The Naked Truth About Japan

I have seen enough naked Japanese women to last me a lifetime.

Japan is full of onsen–a public baths that are fed by the thousands of hot springs caused by the country’s volcanic activity. Onsen range from elegant outdoors affairs tucked into mountain resorts to scruffier city versions.

Husband promoted the idea of visiting an onsen on our recent trip to Japan. I assumed it involved putting on your bathing suit and getting in a hot tub–albeit a very large hot tub–with other women.

We found our onsen on a side road in Gero. Between us and the proprietress , we spoke about six words of each other’s language, but we managed to convey our desire for a bath. We also had to pay for soap and a towel. And when I say towel, I mean a piece of cheese cloth the size of a handi-wipe.

Husband went in one direction and I went in the other .

Now I’m in the steamy locker room and, while trying not to look at anything around me, start to undress. You see, my initial impression of a bathing suit and hot tub were pretty far from the truth. Onsen bathing is done in the nude, and only after you have throughly and ritualistically cleansed.

In the room with the actual baths…two round ones… there are tiny stools placed along two walls in front of a trough. Above the trough are hot and cold water taps close to the floor and a shower head that’s slightly higher. Before you get into the bath, you must sit on the tiny stool and throughly clean yourself. I squat on my tiny stool, dip my cheesecloth into the water and start to soap up. After a while, I am as clean as I can get squatting on stool. It’s time to get in.

I walk to the nearest tub and get in. Two Japanese women immediately get out.

Hmmmmm.

I look around again and see that the cleansing involved the buddy system. Women are in pairs, cleaning each other like those nit-picking monkeys I used to see on National Geographic specials. They’re scrubbing each other’s backs with stiff brushes, rinsing each other off and chattering away–no doubt about the blond buddy-less woman who doesn’t get the procedure.

So I get out and decide I should clean some more. I go back to my little stool and wash my hair, regardless of the fact that I don’t even have so much as a comb with me, not to mention the tools and products I used on a daily basis.

Scrub scrub scrub. Rinse rinse rinse.

Surely I’m clean now. It’s nice and chilly outside, so I try the outside tub. In I go. Out go the Japanese women.

Ok…I’m trying not to get a complex here.

“I’m clean,” I want to tell them. “Truly I am. I just don’t have black hair.”

But I just decide to enjoy having the tub to myself. There is another woman dozing in a plastic lawn chair by the tub. She is hefty and is wearing nothing but her cheesecloth over her nether regions. For the life of me, I could never, ever just doze off while sitting outside on a plastic chair. Naked.

After a while, I make the long naked walk back to the locker room and dry off the best I could using only my wet handi-wipe. Finally I had my clothes back on.

It was an interesting experience and I’m glad I did it.

At least I gave those women something interesting to talk about after I was gone.

Oh…and before you ask…I do not have pictures.

14 Comments

Filed under Travel

14 responses to “The Naked Truth About Japan

  1. lovebug35

    haha.. that’s interesting.

  2. fascinating! heard of the onsen baths, but never from a woman’s point of view. at least you didn’t enter with a ‘cannonball’ maneuver!

  3. Karen A

    That is hilarious. I was waiting for the reports from Japan!

  4. That’s a good story. Better you and me! The Japanese have a strange and mysterious culture. The have weird porn. I hear.

  5. Daisy’s comment cracks me up … I can just imagine the stir a cannonball would create!

    A former colleague flew over her bicycle handlebars whilst out on a spin in Japan. She made it home where she got a bag of frozen peas and carrots to put on her clavicle (in lieu of a ice pack) before heading to the hospital, where unbeknownst to her she left a trail of peas and carrots coming out of her shirt.

    She only noticed when she realised she was getting lots of stares – more than she would get for merely being a white she-devil. 🙂

    I love those types of stories. Give us more!

    Oh – and I love your new masthead. Did you take that photo?

  6. Lovebug–thanks for visiting…please come back often.
    DF–fortunately I already knew that the proper way to enter the tub was to “slip in.” No cannonballs.
    KA–lots more to tell. We need to reschedule dinner.
    UB–I’ll take your word for it regarding the porn. 🙂
    Ellie–there were a couple of times I did feel like a white she devil. The photo is one I took at Nikko–a World Heritage site of several shrines. It’s spectacular. Supposedly, this is the original of the “See no evil…” monkeys.

  7. Um, HIF, I don’t wish to rain on your parade, but that wasn’t an onsen. That was a sento, or public bath.

    In the days before houses had indoor plumbing, people would toddle down to the local bath house every evening to get cleaned up and have a good soak.

    It became a social ritual, in which people laughed, chatted, or had a beer. And yes, to ensure that you’re clean, people wash together to make sure they haven’t missed anything. In teh days before chlorinated water, that was important. And like so many such things, it hardened into custom.

    Japanese simply do not trust that we westerners wash properly. That we sometimes use a bath to wash ourselves…well that’s just beyond the pale.

    Sit in dirty bathwater, even for a second? Unthinkable.

    I am married to a Japanese, and even after ten years of showering the Japanese way for his sake, he still doesn’t trust me to do it right.

    An onsen is usually not a walk-in-walk-out kind of place. It’s often a resort hotel where each room has its separate thermal bath.

  8. Headbang–Perhaps you should contact the Japanese tourism officials…onsen is the word they use in all their promotional materials…at least the ones that are in English.

  9. Kimmer

    Onsen or sento….doesn’t really matter. You still bathed (nek-ked!) in a public place. Good for you Cindy T! First public bathing, next … nude beaches! Can’t wait for THAT report.

    I love it… your story certainly did not disappoint. 🙂

  10. Julie Fisher

    Come on, Cindy, this is the makings of a great book! “Lost in Translation” has nothing on you. And you having nothing on you (I couldn’t resist) is just brave and gutsy and nervy and so very beyond tourist. GOOD FOR YOU!!

  11. You are a brave, brave woman. I’m shy about gettin’ nekkid in my own apartment, in my own country. Gettin’ nekkid in public with a bunch of strangers so far from home? It’s very much like a bad dream I have when life gets super stressful. Eek.

  12. ‘When in Rome…’ I’m not much for public nudity either but I would try this…going to Japan is on my bucket list and I would try everything…..

  13. I can not think of a way to comment without sounding like a perv, so I think I’ll keep quiet. 😉

  14. WHIT

    WHY DIDNT I HEAR THIS STORY AT THANKSGIVING? LMAO!

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