Ikaho Onsen, 2016

The day I arrive at the onsen, the sky is an unending kaleidoscope of red maple-leaves and pinpoint chunks of blue. The trek to the springs is a stone-staircased mountainside lined with boiling fish-cakes, barterers beckoning trekkers toward hand-folded origami kimonos or hand-sewn handbags, cones dripping green, sprawling leaves of matcha ice-cream, and the occasional stray cat. The onsen, a lodge-like building, floats in the tips of the maples leaves, the mountains behind it a painted miniature in rusted hues and gray-blues.

The reception desk is a cluttered cacophony of contrasting things; glossy travel pamphlets littered at the base of a plain vase, a single branch and orchid busting from the top. I buy a bath pass for one.

In the steaming dressing room, I unzip myself layer by layer. I am a pink puff of a thing, clad in pastels and clean-shaven. I am craving perfection. I am trying to be smaller. I am carrying myself as if owned by someone else. Over chatter of women, there is the distant whisper of water, the tired roar of a hairdryer. I keep my eyes down, catch a blip of brown hair, a hint of skin. I cover myself with the fig leaf of white bath towel and move my bare feet forward.

There are showers squat and lined against the wall neatly, fronted by wooden stools. Women there wash themselves ready for the untarnishable waters of the onsen, and I join them. I can’t read the characters carved into the metal faucet, don’t understand where to press or which way to turn, and I chance the smallest glance to the women beside me.

I am scared to see breasts and simultaneously see beauty, scared that love for women began in fear of men. The woman beside me slides the dial to her right, and the spicket spits a frothing stream of steam around us. She pushes strings of dark hair like twisting branches of a weeping willow from her face, pulls a stuck branch of it from a shining lip. Her bodily presence in this room is her own. The women and I do not bother her; they are not a question to her in the way they are to me.

The onsen is a living thing — tiling nestles around the shallow pool of it, a russet chute of spring water spilling over the stones. I begin to sit and for a second the spring water is a silent hand slipping up my leg, a rust-colored hatred — the same one standing in the shifting shadows of each surf-like lurch of the subway, the same one calling from street corners on each sunset walk home. But these women sit around me, and I exist in that moment, the simple safety of it. There, a strawberry underbelly upturned, chin toward the blazing red sky. There, darkened nipples like cross-cut tree-trunks, each ring of a life lived taut and singing.

After the bath, I dry at the mirror, tempt a brush through hair made unkempt in its wetness. I outline the potential of each follicle of the body, their willingness for growth. I look myself over, this yellow bruise, this sapling standing in the storm. I do not see a question. I do not see fear.

“Ikaho Onsen, 2016” is a piece of creative nonfiction that I wrote in 2018. It was published in Rose Quartz Magazine, which you can read online.