrote a blog post about it. Little did I know then that my first quake would actually be one of the strongest of the summer. I was so excited that I decided to keep a Facebook log for my time in Japan, accumulating data from Japan’s meteorological agency for my local city of Tsukuba. Each entry included the date, time, local seismic intensity, and overall magnitude of the quake, and also a little information on my whereabouts and activities at the time of shaking. Sometimes I offer a description of my experience. It is unedited for the most part and is now being permanently archived in blog format.

Below are all of my updates. In just 74 days in Japan, I experienced (or sometimes just Tsukuba experienced) 28 quakes, which is about one every two to three days. A magnitude 3-6 is basically an everyday event in Japan, and I was only close enough to feel two 6+ quakes.


1. Friday, June 1, 2012 @5:49pm JST, SI: 3/4, Magnitude 5.2. Standing in my apartment.

2. Wednesday, June 6, 2012 @4:36am JST, SI: 2, Magnitude 6.3. Slept through it.

3. Friday, June 8, 2012 @2:26pm JST, SI: 1, Magnitude 4.9. In the seventh floor office with my labmates. Felt and sounded as though your were standing on a city street and the subway passed below you.

4. Friday, June 15, 2012 @2:14pm JST, SI: 1, Magnitude 4.4. Didn’t even notice. I’m getting better at this!

5. Sunday, June 17, 2012 @4:13pm JST, SI: 2(in Tsukuba) 2/1(in Tokyo, where I was), Magnitude 4.6. Also didn’t notice.

6. Monday, June 18, 2012 @5:32am, JST, SI:2, Magnitude 6.1. No wonder I couldn’t stay asleep last night. The earth was too busy shaking beneath me.

7. Tuesday, June 19, 2012 @5:29am, JST, SI:1, Magnitude 3.9. Slept through it.

8. Thursday, June 21, 2012 @1:47am JST, SI: 1, Magnitude 4.2. Another sleeper.


And in late June, the faults near Tsukuba sure became active: six within about 48 hours.


9. Thursday, June 28, 2012 @1:55pm JST, SI: 1, Magnitude 4.4. In the office, didn’t notice.

10. Thursday, June 28, 2012 @ 2:52pm JST, SI: 2, Magnitude 5.2. In the seventh floor office feeling the building sway for about 30 seconds! My labmate, Jo, pointed this one out before I noticed.

11. Thursday, June 28, 2012 @ 3:17pm JST, SI: 2, Magnitude, 4.1. Getting coffee from Ogawa downstairs. This one was rather loud. Like a train nearby.

12. Friday, June 29, 2012 @ 7:01am JST, SI: 1, Magnitude 4.3. Sleeping.

13. Friday, June 29, 2012 @ 4:02pm JST, SI: 1, Magnitude 3.9. In the office. Didn’t notice.

14. Saturday, June 30, 2012 @ 3:34pm JST, SI: 1, Magnitude 4.2. I was in Hiroshima, so I missed it…


So half in 30 days. June was a busy month, I guess. At this point I was getting bored and actually wanted to experience something with a stronger seismic intensity in my area again. I had to wait a while.


15. Tuesday, July 3, 2012 @ 11:31am JST, SI: 2, Magnitude 5.4. Hanging out in the seventh floor office again…feel that building sway…for like 30 sec after the earthquake is over…


If you wander around NIMS, it doesn’t take long to find webs of small cracks, or even large cracks, from earthquakes, including the 9.0 last year.


16. Friday, July 9, 2012 @ 2:04am JST, SI: 1, Magnitude 4.3. Sleeping…

17. Wednesday, July 10, 2012 @ 7:54pm JST, SI: 1, Magnitude 4.3. I was at the Tsukuba mall, baffled by the early closing time of 8pm.

18. Thursday, July 12, 2012 @ 1:54pm JST, SI: 2, Magnitude: 4.2. Analyzing some data in the seventh floor office. This epicenter was rather close to us. A somewhat biggie.

19. Monday, July 16, 2012 @ 4:31am JST, SI: 3, Magnitude: 4.8. Not in Tsukuba, but rather sleeping soundly in Osaka.

20. Saturday, July 21, 2012 @ 12:01pm JST, SI: 1, Magnitude: 4.9. Not in Tsukuba, but rather hiking up Fuji!

21. Sunday, July 22, 2012 @ 7:13pm JST, SI: 1, Magnitude: 3.6. Just chillin’ in my apartment.

22. Monday, July 23, 2012 @ 8:14pm JST, SI: 1, Magnitude: 2.9. Working in my apartment. This one didn’t make the official recordings (SI~<1), but I for sure felt and heard it while sitting in my apartment just a bit ago.

23. Thursday, July 26, 2012 @7:30pm JST, SI: 2, Magnitude: 4.1. On the ninth floor studio of Ninomiya House for yukata class.

24. Friday, July 27, 2012 @ 11:40pm JST, SI: 2, Magnitude: 3.9. Sleeping…zzz…

25. Tuesday, July 31, 2012 @6:16am JST, SI: 1, Magnitude: 4.1. Sleeping…again…

26. Friday, August 3, 2012 @10:19pm JST, SI: 3, Magnitude 4.5. Chillin’ in my apartment after a long week of work, presentations, and our farewell party. A BIG’N mostly because we were close to the epicenter. Ties for strongest with the first earthquake I experienced (first a SI 4 then later a relisted as a 3), but this one lasted a little longer. I heard and felt a sharp rumble/shake of my apartment building (so we were close to the epicenter). First reaction: “Woah, an earthquake.” (heart beat quickens) Then I calmly move to door of my apartment and open to secure an exit if it gets worse. (forget hardhat at desk) Laugh as I hear my Lord of the Rings sound track playing in the background for the whole hallway to hear. Yeah, I’m getting pretty pro at this.

27. Saturday, August 4, 2012 @12:18am JST, SI: 1, Magnitude 3.0. Sleeping…A late night aftershock to the bigger earthquake last night.

28. Sunday, August 5, 2012 @5:44am JST, SI: 1, Magnitude 3.4. Left Ninomiya at ~5:45am to go to Tokyo SkyTree, the tallest tower in the world! Felt this little quake right before departing.


I am sure glad I was awake to feel that one. I bet on at least one more, but it never happened.

Things in My Apartment: Episode #5

My apartment is also old school trendy. I have the ever-useful fax machine:


At least it includes the function of calling other rooms in my apartment building. A useful feature when one does not have a cell phone for a summer.

But, not only that, I also have my very own, giant boom box CD/cassette player:

Now that’s old school. And, yes, all the buttons are in Japanese. Fortunately, the “fast forward,” “rewind,” “play/pause,” and “stop” symbols are universal. If only I had brought a few CDs or cassette tapes all the way to Japan.


Things in My Apartment: Episode #4

Although my apartment is very western-style since it is for foreigners, there are still Japanese elements. Other than the unique toilet, one of the most obvious is the paper doors, or shōji, surrounding my bedroom.

As these doors are made of taut paper over wood, I am usually afraid of stumbling out of bed, falling over, and completely destroying part of my apartment. So far this has not happened, but I still have a few more days to get through. My time in Japan is quickly coming to an end.

Eisa in Shinjuku

Each year after the festival of Obon in August, the people in the Ryukyu islands in the Okinawa prefecture of Japan hold an Eisa Festival. While in Tokyo on Saturday, Kelly and I enjoyed early eisa, a traditional form of dance, performances on the streets of Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Eisa features vibrant costumes and three types of drums, which gets my percussionist-side excited. First, there is the ōdaiko, which is the largest of the drums and, as usual, also drives the beat.

Next follows the shimedaiko, which is a double-sided, medium-sized drum complete with decorative edges.


And finally, the paranku is the smallest of the drums.

Both of the smaller drums offer the effect of a snare drum: lighter, snappier, an accent to the downbeat. Eisa also features a sanshin, which is the banjo-like, three stringed instrument that provides the melody. The player often also sings lines to a song, which are often echoed as a chant by the drummers and dancers.

In addition, there is another interesting character in an eisa performance.

A chondara or gajangani is painted like a clown and entertains the crowd, often leading the eisa performing group in a loud series of whistles. Altogether, eisa has a really catching sound and is very fun to watch (links are to videos I took).

While at the festival on Saturday, Kelly and I watched four groups, including a group of mentally handicapped students who performed quite well.

They also got my award for most crowd participation. We also saw groups of college-aged students and, my personal favorite, a very large group of children. They were so talented for their young age! I especially enjoyed the way they hopped as they turned to face another side of the crowd.

Last week, Ninomiya House offered a culture class on how to wear (and fold) a yukata, which is a less formal version of a kimono. Situated in the ninth floor salon on Thursday evening, it was nicely timed after my kimono class on Thursday afternoon in which the sensei gave me a yukata. Now that I have one, I best learn how to wear it.

The process of putting on a yukata is not as difficult and time consuming as for a kimono, but it is still challenging and requires some practice. We had three rounds.

First, there is a particular way that the yukata must be placed onto your shoulders. The bottom of the yukata must lie just below your ankle-bone (bottom of your fibula). Then the sides of the yukata are wrapped into place. Our sensei reminded us to “Be sure to make sure that the left side is on top, or you will look like a corpse!” A cloth strip is then used to secure the yukata.

The next step answered a major yukata question that I had: “What are these extra holes under the arms?” Yukatas have large extra holes under the arms, and I always manage to put my arms through the wrong place. Turns out, you put your own hands through the holes and smooth out the overlap in front and back (from raising the yukata to the proper height), creating a nice fold in the yukata. After situating the yuakta, a second tie is used.

Next comes the obi, the yukata’s decorative belt. We learned several ways to tie an obi, and we were even shown how to jazz it up with a hair tie.

The final result?


Pretty spiffy. All ready to wear mine to Tokyo on Saturday!

Before the class was done, we learned how to fold the yukata, obi, and ties, how to walk while wearing a yukata, and how to properly walk on tatami mats: don’t step on the borders. Whoops. Definitely made that mistake before.


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