Getting naked in public is not something I typically indulge in, but in the right situation (i.e. everyone else is nude) I ultimately have no issue with it and I’ve been known to ‘drop the towel’ at barefoot beaches. But typically the thought of walking around naked in front of strangers doesn’t feature highly on my list of ‘things to do’.
When we travel in foreign countries, we can find ourselves in situations which test our comfort zones and its better just to get on with it, and get over it. I mean, we travel to experience something different and challenge our idea of how the world works right so why fight it? This was especially obvious when I was leading tours in Japan and stayed at traditional Japanese Inns called Ryokans, where the communal bathing pool was called an Onsen.
So what is an Onsen?
Well it’s an inside or outside bath where people go to get clean, relax and chat in a social…and naked environment. Traditionally Onsen’s were mixed sex but these days it is more common to be split by male and female. The first step off the bathing experience in Japan is to get clean in a wet room – so far so good. Around the wet room are a series of hot and cold taps at waist height, tiny chairs underneath the tap so short even a dwarf would laugh at, and a bucket to wash off the soapy water. The idea is to scrub thoroughly and remove every morsel of dirt off before entering the communal pool.
As I travelled around Japan I ended up at a fair amount of male only Onsen’s which personally I don’t have an issue with, but I’ve also been to some mixed Onsen’s where males and females swim and walk around naked, chat and relax. For the Japanese, communal bathing is so entrenched in their way of life, it doesn’t appear to faze them at all. It only appears to be westerners unused to nudity, and faced with the prospect of dropping the towel who are breaking a sweat.
Letting go of it all
My first mixed-sex Onsen was when I was training as a tour leader in Japan and the ryokan we stayed at had an outdoor pool. The setting was beautiful with obscure rock formations, plants, ferns and soft lighting; it truly it was a little slice of paradise. Most of the group opted to hide in their room, repulsed by the idea of seeing new found friends naked and facing them again over breakfast the following morning.
With Dutch courage in the form of Shochu (strong distilled alcoholic drink made from a number of different ingredients such as rice, sweet potato or barley) paving the way, we slipped off our robes and entered the water quickly. The funny thing is once I was naked and that initial awkwardness was out of the way, it stops being such a big deal. For one, Onsens are typically really quite hot and it simply isn’t possible to stay submerged without taking a cold shower every once and a while to cool down. Also it’s a lovely and relaxing experience so why waste the opportunity being worried about something which no one else seems bothered about!
Naturally for some people this is the idea from hell, including a few people on my trips. I remember one guy opted instead to use wet-wipes for two weeks instead of taking a shower and going nude, another lady was so distressed that she left a 14 day tour (which she paid in full for) after 4 days so it’s not for everyone.
The Japanese bathing ritual
The most important part is to wash properly before you enter the water. You should be clean before you get in the water, this is really important if you want to avoid angry stares from other bathers.
• Make sure you check if it is male or female bath day as some Onsens alternate. Obviously if there is both male and female bathing but separated only by thin partition, common sense would suggest that you don’t go trying to peep over the top
• Wash rooms have a separate cleaning area with small stools to perch on and a bucket which you fill to wash off the soap. If you have bad knees you’ll need to ease yourself down as they are very low and don’t look as though they’ll hold you…they will
• You’ll want to be clean and all soap washed off before you enter the bath. If, after easing into the bath, soapy bubbles start appearing you won’t be getting picked first for any sports teams
• There may or may not be lockers for items you don’t want to lose but theft in Japan is rare. Best advice is leave it in your room or at the hotel. Photography inside Onsens isn’t the done thing (for obvious reasons) so leave the camera at home
• Be sure to bring your own soap, towel and face towel. The more upmarket places will provide these or you may be able to purchase them. Don’t rinse your towel out in the bath water after a shower – it’s pretty rude and let’s face it, you wouldn’t bathe in the dish water would you?
• Use the slippers provided – there seems to be a pair of slippers for every occasion in Japan, don’t mess with it as its very entrenched into their culture
• Tattoos can be uncommon in Japan although this is changing. If you are covered in them then you may find people are looking at you so don’t get paranoid
• The bath isn’t for backstroke, it’s a place to relax quietly after a long day or chat quietly with friends
• After leaving the bath, wipe off excess water before entering the locker room. This might sound logical but I’ve seen others worried they’ll get lost who have chosen to leave a watery trail to find their way back
• There may or may not be a relaxation area with chairs where you can chill out afterwards, some serve hot tea. Take full advantage and time to really enjoy the experience
What are my options?
If the idea of walking around nude fills you with dread, you can always stay in a hotel and rest assured you will be served up with the same boring experience you would find in any city around the world. However, if you are after an authentic experience but don’t feel the need to flash the flesh, another option is to find a Japanese Inn which has a “kashikiriburo,” or private and reservable bath. This way you can have your authentic bath experience, but also have a lock on the door to stop the people staring at your full body tattoo.
If like me and you prefer to be a Roman in Rome, you’ll find that the humble Japanese Onsen is a place where people go to forget their worries, relax and recharge. I can’t say that my experiences in Japan have transformed me into a dedicated nudist, but it did leave me more comfortable in my own skin.
Happy travelling folks!