Getting Naked in Japan! Or The Time I Went to an Onsen

Doing something accidentally offensive while naked seems much scarier than doing something accidentally offensive while clothed.
Publish date:
January 5, 2015

"Do you want to go to an onsen with us? It's supposed to be a really nice one, and it's candlelit in the evenings; it should be fun!"

When my friend asked me this last week, I didn't quit know what she was talking about, but not wanting to sound too much like the Ignorant Expat I often feel like, I said, "Yes! That sounds great!"

Also, say the word, "candlelit" and I'm usually game for anything.

I went home that night, and promptly told my husband that my pal Vickie had invited me to an onsen, and should I go?

Glancing up from the book he was frowning at, he said, "I think you'll like that, you should go. Just make sure they are cool with tattoos."

Oh wait...huh? I blathered something about just covering my tattoo up, it was cold out anyway.

"Louise," my husband said, "an onsen is a hot spring, or bath house. You have to bathe completely naked, some places will ask you to leave if you have tattoos."

Oooooh, a bath house. I simultaneously got excited and nervous.

Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with naked. I've been to a Korean bath house in LA where a woman with a hose scrubbed my hide with salt within an inch of my life, and most of my closest friends have seen me naked at one time or another. I've done plays where I've gotten practically naked in front of an audience. Naked doesn't bother me.

What made me nervous was venturing out to a rather traditional part of Japanese life without the safety net of experience or even my husband's Japanese skills to back me up. All while being naked. Maybe it's psychological, but doing something accidentally offensive while naked seems much scarier than doing something accidentally offensive while clothed. Where am I supposed to stash my phrase book?

But recognizing this as something that was both frightening and an "experience," I decided that if I didn't go I'd regret it, the regret would calcify into "a thing," and I'd never get my (bare) ass into an onsen at all.

Plus, a hot bath in natural spring water with "purifying" and "silkening" properties sounded lovely. I've been fighting off a cold for a while, and my skin has been feeling like burlap since being in temperatures below 65 degrees for the first time in a decade.

Onsen take me away.

On Sunday night, after checking with my friend to make sure tattoos wouldn't be a problem (they weren't at this particular onsen), I walked with Vickie to the bus stop and boarded the express to Japan-style rejuvenation.

From what I understand, onsen and bath houses are a major part of Japanese life. Men, women, children all visit onsen fairly regularly to benefit from the water's "healing powers" and maintain vitality. Apparently this is especially true in the winter, where the chilly temperatures make for invigorating soaking in the bubbling water. Plus, many facilities offer various spa options like scrubs, facials, and massages.

What I find interesting is that in a culture where covering up one's shoulders and limbs are so important in daily life, the nakedness required at an onsen is no big thing. Whereas I'd wager that many Americans, with their exposed shoulders and spaghetti straps, would balk at the idea of bathing nude with a few dozen strangers.

So Vickie and I got to the onsen, a huge red and tan building in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood, met up with her friend Karrie, and headed inside.

As inelegant as it sounds, my first thought of the onsen lobby was of a really nice, REALLY clean, airport terminal. To the right of the main entrance was a bank of big, blue, metal lockers to store your shoes. Barefoot or sock feet are the norm at pretty much any more traditional establishment in Japan.

Basically a large, square room decorated in faux wooden beams -- a take on "traditional" Japanese decor -- there was a restaurant with sitting area tucked into the far corner, a little children's TV-watching area immediately to my left, and just beyond the lockers on the right, were two large panels with buttons, a money-taking machine, and menu options for the onsen. That's another thing about Japan, if they can take human interaction out of the equation to make something more efficient, they do.

So we made our selections at the menu-machine, all of us opting for the basic package of just access to the main bathing areas, and headed to the check-in counter at the bottom of a long staircase. I should note that while the spa options -- massages, facials, etc. -- were a little on the pricey side, the bathing itself was just under 10 USD.

We checked in, Vickie and Karrie opting to buy memberships to the onsen, and headed up the stairs to the women's locker room and baths. As we ascended the stairs I felt like I was leaving the nicest airport terminal ever, and entering a fancy 80s hotel. Everything took on a yellowy glow, the decor was all warm, muted oranges and browns, and the smell of steamy water (that's a smell right?) filled my nose. I think there were smooth tunes playing.

Entering the locker room, we chose three lockers next to each other, and promptly disrobed. Despite being comfortable with nakedness, there is an adjustment period to hanging out in the nude with two people you really just met.

Not to mention, the locker room was FULL of naked Japanese women of all ages. Little girls being chased by their mothers. Groups of openly laughing girlfriends like us. Even small, bent-over "grandmas." One gray and shaky older lady, all of five feet tall, dropped her bra as she was removing it, and sweetly thanked me when I retrieved it for her.

I have to say this was a side of Japan I had never seen. Women were relaxed, chatty, even silly. While never loud, I loved hearing the hum of laughter and conversation.

We grabbed the washcloths required to be kept with us at all times (for drying and sitting on surfaces) and headed to the communal showers. Thoroughly washing ourselves from head to toe, we tied our washcloths around our heads to keep them out of the way but handy, and headed into the baths.

Sweet criminy the baths!

First we stopped at the indoor baths. Just past the showers were three rectangular pools of bubbling, "milky" looking water, all with the varying temperatures posted. There was nothing at all fancy about the pools. They were shallow, about four feet deep, very clean, and tiled in a standard "swimming pool" blue.

But the water that bubbled up through grates in the floor felt truly luxurious. I didn't know water could feel soft. It didn't feel like I was just stepping into a bath, I was sinking in. It was silky.

After simmering in the indoor pools for a bit, we headed outside to the main attraction. The candlelit baths.

I don't know if it was the sweat talking, but stepping out into the chilly night air, the big, black night sky over my head, and the steaming pools lit by candles all around me, I couldn't stop myself from laughing. "OH MY GOD! THIS IS AMAZING!" I blurted out.

Surrounded by overhanging trees, there were three sets of bubbling, white baths, and a row of what looked like enormous cooking pots where one or two women "boiled" in each. Off in a corner was a steamy "salt room" where one could go and scrub one's skin smooth with mineral salts.

We chose to go into a pool that was labeled as a "silk bath." I admit I was skeptical. I mean it was glorious soaking in there -- lights bobbing in the water, candles held in bamboo illuminating the night. But really? Silkening water?

Maybe I was "onsen drunk" but after about 20 minutes of soaking and splashing the water on my face, my skin DID feel smoother and softer. I asked Karrie, the more experienced onsen-er, what they did to the water, and she said that the water was from a natural spring so it was just full of minerals. Huh.

After about two hours of soaking, in the various pools -- the reclining pool with the little wooden bed in it, the extra hot pool with the "electrical therapy" seat that makes your toes tingle (oK, I couldn't do that, but Karrie did) -- we toweled ourselves off, sauntered back to the locker room, and dressed for the train ride home.

Upon getting home I examined my face in the mirror. While my skin felt way smoother, I didn't expect to see any visual changes. Again, maybe I was "onsen hungover," but my skin actually did seem a bit brighter, my pores a bit smaller. Nothing dramatic, but my sniffly, runny mug looked like it had had a light, exfoliating scrub. And the effects lasted for two or three days. I'll take it.

So I did it. Onsen -- check. Experience points gained.

Going to the onsen, in a hindsight a relatively easy and simple thing, was a big step forward for me. I felt like a version of the "old Louise" -- confident and social. "Silk water" aside, it felt really good.

This is one of those occasions that I'm SO glad I got over myself. While this is far from the last time I'll be nervous or scared, it's finally sinking in that a big part of life here is being afraid of something then doing it anyway.