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To a first-time bather, theonsen – the Japanese hot springs that are a cherished tradition on the southern island of Kyushu – present an intimidating prospect. For starters, there are the myriad prohibitions. Hair in the pool is a no-no. Tattoos, due to their historical association with the Yakuza, organised crime and annoying gap-year hippies, are a big no-no. Washing yourself in the onsen is frowned upon. Towels are frowned upon. And most importantly of all, wearing a bathing suit or swimming trunks will cause your hosts grave, possibly irredeemable, offence. In the onsen, you go naked, or you go home.
Understandably, Western visitors often find this the most intractable regulation of all, being largely unaccustomed to groups of Japanese people with their genitalia on full display. And so ultimately, there are two ways of approaching the experience. You can – like your correspondent on his first onsen visit on Thursday – negotiate it with a pathetic, tentative squeamishness: uncertain half-steps, murmured apologies, a hyper-awareness of one’s tiny infelicities. Or you can simply march out of the changing rooms, whip off your towel and slide impeccably into the steaming pool, a spring in your step and the wind – so to speak – in your hair.
All of which makes Oita, in the heart of Kyushu’s onsen territory, the ideal place for England and Australia to strip down and square up on Saturday. A fusty, humid afternoon is expected at the Oita Stadium, and with the roof closed in expectation of rain, it will be one of those days where the noise is amplified, where the senses are heightened, where the sweat soaks you early and refuses to evaporate. With a place in the World Cup semi-finals at stake, it is a day to be seized, an experience to be embraced, and the early skirmishes this week suggest neither side is oblivious to the 80-minute mêlée that awaits them.
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Expect a deep down and dirty sort of game. Eddie Jones doesn’t choose his words by accident, and when the England coach spoke of the “brutality” he wanted to see from his side, he was envisioning a sort of total warfare: one in which the gain-line may as well be t
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