I’d like to create a word – onsening; the joyful practice of preparing for and entering into into a calm pool of water from a Japanese hot spring.

You can find lots of images and descriptions of onsen, especially the traditional outdoor onsen, but it is actually the social process, the onsening, that had the most profound effect on me, and on my self image. This process is unlike anything that most Westerners will ever encounter . Here, where we cover the body to hide it or strategically uncover it to show off its alluring qualities, walking around nude is something that makes most people uncomfortable. When I was younger I thought it was an issue of modesty, but as clothing became more revealing and models got skinnier I began to realize that it had become an issue of protection, hiding perceived imperfections and attempting to be some idealized woman. Onsening is exactly the opposite.

My first experience onsening was in a ryokan in the heart of Japan and the experience was somewhat different from the norm. We began the day with a journey inland from Kobe and ended after we drove over a narrow rushing river in the middle of an old town deep in a valley with crowded little streets. On the other side of the river that ran along the edge of town was a ryokan, a traditional hotel, and some small farming plots and trees, lots of trees. Inside the entrance were rows of geta, wooden sandals for the guests to use. A couple walked by as we entered. They wore matching yukata (lightweight summer kimonos) and stepped into two pairs of geta from the row. I later found out these were for the guests to wear when they went outside. In our room were three futon (sleeping mats), three matching yukata like the ones worn by the guests we had passed earlier and three pair of tabi, a kind of sock to wear with geta or on the tatami throughout the building. I liked the feeling of unity that was created by the shedding of fashionable clothes and putting on something comfortable, clean, and unpretentious.

The building was above the bank of the river. When we entered the room our windows were open, allowing the sound of flowing water to enter the room. Dressed in yukata standing at the window staring at the river below with the feel of the tatami under my feet I felt almost as if I was standing somehow out of time looking forward to my first experience onsening almost like a birth.

After our evening meal one of my friends looked at the towels that were available and wondered how I would modestly use one. She was a small Japanese woman. I was a big American. Somewhere in the room she discovered a much larger towel and informed me that I would use that one. We left our room and drove back into town to a spot with a somewhat slippery set of metal stairs going down about 30 feet to the river bank . People were soaking in three areas separated by stone walls where people left their clothes and slid into the water. One area was used by the young men, one by the young women, and one by families of parents, children and obaasan and ojiisan (grandma and granddad). I melted into the warm water of the family area and for a few moments all the sounds and sights disappeared. It was a while before I realized that this water could not possibly be river water. I reached my arm out over the stone wall and felt the icy river. Of course the river didn’t feed these delicious pools, the spring had its own source that fed into the river. The stone walls simply gave us the opportunity to nourish our spirits first before the hot water reached the icy flow.

There were at least 15 people in each area. Conversations and occasional laughter could be heard around us, especially from the men’s area. And yet at the same time there was a sense that no one would care or notice if you simply sat in quiet contemplation. No one seemed to notice anyone except the people they had arrived with. This was an informal area that the locals used. The emphasis on preparation before entering the pool was different from the experiences I would have in other places.

The onsen on the top floor of the Pacific Pearl in Kobe has glass all around looking out onto the Pacific and over the lights of the city. I was by myself but when I entered the area there was a young girl about 10 years old. She wanted to show me how to bathe on the little stool, something that is done out of considerations for others, to preserve the quality of the pool. We then entered the pool leaving our towels behind. The girl was quite at ease and started teaching me the names of body parts as we soaked. Her comfort was my first time I ever experienced being naked in a social situation with someone I did not know. Mentally I had moments of detachment, watching myself and this young girl interacting as comfortably as we might if we were sitting in a restaurant. I was not uncomfortable about my body in the least. This was a rather unusual perspective for me since I had put on twenty more pounds than was comfortable.

When the girl left I stayed awhile longer just enjoying the soak. It wasn’t until my trip to an onsen in “downtown” Yonezawa city that I fully recognized the beauty of the experience of onsening.

This onsen in Yonezawa was in a very ordinary building next to some shops and at first it was like going to the YWCA. The aesthetic was much more utilitarian. Everyone was there for the water but not transported away by the ambience. There was a row of stools and spigots and naked female bodies of adolescent girls, young women and shriveled grandmothers. Women chatted and smiled. These were not fake twittering smiles they were cordial and matter-of-fact. It was there, as I looked around, that I felt a sense of something that I have no name for. Sisterhood would be a fitting term. At the same time there was a sense of comfort with myself, my own body. Not one woman or girl there had a perfect body and no one cared.

Our bodies are vehicles for our thoughts and smiles and contemplations. Those thoughts and smile and contemplations were what I saw as I looked around the room and found the pool that I wanted to slip into. When it came time to leave I almost hated putting clothes back on. They seemed to create a barrier. We or at least I ceased to see the wholesness and beauty of each spirit and noticed, instead, the clothes, the color, the fit, the style.

Each experience of onsening is different but there is a common thread. For me it’s the whole experience from the respectful cleansing to the delicious melting moment to the comfortable a social setting with no affectations or barriers that are the gift of onsening.

The Best Gift Ever

With all the “retro” pics on FB today its clear that it’s the people and experiences we remember long after a holiday has past.

Don’t get me wrong. There are those times are some thing is particularly important. Interestingly the value of those important things is commonly the thought or understanding behind the choice. Often our gifts from our children have no value in terms of money or thingyness. What they have is the intrinsic value of the spirit that picked the gift or made the item. For me my most memorable gift was four popsicle sticks.

My son was born with a serious heart condition that required surgery very early. The doctors hoped to give him a year before the surgery, a year to grow and strengthen his tiny body. At nine months he still only weighed 11 pounds. I used to say that he was a big heart with a little body attached. He was with me constantly because we could not hear him in the next room. He nursed for hours a day and could not be held upright because his little lips would turn from dusty pink to ghostly grey. At nine month his hematocrit was dangerously low and the cardiovascular surgeon, the only doctor in the tri-state area capable of doing the required surgery that was recently developed, decided they couldn’t wait any longer.

The surgery was done on Halloween 1978 at St. Christophers Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. When he came down from surgery the first thing I saw as they wheeled him off the elevator were bright pink toes then his cherry red lips. Jamey was home for his first Thanksgiving.

Three years later Jamey was accustomed to going into Philadelphia for the numerous checkups, monitors, and long looks for parking spaces. These trips were the reason for that special gift of popsicle sticks. While his sister and her friends made napkin holders, hot plates and other gifts for family members Jamey decided what he would make. Attaching three popsicle stick to one in a form like a capital E he proudly handed me the parking spaces so that I didn’t have to look for one anymore.

There is a wonderful lesson in the arch of Mandela’s life that I hope does not go unnoticed. The wisdom and compassion of Mandela’s later years, that which he is so deservedly admired for, was the result of deep reflection on the reality of his own life and the reality of his world. Some people chose to deny the reality of their failures and blame them entirely on the world. The wise person recognizes and chooses to acknowledge the need for change and growth in themselves before allowing the change they want to see in the world.

There will be more stories from the fearful about how the earlier years of Mandela’s life before, Robben Island, were very different from his later years.  This is true in some very real ways.  There was a rage born of anger that lead the younger man to commit acts of violence.  To forget this is to lessen the achievements of his later life.  The concept of the sage does not get a lot of play in our cultural airwaves so it is not surprising that people fail to realize that there is an arch in life.  The current moment appears to be the apex, an unchangeable reality, rather than the perception of that moment through the lens of experience.  Mandela used the his time of virtual solitude to refine that lens, to clear the distortions of passions and past action.  Those who dwell on either the early years, during which his rage clouded his reason, or the later years for which he is so admired, miss the fact that the object of Mandela’s vision never changed only the quality of his lens.

I am grateful for his example of the joy and power that most assuredly arises from understanding and being at peace with our own past reality as we move forward to a greater vision.

My daughter recorded these images at the home of a James Hubbell in the summer of 2011.  Every visit to his home is an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of unique and wonderful individual who has honored me with his friendship and encouragement.

What a Smile Means

In 1998 architecture students from Russia, Mexico, China, and the US were in San Diego to work on a project together.  Two years later I interviewed these same students and  heard stories from several of them about how they perceived smiles.  The Chinese students were very concerned about how they would feel working with the Americans.  They thought that the Americans would never smile, that they would always be focused on the project and not particularly interactive.   They were surprised and relieved when they received a warm appreciative welcome.   One even observed that everyone smiled just like at home.

The Russians, on the other hand, were deeply disturbed by the common tendency of Americans to smile.  On the fourth day they announced that Americans were disingenuous people who could not be trusted.  Everyone was shocked at the vehemence of the Russian reaction, especially the Mexican students.  The Russians went on to explain that Russians considered smiles to be a precious gift that you only give to family members and friends you feel close to.

Two years after the project I visited the Russian students at the Far Eastern State Technical University in Vladivostok.  Elena, one of the women who had been most upset in San Diego talked to about becoming comfortable with the Americans and how sad and confused she felt, returning home to Vladivostok.  Her experiences in San Diego, the friendships and smiles. became part her and that experience had to be integrated with that part of her that is a product of her culture. She talked about how people there don’t acknowledge each other and smiles are rare.   After only two days in Vladivostok I understood what she was talking about.  Eventually, during our first conversation she said something I have never forgotten. “I think maybe it is better to not remember [San Diego]. It makes me too sad.”

During the second interview Elena asked me if I always smiled.  I explained that I generally smile often. I went on to tell her that when I’m not feeling “cheerful” I did not choose to inflict my ill mood on others.  I also added that sometimes I fail to find my smile. This seemed to satisfy her.  She immediately relaxed and began to speak more fluidly.  She  spoke freely from her heart about her dreams of using her architectural talents to “grow”  beautiful building like she used to grow beautiful flowers as a child.  Her smile just naturally appeared.



The Quality of Music

Continuing with the theme of music, pardon the pun, my husband is listening to flamenco guitar right now and I find it virtually impossible to concentrate. The plucking of the stings has a percussive quality that knocks my thoughts aside before they can make their way from my head to my fingers. It is impossible to complain about the virtuosity of the performer, but at this moment I am unable to appreciate this particular music that I would normally perceive to be beautiful. This observation seems to support the idea that beauty can only be defined as a perception not as an object – that an object, whether physical or auditory or scented or flavored, does not contain anything that can be called beautiful – that maybe beauty can only be described as a feeling like joy, or sadness, or fear.

When we recognize that an object seems to give us feeling that we are in the presence of beauty I question what is it about our relationship with the object that causes this perception?

I have often observed that interactions with objects and situations we call beautiful seem to reveal basic truths to us, truths that we may otherwise ignore while we are going about the business of our days.  Often when we experience beauty it is in a moment when we are attending to truths; that life is precious, unique, and ephemeral.

Do you hear what I hear?

The friend who forwarded this article from the Washington Post asked, “If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made…. How many other things are we missing?” I couldn’t sum up my thoughts any better.


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