Martin draped the minuscule complementary white towel nonchalantly over his front. Apart from that, he was completely naked, dripping wet from a Japanese-style sit-down wash moments ago. His eyes rushed over the explanatory cartoons showing the ideal order in which to enjoy the baths. He couldn’t concentrate, and silently berated himself for his self-consciousness.
‘Having my shiny red arse on show like this does not feel right,’ he thought. ‘I’m here to feel better, not to get more wound up. This is ridiculous.’ He rolled his eyes hard upwards. ‘Come on Martin, get a hold of yourself man.’
He had found himself at the ‘Let’s Relax’ Spa in Bangkok’s well-to-do Thong Lor district at the recommendation of a colleague at the Thai branch of his firm, Motorola.
‘Look, Martin,’ Pete Galbraith, marketing head, had said the evening before. ‘If a Thai massage can’t fix that back pain of yours, then a Japanese onsen will. It’s heat your back needs. I know a terrific place.’
And here he was, unsure if Pete had wanted to make him squirm or make him better.
He looked over from the poster to survey the six indoor rectangular baths. Steam billowed gently from a glass steam room to the right. Several men, probably mostly Japanese and Thai, were either submerged in the baths or walking between them. A few had themselves covered, but most were not.
The place was of a higher quality than he’d expected. Scrubbed bamboo ruled uneven parallel lines across the walls and towering ceiling, silhouetted against warm yellow light. The floor and raised edges of the baths were of a softly textured black stone, with precisely cut slabs, and aesthetically satisfying beveled edges.
Most spa-goers were buried in thought. The hum of hidden machinery that kept the place turning muffled the few voices that could be heard in the room. A young Thai man in an apron stooped by one of the pools, checking the water chemical content.
Martin counted three men looking in his direction. He thought he saw two of them look at each other and chuckle.
‘Can’t stand here forever.’ He thought, taking a deep breath.
He clamped his towel to his groin, and with an overly confident gait, strode over to the bath at the far right. No one was in that one. He dipped a foot in the milky white pool and crouched slowly. A sharp pain twanged through his lower back. He gasped, and his careful descent accelerated to a clumsy splash.
‘Hot, but not silly hot,’ he thought, looking up at a sign on the wall that said: ‘Shirahone Mineral Bath.’ He sunk lower, gazing up at the large cuboid paper lanterns that hung from above.
His eyes leaned left to see who was leaving the steam room. He kept his head forward, and his ears submerged just below the water line. A tall, middle-aged man with a pot belly, bronzed skin, and several tattoos strolled out, swinging his towel over his shoulder. His blond hair was pasted back, and he was whistling. Martin already hated him.
‘Must be Swedish,’ he thought. ‘What’s with Swedes and these Japs, all comfortable being naked in public? I was sure they were a reserved lot.’
He lifted a foot to see it poke out of the white water like a stubby Kraken emerging from the depths.
Men were leaving the pool at the other side of the room. The temperature on the wall said 42 degrees.
‘Let’s turn up the heat a little,’ he thought.
He had to wince as he got in, and quickly decided to plant himself on the edge, with only his legs submerged in the biting hot water. A man had decided to curl up in the fetal position for a nap, on a wooden bench next to the bath. He was snoring loudly. Martin glanced once and then vowed never to do so again. The man’s privates were, quite distressingly for him, in full view.
Fully submerged up to his chin, Martin watched the sharp yellow lines of the room dance on the steaming surface of the black water.
‘Not gonna last long in this,’ he thought, as the heat gnawed into his bones.
There was a loud guffaw, and three Japanese men, all of varying shapes, made their way into the bath to sit opposite him. The heat didn’t seem to inhibit them at all.
The first man was tall and thin, with bones that poked through tiny shoulders like tent poles. He had a huge, Cheshire Cat grin, displaying several crooked teeth that worked to prop up the largest one, at the front.
The man in the middle was about twice his width, plump, with a square head made even squarer by a crew cut shave.
‘Soh dess kaaa?’ He mused, with a bewildered look in response to the main joker of the trio, to his left.
The third man was thin, but more athletic than the first, with a softer, friendlier face, maroon cheeks, a towel folded neatly into a square on his bald head, and a look of deep satisfaction as he spoke. His jokes and remarks came from a seemingly endless mental reservoir that he relayed without pause, except to give his companions a moment to enthusiastically concur or break out in giggles.
The three carried on chattering jovially, with plenty of head nodding. Martin was mesmerized, and had forgotten briefly about the heat that he found was quite intolerable when he brought his attention back to it.
Rather than getting out, he decided to enjoy the spectacle a little longer. He let himself slide further into the salubrious water.
A minute later, Martin felt more comfortable with the heat. The trio fell into a contemplative trance, probably put in motion by an observation from the third man. For a few long seconds, the whole onsen fell quiet. Just the gentle hum of the room, and the gargling of the jet pool.
The third man then said something which must have been very amusing, because the square-headed man let out a high pitched cackle with such thrust, that Martin also found himself laughing, audibly.
There was an uncomfortable silence as all three men shot looks in Martin’s direction. Martin quickly coughed in an attempt to cover up such a blatant act of uninvited camaraderie.
All three then looked at each other before exploding into laughter once more.
A sensation suddenly overcame Martin — one he couldn’t remember having in years.
A soothing, warm numbness had replaced his lower back pain, and a wide grin had spread across his face.