Photo/Illutration A sign calls for “mokuyoku” (silent bathing) in the communal bathroom of a hot spring inn in the Ikaho Onsen resort in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

If you were to ask people what they were obliged to give up when the novel coronavirus restrictions were in force, many would likely answer travel.

It is my answer, too. But I finally took a two-day, one-night trip to a nearby onsen hot spring the other day, believing it should be OK.

I bathed once before supper, once more before going to bed and then twice the next morning. That was certainly more than usual, probably because of a craving of sorts I must have developed during the months of self-denial.

In between the soaks, I read “Onsen Hyakuwa Higashi no Tabi,” a collection of essays and other works that portray trips to hot springs in the good old days, where everything moved at a leisurely pace.

According to author Kido Okamoto (1872-1939), onsen-goers of yore greeted fellow visitors in the guestrooms bordering their own upon arriving at the inn, usually bearing a tray of gifts such as “amanatto” (candied beans) and “konpeito” (hard confetti candy).

It was because an onsen stay back then was partly for therapeutic purposes and lasted at least a week and could exceed a month. Guests would get to know one another and exchange greetings or chat together in the hallways and bathroom.

In some cases, they remained in close touch even after returning from the trips, Okamoto wrote with fond nostalgia in the early Showa Era (1926-1989).

Such a warm outcome can hardly be expected from a stay of just a night or two, and definitely not during the COVID-19 era of public bathhouse patrons being asked to practice “mokuyoku” (silent bathing).

Still, months-long government restrictions on people’s lives, under the name of requests, are being eased.

Eating and drinking establishments are back to operating mostly during their pre-pandemic hours. I imagine that some people have stayed out with their drinking buddies until late for the first time in quite a while, following rules such as a maximum group size of four.

In the aforementioned book of onsen episodes, author Komimasa Tanaka (1925-2000) described the pleasure of trying out an unfamiliar bar while traveling.

He would feel a bit nervous and out of place at first, but when a regular chatted him up, he immediately felt “warm and fuzzy inside, like with the comforting steam of a bubbling pot of ‘oden’ stew.”

Liquor can help total strangers relax and enjoy one another’s company as a natural social lubricant. I wonder when such a scene will once again return to “normal” life.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 26

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.