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Spa Lady 楊 麗芳
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SPA的發音相當於數字的「18」, 好好享受SPA, 保持Forever18 (SPA) !
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Falling in Love with Japan Onsen

Immersion in water, particularly a large onsen hot tub, whether it be outdoor or indoor gives one a feeling of buoyancy and fitness. I am not alone in this feeling. Archimedes himself, demonstrated to the world, that through displacement of water, upward motion and other reasons too complicated to go into here, the weight of an object, even a human body, is only one tenth of its starting weight once it is submerged in water! So, no matter how large or ungainly you feel on dry land, you will feel transformed in the tub! The ugly duckling can become a beautiful swan.

 

As you prepare to enter the hot spring, you place your belongings and shed your clothes into a bamboo basket for safekeeping. Likewise your worries, burdens, ties and sorrows are cast aside and you enter the bath with a body, mind and soul that are free from care and concern. Free to think and reflect without the shackles of daily problems. When you retrieve your belongings, you often find some of your troubles have been left behind in the basket! Without  these worries your mind is free to think and to be creative. I am often inspired to write when I am in onsen. Likewise, many renowned Japanese writers penned some of their more famous works after a trip to the tub. Bathing in ‘Onsen’ appears to have inspired many to write hundreds of creative and absorbing stories that find a place on the family bookshelf.

 

On a more personal level, bathing in Japanese onsen is symbolic because as soon as I enter the water I feel safe and protected from harm. I am back in the womb. The water surrounds my body like fluid protects an unborn child and the running and splashing of the water around my head become my mother’s whispers and soft words of assurance. Warmth and comfort become my onsen existence.

 

Above all, onsen is my best friend, my bodyguard and my lover. When I am tired, he will quietly embrace me with his watery arms and sooth away my worries. When I can’t think clearly, he gives me the inspiration to write, to think and to speak and when I am happy, he rejoices with me, sharing in my joy.

 

With your questions of ‘why?’ answered, let me explain the history of the affair and how it happened. I first visited an onsen in Hokkaido, Japan twenty years ago and knew that I wanted to travel and discover more of these magical spas. As a non-Japanese speaker, traveling to remote countryside destinations without a guide wasn’t an easy task so I undertook to tackle the complexities of Japanese grammar and now I find myself fully equipped to embark on my annual quest to find a new onsen lover! The rest of the year is spent paying calls to some old haunts to refresh my relationship with them or venturing into Europe, New Zealand, Thailand and Korea to discover onsen foreign cousins.

 

In spring 1999, determined to understand the ins and outs of a successful spa resort, I traveled to Tsukioka Onsen and Senami Onsen in Niigata and Kusatsu Onsen and Ikaho Onsen in Gunma Prefecture to learn the tricks of this traditional trade. I left behind my pen and ink to join a life of staff dormitories, serving, and bowing and kneeling to customers, as is the age-old tradition in onsen ryokan. Could I, accustomed as I was to viewing this life from the other side and living in luxury when I visited ‘Onsen’, successfully fill the roles of nakai-san (waitress) or okami-san (female proprietor)? I had my doubts. Even my Japanese friends, who knew my fierce determination to succeed, were afraid that I would not endure the long hours and grueling work that this life involved. Born a Gemini, a group not known for their love of hard work, the odds were stacked against me but I proved them wrong and proudly worked the double shift!

 

The first hurdle I encountered was the Kimono. I had only vague notions of how to assemble the complicated garment and now I was to wear it all day as I worked. The intricate folds and complicated ties of the fabric somehow reflected the life I was studying. As the two-month special training period progressed, I learned to be graceful and demure on only four hours sleep and draped in clothing that was more suitable for a life of leisure. I was beginning to learn what it took to make the onsen ryokans what they are.

 

My only request was to be allowed to use the public spa twice a day, as to be in a resort with no access to my beloved onsen would have been more trial than the twelve-hour workday. This was no small request. Most resorts prohibit staff from using guest spas. The guest is viewed as God, a money god that will bring good will and fortune to the hotel and they are treated accordingly. Would I upset the money gods if I bathed in their tub? I promised not to and I still believe that this was my savior. I bathed in the morning and started work invigorated and full of energy, in the evening I entered the bath and all the exhaustion, aches and pains would drain away.

 

Some thought, perhaps, that my nickname should be changed to ‘Slightly Mad Spa Lady Windy Yang’ and some thought I was brave but all were intrigued. Why did I want to leave my comfortable existence to study a life that I was unlikely to find a lifelong career in? I did it out of love and respect for onsen. I did it to learn how the surroundings and the service are an integral part of the onsen ryokan. I learnt that quiet and attentive service in a relaxed environment creates the onsen experience and I realized that this is attained by the quiet dedication of staff who endure hardship to create this magic. Once again, it appeared that onsen were finding themselves as the catalyst for writing. On this occasion, the stories were unlikely to be tenderly written down and cherished for their literary content. Instead, onsen and in particular my relationship with them became the focus of a flurry of newspaper articles in local prefectural dailies and in the nationally circulated ‘Asahi’ and ‘Yomiuri’. In total, my experience of life as okami and nakai-san, the successes I had and the progress I made appeared in more than twenty newspaper articles. I had come to learn about a life different to mine, yet sometimes I felt like a star pursued by the media demanding to know the details of my daily life. I hoped that through the attention, the Japanese onsen could grow in popularity and become as important to others as they were to me. 

 

Onsen is not only my beloved lover and friend, but also a powerful hot spring that offers me endless power, energy, inspiration and vitality. It is little wonder that I fell in love as I did and fall deeper and deeper with each onsen visit. It has a powerful hold that refuses to give.

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