Mixed Up In The Mixed Bath

With a bicycle loaded down with camping gear, I made my way down to Mt. Hakkoda (in Aomori) in search of the true colors of autumn. Route 394 seemed to continue upward forever, and my heart was pounding out of my chest. As I made my way toward the Sukayu Hot Spring Campgrounds, I was beginning to considering walking the bike up the hill.

It was around 3 in the afternoon, with the sun beginning to cast the evening shadows upon the forest, when I arrived at the campsite, only to discover a sign proclaiming the grounds were “Under Construction.” I put off pitching my tent and made my way to the soothing pools of Sukayu. The hot springs were open until 5 p.m., but the bath was konyaku, meaning men and women bathed together.

“What’s up with the mixed bath?” I thought to myself, but at this point I didn’t care; I just wanted to settle into some warm water. I pulled out a change of clothes from my saddle bags and rushed into the hot spring before they closed for the night.

After a quick rinse, I was off to sooth my sunburned skin and tired body. It was then I noticed someone waving at me from across a wall separating the two sides of the bath. His old face bore a stern look and he seemed to be saying, “Hey! That’s the ladies side of the bath. You’d better get back over to the men’s side quick!”

Although this was a “mixed bath” there was a wall separating the men’s and women’s areas. I was sure I had entered the correct side, adding to my sense of confusion. However, my close-cropped hair and dark-brown skin probably led to a case of mistaken identity. The real trouble occurred when I realized I was without my notepad and pen in the bathing area, and not able to easily convey anything with gestures.

Compounding this was the fact the old man had clearly lost his cool and was not about to listen calmly. Perhaps “showing some skin” would have been the easiest solution, but I didn’t have the courage. He then yelled, “Hurry up!” loud enough to turn the heads of everyone in the hot spring.

It was then that a sweet, older lady made her way towards me asking politely for confirmation, “You’re a woman, right?” Reading her lips, I nodded. She then proceeded to explain to the old man whose face visibly showed his disbelief, but after a moment broke into laughter.

There was nothing I could do but laugh myself. By this time I’d broken a sweat, and not from the heat of the onsen. Perhaps the incident is a good reminder what they say about “books” and “covers.”