Blending with the Locals

When it was growing up, my relatives told stories about growing up with a lively downtown and specialized stores. When people needed milk, they went to the dairy. When they needed meat, they went to the butcher. Sweets and bread were purchased freshly made at the neighborhood bakery. Salons, restaurants, boutiques, and bars were locally owned. You couldn’t just go to Target or Walmart and get all your shopping done.

Now, I am experiencing this way of life in person. The city of Iida, Japan is  a mix of old neighborhoods with specialized shops and the newer development of big chain stores offering one stop shopping. The outskirts of the little city are full of discount department stores with full grocery stores, hair salons, travel agencies, sweet shops, full service restaurants, mall-style food courts, rotating vendors of all sorts, and retail spots rented out to various boutiques. They even have an arcade, a book store, and a dollar store within them.  It is kind of like the Target and the mall having a baby together. I have literally spent six hours straight in these stores and not run out of things to do, all with a baby or two in tow.

Back in the historic downtown, another world awaits. A bygone era comes to life. The local train runs through the center at an old-fashioned pace. The nearest bullet train is over an hour away by car. The streets are lined with small shops topped by the owners’ homes. Many of the businesses are run by the elderly and many look untouched for thirty years. The camera shop still develops film and sells disposable cameras. There is a store just for. Japanese dishes in a hue of ceramic glazes. There is a liquor store, a tea store with tastings, and a small market just for fresh produce. If you want fish, you go to the seafood shop, chockfull of fish tanks and seaworld oddities. If cows are your thing, there is a genuine butcher shop with delicious homemade roast beef. There is shop to get your custom Chinese character stamp. There are separate tailor shops for men and women’s clothes. There are three ornate shop with intricate kimono fabrics where you can order a custom made kimono if your wallet is fat. One of the kimono shops even has a real koi pond and stream running through the shop.  Unfortunately, photons are obtrusive and inappropriate, so hopefully the verbal depiction is painting a mental picture.

Today, the baby and I passed the morning in a bakery shop run that remains unchanged for almost forty years. The hardwood floors are worn down from the many visitors. The decor is dark wood and burgundy, reminiscent of a Rat Pack steakhouse. As we devoured a savory pumpkin bun and chestnut cake, the owner asked about America and our path to the Japanese countryside.  The grandmother came out to play peek a boo with the baby. She even brought a blanket fresh out of the laundry to  keep him warm. When it came time to leave, the shop owner escorted me out, covering us both with her umbrella. She even directed traffic so we could safely pull out of the parking spot and face the rain.

We could all use a little more small town hospitality in our lives, even as an outsider.


Letting Loose

What if I told you I spent the evening on the nude in a pool of other naked people? Then, what if I told you I brought my kids along? This is what you had in mind reading a blog by a traveling mommy. This is

 exactly what I did. The Japanese are known for their modesty and discretion, but there is one custom that shakes the modesty of the rather immodest Americans: stripping down for a dip in the hot springs with other strangers in the nude.  While showing skin in the U.S. is not unusual, bathing with naked strangers is out of the comfort zone of most Americans.


Most hot springs are gender-specific, so women a only with other women.

This is generally more comfortable for foreign visitors except for one major caveat. Often, our sole travel companion is of the opposition gender. Imagine separating from your partner/boyfriend/spouse and going it alone, naked and surrounded by naked strangers that don’t speak your language.

One of my first visits to the hot spring was even more nerve wracking. My Japanese boyfriend (who would become my husband years later) brought me to Japan for a family visit. My boyfriend’s mother was not pleased to see a white girl who was formerly clueless about Japanese culture. Well, guess who came with me alone to the hot spring? Next time you meet someone’s parents or hang out with your in-laws, remember it could ne more akward. You could be naked.

Despite the nudity, and occasional gawking at a white girl at the local hot sprong, a visit to onsen is a magical experience. The steam rises over the water’s surface, creating a therapeautic mist. The outdoor onsen are usually shrouded in boulder cascades, lush landscaping, and scenic mountain vistas.  In order to adjust to the heat, enter the water slowly.  Proceed deeper when your body is comfortable. Once you sit down and the water reaches your chest, your whole body will slowly release and relax.  Although I have a mind that never stops churning, the onsen sedates me mentally and physically.  Fifteen to twenty minutes will change one’s state. It is an automatic zen for the low price of 500 yen, or $5.

Yesterday I finally gathered the courage to go to the onsen with my two kids. At first, my three-year-old wanted to escape the heat. A couple minutes later, he adjusted and went exploring in the water. Unlike a pool, the whole hot spring is shallow and walkable. We all mellowed out a bit and then the hard part was getting him to leave. In the end, we all took a cool shower while seated on small stools. Once dressed and refreshed, we ate dinner at the inn’s restaurant and then drove home. We were all zen then.