Sunday, 25 April 2010


A local mixed onsen by the Tadami river

He staggers stiffly out of the onsen, into the changing room, steam rising from his bent back, puffing and grunting over to the weighing machine. In his eighties, he walks as if his tendons hold him prisoner, bound into a hunched position, legs and arms unable to straighten. His body bears all the marks of a life in the fields, hands and face deep red, body blue-white, belly balanced between narrow ribcage and thighs. Chatting to nobody in particular, he swings round and walks to the bench, swatting himself with his thin towel. "Hot, isn't it?" He begins to dress. He is old enough to wear a cloth tied round his loins, a hfundoshi, of the kind you see in woodcuts from the Edo period. On top of this go a generous pair of woollen shorts.

He sits down on the wooden bench, wafting and swatting, swatting and wafting, grinning now with the sociable relaxation particular to the onsen. It is now, with his shoulders thrown back and his muscles awoken by the swinging of the towel, that his true, ageless physicality begins to ripple beneath his skin. Corded muscles, defined and working beneath plump veins tell the story of every working day and every crop, a thousand blows, a million cuts, ten million steps. People here don't just live a long time, they endure.


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