Surviving my first German sauna

I spent an exceedingly pleasant birthday weekend in Berlin last week. Friday morning to Monday evening was not nearly enough to take in the whole experience, but despite historic sites all around me, I spent more time in the sauna than any other place.

Let’s rewind.

We were staying in the Hilton, which has a delightful spa area next to its pool. While we could have spent the weekend schlepping from one tourist spot to another, I opted for a bracing walk in the Tiergarten, a visit to the DDR museum and an inevitable wander past Checkpoint Charlie.

But each day we spent there, I spent at least two hours in the spa. It was just the relaxing experience I needed – despite a few initial hiccups.

Photo stolen from the Hilton website – no cameras allowed!
For a start, rules are rule. As this was a German hotel, swimsuits were forbidden in the spa area. This was separate from the pool area, but also open to both genders. So yes, a mixing of male and female guests, all in their birthday suits.

This was a first for me – every time I’ve had to shed my clothes for a sauna or onsen, it’s been men-only. Seeing some (gasp!) naked ladies was shocking for all of about…ten seconds. After that, flesh is flesh. Honestly. None of the Germans there seemed to give a toss who looked like what.

But I had to make it difficult for myself.

After an initial quick tour of the facilities with one of the super-friendly hotel staff on Saturday morning after breakfast, I went back down after changing out of my clothes. Wearing my shorts and t-shirt, I followed another guest into the men’s changing rooms.

As promised, there were lockers available, beyond which were some showers and then the spa area and pool. I slipped into my swim shorts, went for a shower and wandered into the pool area. Assuming I could get some towels out there, I was quickly directed back out to the reception area to pick one up there.

I’d broken one of the other rules. You need to sign in to collect a towel.

Shrugging, I wandered out towards the pool’s reception, but stopped off at the entrance to the spa. Like the entrance to the changing rooms, it had a card-key area. I thought I’d test my card and went back to my locker to get my room key. This – of course – didn’t give me access to the spa.

So I went out to the reception area, after locking my locker. The door to the men’s changing rooms closed firmly behind me, just as I noticed there were no staff members at reception. So I was locked out of the changing rooms, wearing only a wet pair of swim shorts.

And some burning cheeks.

Honestly, I made fewer faux pas on my first visit to a Japanese onsen.

After wandering around for a couple of minutes, I found a member of staff who let me back into the changing rooms and gave me a couple of towels. I was so grateful for his help, I forgot to ask about the spa and its ‘broken’ card reader.

So after leaving a few moments to pass before going back out to him – I didn’t want to appear completely clueless – I had to have the entire process explained to me.

It turns out (famous last words), access to the spa section was at an additional cost, unless you had Diamond Status with the Hilton hotel chain. Which I do. So I had to a) prove it, using the card on my iPhone, stored in my locker and b) be escorted (like a naughty child) to the spa door and instructed on how to use the new access chip which was now strapped to my wrist. With a nod to the MASSIVE sign explaining it was a ‘textile-free zone’, I was left to my own devices.

This entire episode took no more than ten minutes, but it was stressful as hell. I had images of being locked out and having to go upstairs to the main hotel reception to ask for help. Just like one of those anxiety dreams where you find yourself sitting a past school exam, except you haven’t studied. And you’re naked.

Just me?

Moments later, I was sitting naked in a sauna full of people, gasping for breath. It was essentially the hottest sauna I’ve ever experienced. Seriously. And I’ve been in Finnish, Swedish, Japanese and Korean saunas. It was (literally) breath-taking. I broke a sweat before taking my seat (after carefully placing a towel beneath me! Again, the rules).

Truly, after a quick look around in the dim sauna interior, I basically forgot I was effectively surrounded by hot, naked men and women. All I could think of was the heat of the air searing the inside of my nostrils and the pounding of my heart in my chest.

Every movement around me seemed to send a waft of boiling air in my direction. Sweat poured from every pore in my body. I continued to gasp. I looked around, but everyone else seemed to be taking it in their stride. Sweating buckets, obviously, but nobody seemed to be gasping like me.

My pulse was now throbbing in my head and I lasted all of ten minutes before having to leave for a cold shower.

Wandering towards the beautifully designed shower area, I saw you could choose from a variety of shower styles and temperatures. I over-estimated my temperature and my staying power and shrieked when the ice-cold water came down on top of me from the ‘tropical rain’ shower. Thankfully, I was alone at the time, all other guests snug in either the sauna or one of two steam rooms.

But I just know they heard me. I know it.

Anyway, the steam rooms were also a delight, but you don’t know pain until one of the drips of almost-piling water falls from the tiled ceiling and lands on your nethers. I quickly realised why all the men sat in there cross-legged and quickly adopted the same technique.

Life’s too sort for third degree burns to the scrotum.

The most fun between treatments was to be had as I rested on the cold marble benches, sipping some lemon water. I watched as new guests arrived and guessed their nationality.

Essentially, I played “Spot the Brit”.

British guests wandered in, reeking of uncertainty and fear. They would look around the spa area, holding their towels around them for dear life and after a few moments of whispered panicky “You go first”, “No, you go first”, they would drop their towels from their bodies and go into the sauna. For about two minutes. They’d then emerge gasping, much like I had, and seek out some cold water. And shriek under the same shower.

Rinse and repeat

By now, of course, I had adopted an air of familiarity with the whole place that was disgusting even me. Leaning back with my cold water, weighing up whether more time in the sauna was really good for me, I watched a couple of English guys come in. They had their towels gathered tightly around them, looked around uncertainly and then saw me, sitting confidently in the buff.

Towels unwrapped with a flourish, they walked into one of the steam rooms, but came out immediately, looking shocked. It had been full of women and by the looks on their faces, they though they were in the wrong place entirely!

I nodded at them and whispered “It’s a spa for men and women”. Honestly, they looked like they’d never seen a breast in the wild before. Or maybe they’d never seen so many at the same time. We weren’t, if I’m honest, short on breasts. The guys wandered sheepishly into the sauna, for an inevitable roasting.

So. I went all the way to Berlin and basically spent hours and hours sweating with strangers, in almost complete silence, drinking heaps of water and showering myself cold again.

And it was glorious.

Self-conscious Brits and Americans aside, nobody make a big deal of the nudity rules. Except for when an particularly well-endowed guy walked – no – strutted into the sauna. He turned a few heads. Male and female. No cameras or phones allowed in the sauna, obviously – but it’s not something I’ll forget in a hurry.

He leaned back, legs spread like was about to undergo a waxing, smiling to himself and obviously very, very aware of the attention he was getting. Personally, I felt a confusing mix of disgust, admiration and jealousy.

Mostly the latter, if I’m honest.

The place was scrupulously clean and well ordered. Everyone followed the rules, (nearly) all the time. People sat on towels. They washed down the seats in the steam room. They kept their voices down to a whisper at all times. The silence even continued into the changing rooms, partly because I think everyone was too exhausted to speak.

Or, in the case of the English guys, too traumatised by all the German breasts they’d seen.

With practice, I managed to stay in the sauna for up to about 20 minutes at a time. Not impressive, I know – but I’ve never felt heat like it! Each day, I left the spa feeling an incredibly mixture of exhaustion and enthusiasm. I was glowing, even after several freezing showers and smiling like a very chilled out cat that got the cream.

(However, the health benefits of the sauna were almost certainly undone by the time we spent in the Hilton Executive Lounge each evening. But that’s for another post.)

That was my first German sauna experience and I’d definitely go back for more. If only they were all so clean and well-organised.

Enjoying Dun Laoghaire in the sun

I’m in Dublin for work right now, staying here until Thursday night. And lucky for me, I get to stay in the town where I grew up, Dun Laoghaire, which is south of the City. 

I landed to a surprising – but welcome! – amount of winter sunshine, so as soon as I’d unpacked and organised my hotel room, I headed out to walk the pier and enjoy some sunshine, while it lasted. 

Walking the pier was really a Sunday afternoon tradition when I was growing up here. And the crowds today showed that it’s still a popular venue for a walk and a natter. The town has changed a lot since I grew up here, but the coast is relatively unchanged. The pier still faces out towards Dublin Bay and you can follow the path along the coach to Sandycove – so I did!

I walked the length of the pier in record time, so took it a little easier as I made my way over to Sandycove and its Martello tower. And amazingly, despite the cold, there were some people swimming in the sea at Forty Foot. Colloquially known as the ‘Gentlemens’ Bathing Place’, Forty Foot was always known for all-year swimming and a contingent of gentlemen who preferred (and were allows) to swim ‘sans shorts’.  

I came back to my hotel via the new library, the Dun Laoghaire Lexicon. Its striking design is very different to everything around it, but I think it’s fabulous. I know it divided opinion, but I think it makes a bold and confident addition to how Dun Laoghaire faces out to the sea. 

Sun a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon. I love coming back to Dublin, especially when I can combine it with work. Now to catch up with some old friends and (hopefully) something to eat. 

A tale of two check-ins…

I’ve just checked-in to my hotel here in Dublin and had to share this…

I got a taxi out from the airport and had a surprisingly nice chat with the driver, considering we were discussing Brexit and Trump. We both felt a little helpless and both agreed that focusing on the sunshine was probably more productive, at least for today!

I realised when I got to my hotel that I was probably a little early to check-in and decided I’d only ask to leave my suitcase with them, so I could go for a walk by the sea (I’m staying in Dun Laoghaire, south of the City Centre). 

But I was checked in by the nicest, friendliest Brazilian girl, with whom I had a great chat about coming back home, how London compares to São Paulo and what Dublin is like for a Brazilian. 

We laughed, smiled and treated each other like humans. I got a free room upgrade, so I’m now in an executive room overlooking the sea. 

However, the woman checking in to my right had come from the US and was pretty much berating the staff member who was trying to tell her that her room wasn’t ready. I thought that maybe if she’d started with a smile, or a ‘hello’, the encounter might have gone so differently. 

But, no. As far as I know, she’s still waiting for her room and probably silently fuming at how she felt she was treated. Meanwhile, I’m in my room, admiring the sunny views over Dun Laoghaire pier, have unpacked and am planning a nice walk in the unexpected sun. 

I’ll also be leaving an excellent online review of the hotel, in the hope it goes some way to cancel out the negative one she’s inevitably going to leave. 

Winter blues: Craving the sun on my skin

Right now, I’m looking back on December a little wistfully. According to my (unreliable) memory, December 2016 was a lot milder and drier than January 2017. The last couple of weeks in London have featured some really bone-chilling weather and, despite the facts of the matter, I don’t see any longer ‘stretch’ in the evenings.

I miss the sun.

I know many people in this part of the world will be thinking something similar right now. But a conversation with a friend earlier this week really brought it home to me. Turning my face up to bright sunlight and sitting still in its rays is one of my most favourite things. I’m really impacted by my physical surroundings, for better or worse, and sunshine is something I’ll always move towards.

Soaking up some sun on the last day of our visit to Tokyo, November 2016.

After spending time in the sun, I feel a wonderful mixture of recharged and relaxed. It’s like I’ve been literally ‘topped up’ by the solar energy and given a boost, but also a calming pat on the head.

Getting some more sun has been a priority for me over the last year. I mean, what’s the point of being your own boss if you an’t take off and soak up some rays when the weather’s good? Last year’s travels to Spain brought it home to me – the sun is good for me, I feel better when lying in the sun and so, I shall get more of the sun.

Every time I catch a glimpse of sunlight recently, I’m brought back to the long weekend I spent in Sitges by myself. Prepping for a few days of work in Barcelona, it was the perfect opportunity to unwind, lie on the beach and be alone with my thoughts.

In between my thoughts, or the occasional few minutes reading something on my Kindle, there was nothing by lying back and feeling sunshine on my skin, listening to the waves hit the shore and remember to occasionally roll over to avoid getting burnt.

The utterly gorgeous Platja des Balmins in Sitges, Spain. In quieter times, last year. 

I also found some fellow travellers on that beach. People who spent the day there on their own, doing nothing but lying back and relaxing. They weren’t kicking footballs about, playing music or making noise. It seemed like they were there for some quiet appreciation of the sunlight and warmth – and, of course, to work on their tan.

We exchanged brief conversation from time to time, acknowledging each other’s solitary status and looking after each other’s belongings when one of us decided to take a dip in the sea to cool off. There was a mutual appreciation, I think, that we were here for the sunshine, in as pure a form as possible.

A couple of local people looked at me with a kind of sadness when I explained I live in London. “You must be so happy to see the sun” neatly summarises their response. “Yes,” I replied, grinning like I’d won the lottery.

And it’s not all about getting the chance to go ‘au naturel’ on a naturist beach. Yes, that’s nice, as I especially dislike seeing tan lines on my body. And swimming in a warm sea unencumbered by shorts is addictive once you start.

But also because sunbathing naked is my version of going against society’s grain and doing something most people won’t. My token act of rebellion each year. But you can’t do it everywhere, no matter how many World Naked Bike Rides are organised. And I don’t want to feature on the front page of the Evening Standard or be added to some kind of police register.

No. As the photo above illustrates (taken by @FrankDJS in Tokyo last year), I’ll sit in the sun whatever the temperature and whatever I’m wearing, just to turn my face up and close my eyes for a few minutes. To absorb a little sunshine and feel that little bit more energised.

So now, in the middle of a very cold and damp January, I’m craving sunshine and a solar recharging of my batteries – both physical and psychological. I won’t get to a beach until April, which seems very far away, so I’m hoping upcoming business trips to Barcelona will allow for the odd coffee in the sun. To tide me over. And I’ll sit there, eyes closed, face upturned and relaxed, just letting it wash over me.

In the interim, I’ll have to make do with long sessions in our apartment building’s sauna, frantically pretending the heat is coming from above and that I’m on a quiet, sunny beach.

Planning for Japan: 2017

It looks like we have a bit of an itinerary for this year’s trip to Japan! To avoid overloading ourselves with too many destinations, we’ve narrowed it down to splitting our time between Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa.

I’d like to take advantage of the JR Rail Pass and arrange some day trips out of both Tokyo (Mt. Fuji, maybe?) and Kyoto (Arashiyama and its marvellous monkeys!). Last year’s visit to the snow-monkeys of Nagano reminded me how much I like to watch primates at play – always mindful of the slim chance they’ll attack an idiot tourist who gets too close, while I capture it all on camera.

Kanazawa is brand new to us, so I’m looking for how to enjoy it and not over-commit to venues and activities.

Kanazawa Station

This morning’s win was finding a new (to me) onsen to visit in Tokyo. It looks amazeballs and very, very luxurious. Over the years, I’ve experienced onsen ranging from the very basic to the quite modern and interesting. Every one of them has been a pleasure, one way or another. And seeing as we’re unlikely to every replicate the onsen experience here in London, I’ll rely on my brief visits to Japan to take advantage of the facilities.

I may also get another item off my bucket list by arranging a brief stay in a capsule hotel in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport before we fly on to Osaka and then bus it to Kyoto.

Let me explain: I’m only human. After 14 hours on a plane – even going First Class – I need a shower, some clean clothes and a lie down. This will make the onward legs of this outbound journey so much easier. And I’ll be less likely to act like a toddler needing a nap by the time we get to Kyoto.

I’ll be honest – I’m also thrilled at the thought of staying in a quintessentially Japanese capsule hotel. It helps that I’m hobbit-sized and have no fear of shared bathing facilities. I’m also aware of how much my mental state is dependent on adequate sleep along with the extent to which jet-lag utterly rips my wellbeing to shreds.

Hotels are arranged for Kanazawa and Kyoto, while we look for the best possible bargain in Tokyo. I don’t think we’ll get the same awesome free upgrade at the Hilton again (but you never know), though Tokyo isn’t short of excellent hotels. It’s all about getting something central and close to a Yamanote Line station.

I tell you what, though – you can tell Sterling as taken a hammering when you check Japanese prices online. But who knows what state it’ll be in come September – maybe we’ll experience another rebound and Tokyo will once again seem cheap compared to London.

Maybe not. Though I’ve realised that the best things about Japan are the experiences, not the shopping. Even though I seem to do quite a bit of the latter every time I visit 😁

Heading to Japan, 2017 edition

You know, it’s never too early to plan our annual trip to Japan. At least that’s what we were saying when we started looking for flights to Tokyo on this cold and wet January Sunday morning.

After last year’s amazing trip, it was pretty much inevitable that we’d have to come back. So we searched for flights around the same time of year and, with @FrankDJS‘s usual skill and a gazillion BA frequent flyer miles, we have a two-week trip to Japan all booked. Well, the flights, at least.

Well, the flights, at least. At, due to some diligent and focused collecting of BA miles via every route known (and unknown) to humanity, we’ll be going and returning First Class. A guaranteed excellent start and end to the holiday – based on previous experience, at least.

While it’s not until September, that won’t stop me making lots of plans for where to visit. We fly in and out of Tokyo – literally my favourite place on earth – which gives us amazing opportunities to plan day-trips out of the city on the most fantastic form of public transport in the world: the Shinkansen bullet train.

Right now, I’d love to spend a couple of days back in Kyoto, but also visit Kanazawa. We dropped it from last year’s itinerary, as it was turning into a bit of a mission. Less holiday, more gruelling tour. So maybe we’ll get over there this time round.

The other key activities will obviously include:

  • Geeking out: on Shinkansen trains and Akihabara in Tokyo
  • Chilling out: in various onsen hot springs
  • Filling out: by eating far too much, but enjoying every mouthful

I’m determined to make 2017 another epic year of travel. So far, we have two trips to Spain booked (April and June), which will include Barcelona, Sitges, Mallorca and Alicante and now Japan in September.

That leaves plenty of space across the summer for some time in the sun. And plenty of time to pull together an exciting itinerary for Japan.

Remembering our last trip to Tokyo this morning…

…such great memories of a fun week in our favourite city. This was located just down the street from our hotel in Shinjuku and we walked past it at least twice a day on our way to and from Shinjuku station.

It’s time to plan a return visit, I think! Something amazing to look forward to towards the end of the year. Tokyo will definitely be on the list, but I’d love to go back to Kyoto this year – it’s always a nice contrast to Tokyo’s madness.

A healthy salad

I travel for work. A lot.

And one of the hardest parts of business travel (believe me) is eating healthily. I’m constantly presented with deeply delicious and dangerously unhealthy food on room service menus.

And my will-power is virtually non-existent.

Continue reading “A healthy salad”

Seoul in 8 minutes…

I opened iMovie on my MacBook for the first time this morning. I was determined to get to grips with an app that is praised for being easy to use, especially as I’ve collected lots of video from my various travels.

Why not edit them, tidy them up and share them online?

Some minor frustrations aside, it was pretty easy to just drop in some photos and video clips and make a single video out of it all. It’s not going to win any oscars, but as a way of sharing images and sounds with friends and family, it’s great.

Here’s my first ‘production’, an eight-minute summary of our couple of days in Seoul last month. I feel like YouTube offers more in the way of sound and on-screen edits, so I might produce the next one there. I feel like I’m wasting all this video I took in Japan if I don’t do anything with it. And I like to learn new skills, so maybe YouTube is my future.

Anyway, here’s Seoul – complete with stock music soundtrack: