When I began this voyage, I knew that I wanted to find a common thread to write about in each culture, a barometer if you will of the similarities and differences we all share. I put a quick shout out on facebook and was met with about 20 genius ideas. My initial thought was to hunt down the different Scientology centres, for they claim to have offices worldwide and how fascinating would it be to see if the emeters in Japan are written in Japanese characters, or to spend an afternoon nodding my head at the theory of Dianetics explained in Chinese, but since I want to actually finish this voyage I thought it might be wise to stick to something less controversial. Something that might not land me in jail or lead to my mysterious disappearance.
I don't know why I never thought of this before, or at least in tangible terms, but if there's one thing I would love to seek out and explore in every country I visit, it's soaking. To me, there is no greater form of relaxation than a dip in some hot water, and when you strip people of their clothes, their handbags and any tangible piece of personality, any comparisons to be made are based on nothing but culture and ethnicity. Our skin tones may vary, and occasionally we might disagree on acceptable shaving standards for the vajayjay territory, but in these moments I am reminded that beneath it all we're nothing more than mounds of flesh, jumping in and out of pools and washing the dirt from between our toes.
The Japanese Onsen was all I suspected it would be -- floors and floors of fastidious bliss. In China, however, hours and hours of scrubbing and enlightened soaking land in a dark chamber where men puff away on cigarettes and you are half expecting to see a giant keno board, horse race, or better yet, stripping pole.
I wasn't surprised when the women laughed at me instead of offering to help when I didn't know where and how to get a towel. The attendant in the scrubbing room shook her head "no" when I pointed towards the tall stack of white, fluffy towels, that seemed to be off-limits. Everyone else seemed to have one, so when I walked back out to the staging area where you swap rubber slippers for fluffy ones, they laughed and laughed before finally handing me one. When I watched another Chinese woman walk up behind me and immediately receive one before entering, I felt a tinge of frustration even though I laughed it off. If there's one place that won't get a tear, it's China, damnit.
In most situations, I would feel flattered to have 50 sets of female eyes all on me, but while showering, not so much. I couldn't tell which bottle was which in the shower, so after rubbing lotion all through my hair, a mishap that thankfully went unnoticed by the masses, I decided to head back to the scrubbing station to see if I might be able to stumble my way into a professional rub down. The women, dressed in basketball jerseys, were more friendly than the front of house personnel and though I still had no idea what I was ordering, I pointed to something on the menu and agreed to two when I couldn't figure out how to say one.
What came next was a relaxing 40 minutes of scrubbing and pouring milk from plastic packets all over my body. The language of touch is universal, so I only needed to flinch once for her to know that my left shoulder blade is still suffering from a 2008 ship wound. I felt the past 6 weeks of cramped cabin living wash away as she hit my skin with mittens and jabbed her elbows into my back. When I went back to the staging area, I at first put on my standard issues before realizing that they were also issuing panties -- "high waist" seems to be popular in China, for even the jeans at trendy Uniqlo were of the mom variety.
With underwear up to my breasts and pink pajamas, I explored the rest of the facilities. The place is called "Orient Rome," and judging by the massive gold pillars and greek gods that had greeted me upon entrance, I was expecting something garish. A pink explosion, not so much.
Mannequins lined the halls of the ladies floor that looked somewhere between a Victoria's Secret, Roxy Carmichael's room and a Stanley Kubrick set -- I was half expecting the dummies to suddenly open their eyes and attack. The bath hall itself was a pink paradise, complete with two adjoining warm pools (one with aloe, one with jets), shower stalls, sauna, turkish stream room, and greek marble statues that have been re-appropriated to hold such coveted items as plastic razors and toothbrushes. All in all, it was the level of fancy that could pass for a cheaper room at the Madonna Inn, but might not reach the coveted "wagon wheel suite" status of VIP only, though I was told that themed VIP rooms did exist on the top floor.
The large spiral staircase takes you past a full in-wall aquarium, random oil paintings of what look to be British aristocrats and slippery marble steps soon landed me on the "relax" floor. Unlike the arcade in the Japanese Onsen, the Chinese equivalent of R + R was a blackened smoking room. Had I been there at night, I was told that a movie would be screening followed by a stage performance. My afternoon leisure included a personal recliner, where I watched an Olympic curling match and sucked down the orange drink they insisted on serving me (for a small fee). I was secretly rooting for the cute Swiss girls to beat the Chinese, though the roar of the TVs and the dark cloud of smoke invading my clean body helped me make the decision to leave before the match was over. My shoes reappeared down below at the check-in station, and even though they didn't take credit card, I had exactly 160 Yuan to cover my tab.