Across the great divide

In the world's most politely xenophobic culture, Victoria James has a blissful moment of belonging

Japanese society is like being back in the playground: there's an in-crowd, and there's everybody else. But unlike at school, it doesn't matter how many Rolos you share or marbles you trade; if you're not Japanese, you won't ever get "in".

That does not stop us trying, we foreigners who, for varying periods of time (five years, in my case) choose to make our home in this most politely xenophobic of cultures. And I guarantee that any account you've ever read by a non-Japanese of their time in Japan will contain at least one such moment when, miraculously, they stepped over the invisible line from outsiderhood into acceptance.

For men, it generally comes in a small drinking den where they've become a regular with a group of boozing buddies who carry butch names such as Tetsu and Hide. Sometimes it happens in the white-clad brotherhood of the martial arts dojo. Women often find their way in through marriage to a Japanese man, and settlement in some senselessly picturesque mountain village. (They are kidding themselves, though, as they will discover the first day their child comes home from school in tears, having been taunted for not being a "proper" Japanese.)

Yet this line between uchi ("inside") and soto ("outside") by and large isn't drawn with mal-ice. It is simply that foreigners are, by their very definition, soto. The word meaning "foreigner", gaijin, is composed of the characters for soto and for "person". Perhaps that is the reason so many of us, stubbornly optimistic, never stop trying to cross that line.

Small epiphanies happen along the way. My first came one morning on the jam-packed Yamanote Line - because, yes, everything you have heard about the men in white gloves who push people on to trains is true. On those days when bad weather forced me to use public transport, I would remain absolutely rigid, fighting a loser's battle to minimise bodily contact, scuffling my feet in an effort to retain my balance.

One day the effort was too much. I nestled my cheek against the shoulder of the salaryman in front of me when we accelerated. When we braked, I swayed dangerously into the tiny OL (office lady) behind. My body was pulled at angles so extreme, I could never have righted myself, but I trusted in the inertia of the mass around. For the three stops I was on the train I closed my eyes and experienced the comfort of the plankton in its cloud. A Zen master might have called it satori. I stumbled off the train, my body drunk on its temporary loss of control.

As an uchi-soto epiphany, that train journey probably didn't count. None of the sweating Japanese commuters around me was aware of the blissed-out gaijin in the crowded train. When my moment came, it was far more public and in the most unlikely place, at the very heart of Japan's traditional culture.

Memoirs of a Geisha readers, take note: I am not talking about Kyoto. For millennia before their beauties first painted their faces white, their teeth black, and their mouths into a tiny red rosebud, the Japanese have been immersing themselves in onsen, or hot springs. One resort in particular, Dogo Onsen, on the sleepy island of Shikoku, where modernity has largely passed by, is older than Buddhism itself.

A couple of days before arriving at Dogo, I had experienced my most soto moment yet: spat at in the street for being, so the spitter thought, an American, a few days after a US military submarine had accidentally sunk a local fishing trawler full of schoolchildren. Dogo Onsen I had put down as a historical curiosity - it has a starring role in the country's best-loved book, Botchan, a novel set in the Meiji era, about a callow young Tokyoite sent to teach in the sticks. I'd make an overnight stop, nothing more.

The Japanese bath is set about with ritual. You must be spotlessly clean before venturing near the pool. To achieve this, you need a cypress bucket and stool: the former is for sluicing, even though you first wash under a power shower, the latter, impossibly small (gaijin often fall off), is to squat on while you scrub and scour. Though onsen remain popular leisure venues, the westernisation of the Japanese home has left only the elderly with the habit of still making onsen trips for everyday cleanliness.

Stark naked, I slid back the wooden doorway and stepped in a cloud of steam into Dogo's Kami-no-yu ("bath of the gods"). When the mist parted, I realised that not only was I the only foreigner in the bath, I was the only woman under the age of 70. The muttered hubbub died away to silence. From all corners, the obaasan (grandmothers) stopped what they were doing - chatting, thwacking their joints with sturdy poles, simply steaming under the pool spout - and watched me. As much out of place as a Muggle in Hogwarts, I plonked down my stool and set to. Ten minutes later, scrubbed till it hurt and sluiced like a fishmonger's stall at Tsukiji Market, I looked around anxiously. I had performed correctly; not a single wizened head was turned in my direction. Taking no chances, I repeated my wash before slipping into the scalding pool.

I stayed several more days, hypnotised by the collective mentality of the bath - a vanishing world of women that, in Britain, only the Romans ever knew. On my last night, our peaceful ablutions were disturbed when the door banged back violently, accompanied by a gale of raucous giggling. The noise was followed shortly by two young beauties with the rough accents of Osaka. Their hair was bleached blonde; their skin was fake-tanned orange; they had panda eyes and (this is the crucial part) not the slightest idea what they were doing.

As one, our heads swivelled. Silence. The girls splashed and shrieked under the shower. One fell off her stool and shrieked some more. Then the hissing began, not as one would at a pantomime villain, but a slow, sucking intake of breath between clenched teeth that is the ultimate Japanese expression of disapproval.

The old ladies looked at each other in indignant consensus. No bigger than a child, the wizened dame soaking beside me turned to me and hissed. I sucked my teeth and nodded repressively. Satisfied, she turned to hiss at the companion on her other side. I did likewise.

I'd crossed over. I was utterly uchi.

Victoria James is a television producer

This article first appeared in the 07 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Blood on his hands