Cultural Immersion and Dirty Feet in Taipei
A short story about trying to relax in a Taiwanese bath house, but ultimately ending up in an argument with a naked woman.
The receptionist gestured towards the brand new pink swimming costume poking out of my backpack, and gave a stern shake of her head. “No, madam. You swim - everything go off”. She pointed to a small sign on the desk, stating as much, and I immediately regretted forgetting to check this small but vital detail before I arrived. I must have looked slightly startled then, suddenly paler perhaps; “Absolutely everything? Even knickers?” I said. She looked at me patiently, an expression of puzzlement on her face, “Well, obviously” it seemed to say.
I was in Beitou, a peaceful, forested suburb of Taipei famous for its steaming mineral springs and bath houses. I was travelling alone on a short trip away from Manila, eager to escape the hectic, traffic choked streets of home and keen to experience one of Taiwan's most popular pastimes. Standing at the entrance to one of the oldest bath houses in the area, red faced and sweating from the 3km hike up the hill from the train station, I was ready for a swim and a bit of cultural immersion - quite literally. But now I found myself cursing my delicate English sensibilities.
To bathe completely naked in a Taiwanese bath house is, of course, completely normal. Considered more hygienic than swimwear it's also considered more relaxing and therapeutic to cast all clothing asunder. The bathhouses of Beitou's similarity to the Japanese onsen is obvious. The springs themselves have always been here, bubbling up their steamy waters from Taiwan's geologically heated depths, but they were only really utilised once the Japanese occupation of Taiwan began back in1895. Soldiers saw the potential of the area as a place for rest and relaxation and they began to build bath houses in the traditional style, with wooden floors, stone walls and partially open to the elements. They came to relax and soak up the mineral goodness, as well as alleviate feelings of home sickness no doubt.
Kawayu Hot Springs, where I now stood, is set high up on a densely forested hill above town, where myriad calls of local birds fill the humid air and the streets are blissfully free of traffic. It felt sublimely tranquil, with groups of elderly men sitting around shooting the breeze outside half empty, dusty shops selling old tools and wooden furniture. The entrance to Kawayu is neatly hidden with just a small gate and a quietly bubbling stream tumbling alongside a long set of steep, stone steps hinting at its existence. It looked like the entrance to a secret world and I couldn't wait to step inside. I had eschewed the public hot spring bath (too busy) and the plush five star resorts down the hill (too expensive). I was after the real deal, as much as that was possible, and wanted to bathe like a local. Or so I'd thought. I'd also read Kawayu was one of the last remaining traditional bath houses in the area, built in the Japanese onsen style replete with basic facilities, a no frills series of spring pools and a small restaurant attached serving up tasty Taiwanese fare. And it was cheap. Spend 400 Taiwanese dollars in the restaurant and get your swim for free – that's about £10, for effectively a spa day including lunch. I was sold.
So now here I was. It was everything I'd been searching for but, rather naively, I hadn't counted on the full monty. I pleaded again with the receptionist, who was polite but unmoving. “Maybe, just the knickers?”. The head shaking resumed. So I hired a tiny rough towel, grabbed a plastic shower cap from the pile on the desk and headed through crisp white linen curtains into the changing area.
A small neat room greeted me with lockers on one side and the usual hair drying apparatus and mirrors on the other, and a collection of tiny plastic stools. It was clean, functional - and busy. I'd removed my sandals outside and the stone floor was cool and rough against my feet. I could see the baths just through the door, steaming and welcoming. I clutched my tiny towel and stripped off, careful not make any eye contact in the process, and stepped tentatively into the bathing area.
The bath house was busy with throngs of local ladies, some chatting and giggling in small groups and others just quietly bathing in the pools, eyes closed and zoned out. The air was humid and heavy with sulphur, bright sunlight shone through the slats in the roof and maple trees and sky appeared in the larger gaps. Rather less pleasing was realising there would be a soundtrack to this otherwise serene experience – speakers hidden in the corners of the roof blasted out classic 80's tunes and it wasn't long before I was nervously humming along to Wham's “Wake Me Up before You Go-Go” while scurrying towards my first dip.
There were three pools to choose from, each with their own therapeutic properties. The sulphur spring looked almost like milk, a result of the stream absorbing volcanic gases on its way through the rock, and not too hot, like a tepid bath. Its believed to help open the lungs and alleviate bronchitis and other lung ailments. The mineral spring on the other hand steamed with hot, clear water and smelt feintley of iron. This was the one for aching joints and arthritis sufferers. But the one I really wanted to take a dip in was the radium spring. With tiny traces of radium this particular spring is only found in Beitou and one other place, Akita in Japan. It has a greenish tint but is mostly clear and naturally slightly radioactive with properties known to help joints and muscles. I don't know why this one appealed to me the most, but maybe it was the realisation that this would probably be the only chance I'd have to immerse myself naked in radioactive waters while simultaneously listening to Wham. Who knows.
I tentatively dipped my toes, the water was fresh and clear and I plunged in, my breath caught with the freezing temperature. But it was utterly lovely. I sat shoulder deep next to a couple of ladies deep in conversation and tilted my head back to watch the sunlight dapple the wooden roof. It felt wonderful and I immediately understood why the Japanese, and now the Taiwanese were so taken with the experience. I looked around and was struck by how sociable the place was. Almost everyone sat in a group or in pairs, most were older and completely uninhibited, talking and laughing. There was a small queue for a series of powerful, steaming showers that pummelled water onto your back at top speed, like the massage setting on a shower turned to hyper speed. A series of wooden stools faced a low shelf filled with shampoo bottles and soap more shower heads for those after a more functional bathing experience. I started to feel numb in the freezing radioactive water and headed to the milky sulphur pool next to warm up, then finally heating up to boiling point in the mineral bath. I was starting to relax, forgetting I was the only westerner there and naked to boot. I got the feeling I was noticed as not being part of the usual crowd, but that was fine. A couple of ladies gave me a sympathetic smile when I scurried past, others barely glanced at me.
I was one of the crowd. A bathing pro who knew her minerals from her radium and everything in between. It was at this point, full of confidence and moving casually between pools, almost swaggering, when an older woman suddenly approached me. She began insistently pointing at my feet speaking in fast, urgent Cantonese - and she didn't look happy. Taken aback I started to laugh nervously and replied, “Ha! Yes my feet!”. She continued to berate me and I now noticed people had stopped their conversations and turned to look at the unfolding drama. I was mortified. There was definitely something wrong with my feet but I just couldn't work it out. The woman was shouting now, pointing to each pool in turn, then back to me and my terrible feet. It was only after she picked up one of the small buckets sitting at the side of each pool, which up until now I hadn't paid the slightest bit of attention to because they were just buckets and I was a pro and needed no bucket thank you, and began filling it with water and splashing it onto my left foot that I realised. I had been walking around brazenly barefooted, smothering my feet with floor grime in the process then hopping into the pure waters bringing my feet and all their in-pure dirt with them. This was understandably, a grave mistake. “Ah-ha!” I cried, over her raised voice and Cyndi Lauper playing in the background, and began rinsing my feet hurriedly over and over., demonstrating my ability to thoroughly clean my feet. She mercifully calmed down and nodded at me then, calmly walking away muttering something to herself in Cantonese no doubt content in the knowledge that the pure waters would no longer be sabotaged by this ignorant newcomer.
After the feet fracas my newly found confidence diminished somewhat and I spent the last 10 minutes chin deep in the radium wishing I didn't even have feet. But despite the momentary drama, I looked around and understood why this was such a popular pastime. Social, healthy and at once invigorating and relaxing. The humble bathhouse had it all.
Once back out in the bright sunshine, bathed and now clothed just how I generally like to be in public, I headed to the restaurant to reflect on my experience. I ordered an enormous beer and drank it down quickly, its cold bitterness stung my mouth as I gazed out at the valley, steaming and green. I was proud, a little embarrassed yes, but for once I felt a little bit less like a tourist and more like a local. My feet were impeccably clean and I was ready for my next Taiwanese adventure.