The Young Woman slowly eased into the water of the onsen’s tub. It was big; it could hold up to 30 people if they squeezed in. The whole bath, with five shower spots, sported a large window that looked out onto the forested mountainside. There was a fountain against a wall that separated the woman’s bath from the men’s. It was a soft waterfall and with it, the splashing of water and the running of showers created a soothing white melody only found in public baths. All voices were murmurs against it.
There were two other women in the baths, both washing up before they would join her.
The water was hot. Scolding. It hit fast and cut deep, targeting her joints with unbelievable accuracy. Her shoulders screamed, but their voices drowned in the silky water and slowly eased their pain.
The Young Woman had continued Judo into university. Training was four times a week and every other Saturday. She would often go home sweating and dead tired, but a satisfied soreness that put her straight to sleep. She had been told that she was good, though not enough to be a front-liner. She had no intentions of going professional; she liked the sport and the competitions. She liked supporting her teammates and the routine that training induced on her life, but that was it. She had no drive to push herself further. It was at an ideal balance with her studies. Any more and something would likely suffer.
Her monthly treat was a visit to a rural onsen – about an hour by car from her apartment. It was worth it. The water always restored her body, more than sketching, lounging, or a bath at home ever could.
“Aaahh,” she groaned quietly, enjoying the humidity.
The door to the bath slide open and, sneaking a glance, the Young Woman saw a middle-aged, western woman entered, towel slung over her shoulder. From surprise, she continued to look out of the corner of her eye.
The Foreigner was tall, taller than the Young Woman had ever seen before. Her hair looked long, but it was tied loosely into a bun that sat, almost comically, on the top of her head. She had large feet and wide hands. Her wide waist, hips, and legs were very muscular, which must have meant she was an athlete of some kind.
The Young Woman snapped her head away, realizing the rudeness of her actions. She turned back to the baths and stared at the fountain. To distract herself, she considered the strangeness of the situation. The onsen was nearly four hours south from the closest major city, surely there were closer ones? Was she a tourist? Did she live in the area or nearby?
“Oh! Ah haha.”
The Foreigner was washing herself, but seemed to have trouble with the showerhead. She had yipped at something – the water temperature perhaps? She fiddled with the nobs.
The Young Woman turned her focus back to the bath. She curled her toes and rolled her shoulders. She rubbed her arms and legs. She sunk into the water so it came up to her neck. She closed her eyes and relaxed, releasing all possible tension.
The two other women entered the bath, chatting with each other. Sisters maybe or friends. They sat near the fountain and lounged.
The gush of water broke through the air; the Foreigner was having fun filling her water basin and pouring it onto herself. It was good that she knew the proper proceedings of a hot springs. She was clearly not new to this. Did that explain her being here? Was she on a hot springs tour of some sort?
The Young Woman’s shoulders were tinging, reacting to the hot water. The heat was nice, but she knew it would not be enough to ease the soreness. A massage would be wonderful; today would be a good day for it, to really indulge and spoil herself. A nice cold beer would be great too, right after she got out.
The Foreigner, in a fraction of the time as the other women, left the shower area and tiptoed over to the bath. She had folded her towel into a rectangle and drooped it over her bun. With almost no hesitation, she walked confidently into the tub and hissed through a toothy smile.
The two of them locked eyes, much to the horror of the Young Woman, greatly embarrassed at being caught staring. Instead of looking bothered or insulted, the westerner smiled at her.
“Hot!” She said in English, laughing lightly.
Unsure of how to respond, the Young Woman nodded, then went back to staring at nothing. There was some kinship to be found in a public bath, but not with strangers. And certainly not with foreign strangers. Though she had to admit that the westerner was very pretty. She had high cheeks bones which made her face sharp and striking. Her lips were thin – thinner than the Japanese – but exceptionally red. It looked like makeup, but it was hard to tell. Freckles dotted the bridge of her nose and she had a black beauty mark (a mole?) on her jawline.
The Foreigner floated across the tub, making her way to the far side which was still empty. The tub was big, but the waves she created crossed the expanse. She settled into a corner, water up to her chest, stretched herself out and let her head tilt back. Her satisfied groan was audible through her body language. Her towel hesitated, but ultimately flopped off her head onto the bathroom tile. She didn’t flinch.
The Young Woman continued her soak, her curiosity more or less fulfilled. Her thoughts drifted to massages, beers, and a good night’s sleep.
Time passed. She soon decided the heat and humidity was enough. She went to the shower area and cooled off. She looked in the mirror as she washed her hair. Why did she suddenly feel strange, inferior? Her eyes looked tired, her brows somewhat mismanaged. Her pores had been troublesome lately. Her hair, however, was great. A new product she was using had really been working wonders.
Toweling off, the Young Woman left the tub, pausing at the door to cherish the heat. Fall was encroaching and reports were calling for an early winter. She would only be able to enjoy this blissful humidity a few more times this year. She left the baths to the locker room.
Changed and renewed, she stood outside the onsen’s massage parlor, studying the prices. She wanted to indulge, but did not want a long session. Full body sounded heavenly. That must have included foot too, which made her toes itch instinctively. Oh just thinking about an elbow in her shoulder blade…
The Young Woman jumped. It was the Foreigner! Hair damp and face shiny. She looked the pinnacle of ‘refreshed’. She had spoken in weak Japanese, but was being friendly. The Young Woman bowed slightly and said hello back.
“Uh, uh, this,” the westerner said, pointing to her shoulders, back and forth between the two. “This, this,” she repeated, then pointed to the Young Woman. After a few moments, it became clear what she was trying to convey: ‘your shoulders.’ The Young Woman nodded, though very confused.
“Uh, sugoi! Very nice!” The foreigner smiled, laughed lightly, bowed, and left.
Left in her wake, the Young Woman entered the massage parlor.
“Welcome! Oh! Goodness, please take a seat Miss. Your face is absolutely red! Were you in the bath too long?”
Throughout her massage, the Young Woman’s face would flush as she accidently remembered that moment. To think that, while she was gawking at the Foreigner, the Foreigner was doing the same! To think that such a pretty woman, who could barely speak Japanese, gave her a compliment. And her shoulders no less. Superficially, it sounded bizarre, but it meant the foreigner had been eyeing her. By mentioning her shoulders and not her face or figure, it was just so much more embarrassing! Even if she thought of it as an athlete admiring a fellow athlete, it was more embarrassing! What if she was a pro? A world-renown coach?! It made the Young Woman feel all gooey inside and the thought would make her smile dumbly. It made her feel good that all her training, practice, and matches had left a positive impact on her body. Enough that a stranger would complement her on it.
Half an hour later, the Young Woman sashayed upstairs to the onsen’s restaurant. The smell of sizzling steak was absolutely alluring. The thought of a cold beer made her mouth water.
The restaurant was on the same floor as the onsen entrance, the staircase in between the two. The murmur of people and the niceties of staff grew louder with each step. Echoes of cold wind floated past her; the onsen’s doors opening and closing for guests.
The Young Woman stepped onto the main floor just as the Foreigner was leaving the restaurant. They locked eyes and again she was reminded of their previous encounter. The westerner, looking delighted at their run-in, smiled widely. She bowed, but did not approach. She made for the door.
Surprising herself, the Young Woman called out, “Th-thankyu!”
The Foreigner looked back over her shoulders, her cheeks flushed. She produced another toothy grin – big, wide teeth – and waved in a cute, girlish manner. It was a strange contrast to her size which made the action ten times more adorable.
As she said goodbye in a language neither Japanese or English, her lips puckered and the sun coming in from outside bounced off her shiny lips. The door, which she had opened as she was looking back, produced a wind and blew her hair wildly. Strands crossed her face and a few were graciously caught on her lips, which amplified their beauty inexplicitly.
In making her exit, almost like a model leaving a photoshoot, her shoe caught on the carpet and she tripped slightly. Again, she turned back and they locked eyes. She stuck out her tongue and winked. Did you see that, her smile said, guess I’m not that cool. Finally, with her back to the onsen, the Foreigner flashed a peace sign and left.
The Young Woman, struck by this unimaginable encounter, lingered in the lobby. The others around her had not seen those actions or got the messages. She felt special, knowing that it had been just for her.
Walking into the onsen restaurant, she swore to not order a beer, as she wanted the memory of today’s trip to remain clear and unspoiled.