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.

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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.

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.

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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.

A Seoul Sauna Surprise…

I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy some significant sauna time during my stay in Korea and Japan. Our hotel in Seoul had a super sauna and hot baths, where I soaked and poached myself quite a bit. I find the process incredibly relaxing and, when done in the evening, it guarantees me a good night’s sleep. 

Just like in the onsen setting in Japan, the Korean set-up was gender-segregated and prohibited any form of clothing. Rather than stress me out, I was comforted by the overlap in rules, minimising the opportunity for me to commit a massive cultural faux pas. In other words, naked spa-time without any worries. 

The first step was to strip out of my clothes and then clean myself thoroughly. These spas have a special area for this, where you sit (or squat) in front of a waist-height mirror and hand-held shower. You’re basically required to lather up and rinse off before you go anywhere near the shared spa areas. The saunas and hot spring baths aren’t about washing yourself and it’s viewed as very bad form to try and get yourself cleaner in either. 

Scrubbing my little form didn’t take too long, but as I was in the company of some Korean gentlemen, I made sure I scrubbed for all I was worth. 

Next, I eyed up the baths… There were three, each labelled in Korean but helpfully also with the temperature clearly marked in numerals. There was a 20C pool, which appeared to be for cooling off. There was a 40C pool which sounded very appealing. And a final 43C pool, which looked like I could poach eggs in it. 

As I obviously don’t have any photos of the set-up – mobile phone use is strictly forbidden, for a whole host of reasons – let me describe the baths. If you can picture water that’s deep enough to sit in and have come up to your neck, while also being big enough to fit about ten men in at a time, you won’t go far wrong. Sometimes they have clearly defined sitting areas, so know exactly where to sit. Sometimes not and, if it gets busy, you’re expected to budge up and make room for someone else. 

As the 40C bath was pretty busy, I opted to turn to the right and gingerly ease myself into the 43C one. I wondered how much of a difference there could be between them. Surprise #1. Oh was I glad I eased in! It was, without doubt, the hottest bath I’ve ever experienced. There was also a ‘shelf’ all the way around the bath, where you could sit and keep your chest and above out of the water. I sat there for some considerable time, slowly adjusting to the heat. 

I could tell from the looks on the guys one bath over that they were enjoying my discomfort. Obviously, I should have started with a lower temperature and worked my way up…

Yet, after just a few minutes, I was comfortable. I slowly slid the rest of my now-pink body into the water and closed my eyes. There’s an interesting effect this kind of heat can have on you. Once you get past the feeling of ‘oh my god, my heart!’ And ‘I can feel my blood pressure in my head!’, it’s possible to move to a more relaxed state where all of this fades into the background and all you have to deal with is not falling asleep. Seriously. I saw this happen in an onsen here in Tokyo, but that’s a story for another time…

After ten minutes in that bath, I eased myself out again, marvelling at the red colour of my feet and ankles and stepped under a freezing cold shower. This was bliss, but just for a moment. Then it was time to take a step back away from the water, which was beginning to feel like needles. I thought it best to move onto a sauna next. 

Again, there were three rooms to choose from, all facing out onto a ‘relaxation area’ which had cool water and some easy chairs. The first room had a steam room, the second a sauna set at a very high temperature, the third resembling something closer to hell itself. 

I opted for the middle sauna and experienced surprise #2. 

I walked in on a naked Korean guy doing energetic push-ups in the middle of the floor. Fast, pumping push-ups where you keep your feet on a bench and clap in-between. The kind I see demonstrated on Men’s Health videos on Facebook but have no intention of trying to replicate. 

I’m not sure who got the bigger fright. No, I am. It was me. Having said that, he quickly jumped into a standing position and walked out of the sauna, leaving me to wonder what it was all about and if I’d inadvertently broken a rule by walking in like that. But there was no ‘do not disturb sign’ that I could see and the sauna itself was big enough for about 12 men, so I didn’t believe it was possible to keep it just for one person. 

Still wondering what I’d just witnessed, I experienced surprise #3: I sat down without using a towel. 😬

Now. Here’s a basic rule of most spa facilities where no clothes are allowed: you need to use a towel before you sit on anything. In many places, this is about hygiene. In a Korean sauna, it’s about protecting your body from third degree burns. 

Thankfully, I leapt up before I could do any serious damage and memorised a new golden rule for onsen use: never sit on anything when naked unless you’ve checked its temperature first. 

Despite all of the above, my first experience of a Korean spa/onsen was incredibly relaxing. I slept so well that evening and was keen to sample more on the trip. I’ve since experienced two more, very different, spas on this holiday so far, with a third scheduled before we fly home. But I’ll cover those in other posts – this one is getting long and I’m keen to go and have some breakfast 😀

Memories of Japan: Dotonbori, Osaka

We last visited Osaka in the Autumn of 2014 and one of my standout memories of the trip is the nightlife around Dotonbori. This compact neighbourhood is just buzzing and characterised by its brightly lit and fairly eccentric restaurant frontages. Many indicate was the restaurant is famous for, but some are harder to decipher if you’re not local!

Many of them move, albeit slowly, and some even make noises. Walking down the street is an assault on the senses when you add in the aroma of food coming at your from all directions. It’s a little overpowering at first, but we soon got used to it.

We spent time there in the evenings, after long days exploring the city and its region, so we possibly didn’t take advantage of all it had to offer. If memory serves, we had a few early nights while there. Especially after my afternoon at SpaWorld, where I was soaked and boiled into a state of pure relaxation. Onsen heaven.

But it left me in a state of consciousness that wasn’t great for wandering brightly lit and busy streets. It was all I could do to stay awake and pop conveyor-belt sushi in my mouth.

I’d definitely go back to Osaka some day, even though it’s not on the agenda for our next trip to Japan in October. There are too many other places to see! I’ll just have to get my fix for neon and nightlife while we’re in Tokyo.

That “Japan” feeling

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We watched the first episode of Joanna Lumley’s new series on Japan last night and really enjoyed it. She’s touring all the way from its very northernmost tip near Russia to its southernmost islands over three episodes. @FrankDJS and I both had several “remember that?” moments as we watched, thinking back to our visits to Japan over recent years.

I think I enjoyed it most because it wasn’t particularly touristy and definitely wasn’t ‘dumbed down’. Yes, she goes to a snow festival to see incredible snow sculptures and yes, she travels on a Shinkansen from Nagano to Tokyo. But she also visits a ‘dead’ town, abandoned since the Fukushima nuclear disaster and meets its lone resident, who stayed behind to look after all the animals. She goes bird-watching for rare cranes and hikes into the snow-covered mountains to visit an ancient pagoda. It was overwhelmingly a human-centred show and didn’t seem exploitative at all.

Not a Mario, karaoke bar or Cat Cafe in sight (yet!). 😀

I was particularly excited to see her visit the snow monkeys outside Nagano, as I’m heading out there myself (with @FrankDJS, of course – my own little monkey) at the end of October. Counter-intuitively, we’re hoping for cold weather, to increase our chances of seeing some of the cute Japanese Macaques who come out from the trees and stay warm by getting into the natural hot springs.

Ah… memories of my last meeting with Japanese monkeys. I’m obsessed, it’s fair to say.

The first episode ends with Joanna (we’re on first-name terms, it’s okay) arriving into Tokyo and disappearing into the crowds at Shibuya crossing. Can’t wait for next week’s episode, which promises more Tokyo and Kyoto.

(Though Joanna and I will have to agree to disagree over the quality of ‘Boss’ coffee from the drinks machines that litter Japan. Warm sludge, if memory serves. And heavily promoted by Tommy-Lee Jones, bizarrely).

I’d no idea the programme had eve been made, much less was going to be on TV last night. I’m not an big ITV viewer and most of our TV is consumed via Netflix or Amazon Prime these days.

A happy coincidence, then. Any other Japan-related TV shows I should be watching here in the UK? (Given several hours each week are already given over the NHK TV!)

Better than any medication

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I got to work from Sitges, Spain for a couple of days this week and my overall conclusion from the whole experience is that giving me access to unlimited sunshine is better for me than any meds I’ve been prescribed by a doctor!

Despite it being a work trip, I managed to get some time on the beach next to the hotel – Platja dels Balmins – and the combination of sunshine on my skin and time spent jumping through waves in the sea was like flicking a switch in the brain. All thoughts about my epilepsy disappeared, along with the residual self-pity. It was like a positive jolt of energy and enthusiasm.

Fantastic.

The beach, while small, is just lovely. Sheltered from the wind and prying eyes, it’s ‘clothing optional’. And as we all know, I got over my self-consciousness about getting ‘desnudo‘ in public in Japan a couple of years ago when I visited the onsen. Nudity is the great social leveller. It leaves you with no idea as to what someone does for a living, where they’re from or any other social cues our clothing sends out. And, let’s be honest, it is also from time to time absolutely hilarious.

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No thumping music and nobody smoking. A couple of cafes within steps of my lounger. Nobody trying to sell cheap tourist tat. My kind of beach.

Total relaxation. I didn’t put earphones in my ears once, and left my phone in my beach bag. It was just me with my thoughts and the sounds all around me.

I’m convinced that putting me out in the sunshine for a few hours at a time has done more for my mental health and attitude than any other intervention I’ve tried this year.

Bring on the various neurology tests – I’m just looking forward to another trip to Sitges and time spent lying naked on the beach and floating in the sea. Maybe I’ll reward myself with a weekend there in August once all the tests are over.

Making bucket list progress

Several moths ago, I made a list of things I’d like to do before I’m 40. My very own ‘bucket list’.

Purely arbitrary, nothing to do with impending death. I need to emphasise that – every time I mention a bucket list, people think I’m about to share some very sad news about my health.

Not so.

I just find that I get more done when I have some targets, and this applies in my personal life just as much as it does at work. In hindsight, calling it a bucket list may have been misleading…

Anyway.

I’ve made some progress and am about to make some more. Let’s recap on what I was aiming for:

  • Take the sleeper train to Scotland
  • Go camping (anywhere!)
  • Write a book (fiction or otherwise)
  • Start my own business
  • Visit Iceland
  • Work Naked Bike Ride in London
  • Record a podcast
  • Go hiking somewhere in the UK
  • Spend a long weekend in Paris
  • Visit the Finnish Sauna in London
  • A weekend spa visit to Bath
  • Visit Venice

A lot of travel, right? I love it.

Well, in addition to getting my own business up and running last September, I co-founded another. But just one tick. I’m not changing the rules now.

I also had an excellent weekend in Bath in January which included a superb visit to the Thermae Spa. I’m a sucker for a hot spring, whether in Japan or not. We also managed a long weekend in Paris – my first non-business trip to Paris for about a decade. In February, we went to Iceland, which was truly gorgeous. Definitely somewhere I’ll visit again. Aside from the stunning scenery, the people were a delight.

I sadly missed the World Naked Bike Ride in London. And quite frankly, it’s now far too cold to do anything outdoors naked. I’m obviously a fair-weather naturist.  Maybe next year….

Another tick is on the way! I’ve booked myself a one-way ticket on the Caledonian Sleeper to Edinburgh. So I’ll be taking a sleeper train to Scotland. It doesn’t leave London until after 11pm, so frankly my main goal will be staying awake for a while.

I got a First Class private sleeper – the thought of sharing with a stranger was just too weird, even for me. I just imagined a James Bond-style battle to the death, just like in ‘From Russia with Love’. So I get a private space, as well as dinner in the lounge.

Really, really looking forward to the experience.

Given the fact it’s virtually December, and I turn 40 in February, I need to look for some quick wins to move this list along. I reckon I can get to the Finnish Sauna just across the Thames no problem.

As for the rest… well, I have recorded a podcast. Of sorts. It was a live webinar for work that we recorded and shared for offline listening. No, I won’t be making it public here as hearing it still makes my skin crawl. But I have added a podcasting kit to my Xmas wishlist and I think I might record a few words and a jingle to cross ‘podcast’ off the list.

Less than three months to go.

Let’s see what I can manage.

Japan: the return

So. After this year’s trip to Japan was only slightly ruined by my chicken pox, I’m feeling a lot better now that a return visit has been booked. Yes.

Flights to and from Tokyo have been booked for next October and I am going to do everything in my power to remain healthy and avoid picking up any other random (supposedly) minor childhood illnesses.

No idea on a plan just yet, aside from enjoying the hell out of Tokyo through the medium of food. And exploring other parts of the country on the magnificent shinkansen trains.

And a definite onsen visit or two, seeing as this year my ‘pox’ prevented me from bathing with others. One look at my naked form would’ve sent even the hardiest onsen users running. I don’t have any photos (obviously), but imagine a medieval plague victim staring forlornly into an iPad screen.

Anyway, enough about my blisters. They’re long gone, thankfully.

Let the planning for “Japan 2016” begin!