Friday, May 23, 2014

Money Rise Luck & Broken Dreams At Chiba's Golden Bathtub

When you're naked and the only white person among around 50 Japanese women, you expect to be noticed. But here I was wearing nothing but a folded hand towel on top of my head and not an eye turned my way. Whether it was from politeness or antipathy, I don't know, but I was very appreciative of the anonymity. Onsen are for relaxing and the stage was well set.

I'd heard of Japanese onsen (hot springs) that are in gorgeous natural settings next to rivers, in forests or steaming in the snow, but Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki isn't one of these. The 10-story concrete building is in an industrial zone on the Chiba Prefecture shore of Tokyo Bay and is a simply designed, modern complex gargantuan enough to get lost in.

Aside from it's popularity with Japanese, its lack of tourists or ex-pats and its proximity to Tokyo (1.5 hours by train), the onsen stands out for the presence of the world's only pure gold bathtub, a thermally-fed vessel made of 18-karat gold. (Actually there are two of them: one in the women's bathing area and another in the men's). Bathing in this tub is said on the website to bring "luck, luck, money rise luck," so you can relax your body and hope to cosmically ease your financial woes all at the same time.

I had ended up at this onsen on a tour that centered on sites popular with local Japanese. As soon as I’d learned about the tub, I was intrigued because, really, how often does a person of mortal financial means get to bathe in a solid gold bathtub? When I arrived in the bath area, I scanned the pulse-slowing scene. A few jet-tubs were in a row near the main window but they were plain white. Nude bathers soaked languorously in tiled, thermally fed pools while admiring the cloudy view across Tokyo Bay through a two-story-high wall of bright windows. Other spa-goers shampooed, scrubbed with their hand towel and washed with hand showers while seated in front of large mirrored vanity tables. The only sounds came from the bubbling of the pools; the neutral-colored scene was blurred through wafts of steam. There was nothing shiny or sparkly in sight.

Futilely looking for something while naked isn't much fun so I decided to dip into the expansive selection of hot pools. Some twisted calmly around tree-filled faux islands while others were swimming pool-sized, tiled and frothy. I enjoyed the view then shampooed, scrubbed and relaxed like the everyone else. No one spoke to me or hardly to each other and all eyes were set at half-mast as if in meditation.

It wasn't until I had almost given up on the golden tub and was on my way out of the bathing area that I found it. There it was next to the changing room and backed up against a very ordinary dark wall. Unadorned, it sat on a slightly elevated platform enclosed by shower stall-like glass walls. The tub itself was truly solid gold and sat in a thick, silver lattice stand. It was an old-fashioned footed style tub with higher than ordinary sides. Five or six women were in line goose skinned and impatiently clutching their washcloths. Craving the experience but not wanting to join the grouchy and chilly-looking queue after I’d just gotten so warm and tranquil, I decided to give it a miss and get up early the next morning to try again.

I got to the baths the next day as they opened at 7am. Luckily the only person ahead of me was one of the only other Western women at the spa. Her name was Monique and she told me that she was especially interested in the "money luck" aspect of the tub.

"Lord knows we could all use some of that," she said as she lounged in the thermal water.

Monique and I chatted about the amazing kieseki meal served at the spa the previous night and the likelihood of either one of us getting rich from taking a bath (verdict: not very likely).

"Tub's all yours," said Monique after about five minutes. "May at least one of us win the lottery from this."

I went up onto the bath's platform and stepped over the golden sides. The water was around 104 degrees, hot but not scalding. I immersed myself fully, feeling my body loosen, and stretched my arms to rest along the rim. All around me was shiny metal in the near-copper color of antique gold.

Yes, here I was in Japan bathing in a gold bathtub. How romantic does that sound? I had expected to feel something special, decadence perhaps, so I took a deep breathe, closed my eyes and waited. A few seconds later I opened my eyes and there I was, still taking a bath in a pretty bathtub in the dark corner of a spa. I tried to muster elegant, Cleopatra-like sensations but nothing changed. There was something too communal and public about it all. Simply put, it was completely mediocre.

As I came to this conclusion, a woman came up to the platform to be next in line. Soon another woman joined the line and then another. While I'd been able to totally relax in the other areas of the spa there was real pressure here to limit my time absorbing good financial juju. While no one so much as glanced at me in the other areas, here I was getting impatient glares.

After about five minutes I got out. I'd bathed in a golden bathtub and it wasn't that great. Go ahead ladies, I thought.

I happily spent the rest of my morning in the other pools, anonymously listening to thermal gurgles and enjoying the reflections off the bay through the window wall. As the spa filled with golden morning light, the world and its financial troubles drifted far from my mind. Maybe just forgetting about the bank account for a few hours is "money luck.” I felt lucky to be there, that was for sure.

A year and a half has passed and no, I haven't won the Lottery. In fact, I didn't even sell a story about bathing in a golden bathtub (my fault entirely since I never pitched the idea to anyone). So while I'm pretty sure the golden tub didn't help my finances,  I'm happy and thankful to have had the experience. It's these weird and wonderful moments that spark hope, make us think or even disappoint us, that make travel such a complex adventure -- and honestly, that's lucky enough for me.

Extra: Here's a video I found of the onsen. I wish I'd known about the buried-in-sand treatment. Guess I'll have to go back. 

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