Here in Australia, we might be a bit on the prudish side … so when I got to Japan and heard about onsens, the public baths that are a popular place to visit to relax, I got a bit nervous. Taking my clothes off in front of a bunch of other women was not something I was looking forward to.
Yes, I thought that the locals would start staring at me the way these koi fish are! When a friend invited me on a weekend trip to Tottori prefecture which would include a visit to a beautiful onsen I knew it would be impolite to refuse, but I was quite nervous to say the least. I tried to remember that I’d felt the same about karaoke before realising that I’d grown to love it rather than fear it.
I discretely asked a couple of ex-pat friends about how an onsen worked, and I even found a chapter of info about them in a cultural publication the school I worked for had handed out at our initial training course. What I learned seemed to suggest that there was going to be no alternative for me but to strip off completely! It didn’t sound like an optional extra; yet I packed my bathing suit just in case.
After doing some sightseeing around Tottori it was evening and time to try out the onsen. It was in the ground floor of the hotel we were staying in, and thanks to my friend’s generosity it was a particularly gorgeous (and old) onsen. No photos to show, of course (even without a handbook I could figure out that cameras weren’t OK in an onsen!) but believe me that it was a beautiful place with the onsen itself outside, drawing water from a thermal hot spring – amongst carefully manicured trees, walls of carved wood, and the steam rising off the water to add to the romance.
I could see all of this when we arrived, fully clothed, but I still had to negotiate the tricky part. I took careful and hopefully discrete glances at my friend to ascertain what I should do next. As with many traditions in Japan there is a proper way to do things, so I had to figure out which basket to put my clothing in, which towel I could take, and then how to use the stool, water and various soaps to wash myself before I could enter the onsen itself. I was too nervous to ask a hundred questions about it, plus everyone there seemed very quiet, and I didn’t want to make a scene!
Eventually I followed my friend to the water. She slipped into a smaller pool but told me it was extremely hot, and I might like to try the other main pool. Unwilling to be separated from the only person I knew there, I tried to get in with her but realised she was right; I felt like it would burn my skin off! The other one was more tolerable and I got in. I tried to stay submerged so that my lack of clothing wasn’t so apparent, but this water was still incredibly hot and I had to stand up regularly to get some cooler air onto my body, as I felt like I was overheating. And yes, I may have had a dramatic anxious moment when I pictured myself fainting into the onsen. Fortunately, I didn’t.
After a while, my body got used to the water temperature, I stopped keeping my head down and managed to admire the surroundings (but not the other people. I made no eye contact at all! I was so sure they would all be staring at the only foreigner!). I felt relaxed by the end of it, and I certainly slept very well that night.
I never got quite as comfortable with onsens as I did with karaoke, but I did learn to appreciate it. And it’s just another string in the bow of my admiration for the Japanese – having no qualms about nudity is surely a healthier attitude to have.