Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bromance on Ontake

Mt. Ontake recently erupted and still smolders.
We climbed a volcano close enough to Mt. Ontake to see the smoke rise from the recently erupted volcanic sister. As the tour bus rounded a bend in the road and the plume of smoke appeared, the passengers all gasped and shamelessly snapped pictures. I was sitting next to Raquel and a seat over from the other half of a budding bromance. Had I known that the proposal would lead to undressing and bathing with fifty other Jpanese men, I might not have accepted the offer to climb Mt. Norikura. But I didn’t know where this bromance was going to take me, so away we went.  
I am no stranger to the bromance. I’ve had them start in high school classrooms from shared chuckles or in a bus when a bearded man noticed I was reading his favorite book. My most recent bromance began at work when a coworker mentioned he had nine pets at home. I simply had to know more! I typically think of bromances as two men try to feel eachother out to see if there’s more than just sparks and if a true relationship can be kindled. Sometimes a bromance blossoms into something longlasting, but what happened with Mr. Tomodachi was something different. It was all over so fast, and I have nothing to show for it but memories.
After agreeing to climb the mountain together (We had already forgotten about our wives) we ate a bowl of noodles to build up our strength. Tomodachi-san and I both ate are soup much too fast and were forced to make small talk and giggle while our wives finished their meal.
We set off after that, Tomodachi-san plowing ahead and me trying to keep up. We’d wait for the women ever so often, I’d snap pictures, the women would catch up and with a cry of ‘daijobu!’ Tomodachi-san and I would set off again.
The bottom part of the trail up Norikura is a breeze. It’s all gently rising switchbacks that take hikers past fields of shrunken pine bushes and snow hiding from the end of summer in the shadows of boulders. Tomodachi-san told me he’d once bicycled up from the very bottom of Norikura, the part of the journey where we’d rode the bus. Needless to say, I was impressed.
The trail grew steeper and became little more than a pair of guide ropes framing volcanic gravel and boulders in a jagged line towards the peak. Tomodachi-san never slowed; he only paused to wait for his wife now and then. He told me he was sixty-three and I simply couldn’t believe that he still looked so young.
But you have no gray hair! I exclaimed
He smiled, tickled that I’d noticed.
We reached the peak and snapped pictures of Mt. Ontake on the horizon. We were a little unnerved watching a recently erupted volcano while we stood on its sister, so we headed back down.
We stopped only to have a snack once the trail levelled out. While we ate Raquel spotted a stoat and Tomodachi-san’s wife saw a magnificent bird that only lives in those mountains, but Tomodachi-san and I only had eyes for eachother. 
Back on the bus, Tomodachi-san asked if we’d like to go to an onsen together. I had been looking for an excuse to go to a traditional Japanese bath, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. What better way to cement a friendship than getting naked together? Raquel was less enthused, but still agreed that at least we’d have genuine Japanese people with us, and there was less of a chance we’d get thrown out for our tattoos.
At the onsen we separated to go to the respective gendered pools. I shucked off my clothes, and Tomodachi-san led me to the showers. I found a stool and a showerhead amongst dozens of other naked men who were all eagerly soaping their pits and rinsing their balls. They all scrubbed with unbridled enthusiasm. It’s taboo to bring dirt into the spring-fed baths, and they’re serious about it. Scrubbed clean, we headed outside for a hot sulfurous bath.
A pool in the crater of Mt. Norikura. Onsen are spring-fed
pools heated by the volcanoes everywhere in Japan.
“Atsui! Atsui!” Tomodachi-san said as he sunk into the steaming water. We soaked in the bath as naked Japanese men gossiped around us. I don’t speak much Japanese and Tomodachi-san didn’t speak much English, so we just sat in silence, enjoying the fall colors and each other’s company. An older patron rose from the pool as we entered. His balls dangled so low I could see them from behind.
After a few minutes I understood why so many men were getting up, shamelessly stretching and moving to other pools. The water temperature and mineral composition of each pool was different. We were in one of the hottest, and it was filled with white mucous-like flecks that made it look like egg drop soup. We ambled over to another pool that was cooler and looked more like ocean water. It was there that Tomodachi-san asked me who my best friend in Takayama.  
I told him it was Kensei-san, the most badass bartender in all of Japan. Tomodachi-san didn’t know him though. He revealed that he knew my boss Iwamaya-san, and seemed relieved that he wouldn’t have to share me.
“Friends?” he asked me, and touched my shoulder.
Friends, I agreed and clapped him on the back.
We finished our soak and headed to the waiting room to meet our forgotten wives. They weren’t there yet, so we sat down and waited.
I went to get tea and returned to find Tomodachi-san laying down, staring up at the ceiling. I laid down too, relaxed by the mineral springs and the warm light coming from the rafters of the hotel.
“Joe-san?” Tomodachi-san asked, and I rolled over to find him staring at me, his head propped up on his arm, like a tween at a sleepover ready to reveal her big crush.
“Today, a secret?” he asked, and put two fingers to his lips to ask for silence. “Iwayama-san” he said, and shook his head no. I was confused, but hadn’t been planning on revealing my intimidate day in the mountains to my boss anyway, so I agreed.
Our wives returned, Tomodachi-san swore them to silence as well, and we parted ways. Though I have his phone number, I can’t imagine actually calling him. But maybe that’ll change the next time I need some fresh air and a good soak.
Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama, Japan with his darling wife who’s his actual best friend in town. If you enjoyed the homoerotic vibe of this piece, you might enjoy grunting with gaijin, if you want more about the natural splendor of Japan, why not find out the insects of Japan.

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