I never really thought I’d have the guts to go through with it.
And then I found myself completely naked, without a stitch of fabric covering me, on the 6th-floor balcony of a fancy hotel in Nikko last Saturday night, watching as dusk fell over the mountains and listening to the haunting melodies of a flute playing softly in the background. I was cooling off after a ten-minute soak in the 130 degree Fahrenheit outdoor bath, and I no longer felt the bashful need to cover my body. After a while, I made my way over to the steaming bath by the glow of a few flickering lanterns, joining three other equally naked Japanese women in the hot, soothing waters.
It was simultaneously one of the most awkward and one of the most relaxing experiences of my life here so far in Japan.
Point-blank, Americans are weird about nudity. Although the fashions are trending towards more revealing styles, we tend to hide our bodies in gym locker rooms and we blur out nude actors on television. To Americans, it’s a little WEIRD to be naked in front of other people.
The rest of the world doesn’t seem to share our opinion, though: nudity is everywhere.
France, for instance: while I never went to a topless beach, I remember seeing naked people on everything from museum paintings to postcards. I remember thinking that there must be some mandate in the French film industry that says SOMEONE must be naked at some point or another; even if it makes no sense to the plot, at least a few seconds of nudity will be thrown in to most French films. And from my own experience, French and German spas will sometimes have saunas into which it is considered “unsanitary” to wear bathing suits.
It’s not just Europe, actually: in Morocco, even Muslim women will bare it all in gender-segregated public baths called hammams. And in South Korea, there are huge 24-hour public bathhouses called jimjilbang that feature the typical baths, as well as ice rooms, heated salt rooms, television rooms, and snack bars… families go there for weekend retreats!
Back in Japan, despite the conservative dress code, public bathing and its consequential nudity is a cultural norm. It’s called onsen, and there are over 3,000 of them in Japan.
Stripped down, onsen refers to gender-segregated public bathing facilities (often in areas of natural hot springs) where people do exactly what you’d think they do: they strip down (completely), wash up (quite thoroughly), and then soak in one of the steaming baths…. which they happen to share with a few other equally naked strangers.
The waters are often thought to have healing properties and health benefits (to be defined as onsen, they must contain at least one of 19 designated minerals like sulfur or iron), but mostly, onsen are just a way to relax. Sulfur baths are the most common, I think… On the Sunday of Silver Week, after chasing a few waterfalls, my friends and I visited a tiny, more traditional onsen in the aptly-named town of Yumoto Onsen, and that bath did smell strongly of sulfur. It was far less fancy than our first-ever onsen, but it felt more authentic. It was also much hotter: the water was 70.3 degrees Celsius, a staggering 158.5 degrees F. (Again, thank the internet for this photo).
I’ll be honest: I was nervous about trying onsen. I think most Americans would be. The whole nudity-in-public thing, you know.
But it’s actually a great experience. The first few minutes are admittedly uncomfortable, but once you realize that 1) NO ONE is staring at you (at least, not any more than they normally do) and that 2) no one else is acting awkwardly, you start to calm down a bit. I mean, really… everyone has a body. Life is too short to be ashamed of that fact. If you are ever in Japan, I highly recommend trying an onsen, because a long soak in one of those magical baths is one of the most relaxing things I’ve ever done.