Along with visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, spending time at a Japanese onsen (public bath, hot spring) was a popular recommendation when I was asking for advice on Twitter and Facebook before my trip.
I quickly discovered through this feedback that the Japanese traditionally do not wear bathing suits when using the onsens. Finding this out in advance gave me a little time to mentally prepare for my first nude, public bathing experience.
[Editor's Note: Mom, Dad and former coworkers -- you might want to skip this post!]
While couchsurfing in Tokyo, I met an Australian who had spent time snowboarding in the northern mountains, and he talked fondly of his visits to the onsens, painting a picture of hanging out in the hot springs as snow gently fell from the sky, and having snowball fights (naked, I presume). He said you get use to the nudity fast. I chose to believe him.
Onsens are everywhere, however Tokyo seemed too urban an environment for the experience, and while Nagano had a better feel to it, my day trip to see the snow monkeys there was so rushed I decided to hold off.
As in the USA, early February is still the midst of Winter in Japan, and the temps in Kyoto during my stay were hovering around the freezing mark, if not colder at night. I asked for an onsen recommendation at my hostel, and was given a map (as usual, because whenever you ask for directions in Japan, you’re also given a map).
I picked my second afternoon in Kyoto to take a break from sightseeing, and delve into the Japanese tradition of public bathing. After an exhausting journey across the city, I arrived at the doorstep of the suggested onsen, which I was told was a popular one. Because if I’m going to get naked with a bunch of dudes, I want it to at least be at a happening place.
Inside the reception area, I removed my shoes, and put on the provided sandals. The woman behind the counter looked at me as if I knew what I were doing, but I didn’t, and she eventually guided me toward the entrance of the men’s locker room.
I was previously informed by my couchsurfing hosts that onsens in urban areas are usually segregated by sex, while in the countryside, both men and women are more likely to share the same baths.
The locker room featured plenty of lockers (duh!), and to my surprise, a camera crew. WTF, I thought, as I scoped out the two female crew members and the massive video camera. It appeared they were breaking down the equipment, after getting whatever footage they needed.
The girls seemed to purposefully avoid eye contact with me, so I decided they were doing their best not to pay attention. I stripped off my 3 layers of shirts, and hoody, and jeans and socks, and ultimately my boxers.
I swiftly walked my naked self into a small hallway connecting the locker room with the bathing area. There were a few sinks, but I couldn’t figure out what you’d do in there. I passed through the second door and entered the bathing room.
It was about 2 or 3 pm on a weekday afternoon, and there were at least a half dozen men in there, naked. I was naked too, but I tried not to think about that. I also tried not to notice all the penises swinging around the room.
Since I bought a small bar of soap from the receptionist, I sat on one of the little (and I mean it was no more than 12 inches tall) plastic stools positioned under shower heads that were no more than 4 feet high. If I felt awkward standing, I felt ridiculous sitting on that little stool, trying to wash myself under a midget size shower. Nobody warned me about this part.
As I washed, I tried to scope out what the other guys were doing simply to figure out the protocol. Some guys seemed to spend 10 minutes under the shower scrubbing soap all over. I cut that step short, and then moved to one of the pools of water, which was too hot. I then tried a larger pool, which was still hot but more bearable, where a few old men were hanging out.
Slipping into the water, I read a sign posted on the wall that indicated the water was electrically heated (ie. not supplied from a natural thermal spring).
Turns out I’m going through the whole naked routine without the payoff provided by naturally occurring spring water. Was I naked for nothing?
I tried to make the best of the jacuzzi-like environment, but I found it hard to relax. Did I mention all the old, naked Japanese men with whom I was sharing the oversized hot tub?
After a few minutes in the pool, I got out and once again showered awkwardly, before making my exit back to the locker room. The camera crew was long gone, and I quickly got dressed as it was cold once you stepped outside of the steamy bathing room.
Walking outside, I felt surprisingly refreshed. But I surely would’ve felt the same way had I taken a private shower back at the hostel. I couldn’t help but feel my first onsen experience was lacking, and with so little time in Japan, I’d be leaving the country before I’d have a second chance.
Where in the world have you taken a public (naked) bath in the name of exploring the local customs? Did it live up to your expectations?
This video shows a typical onsen; mine was in a city so it lacked the windows with charming views.
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