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 asked 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 time to mentally prepare for my first public bathing experience.
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.
He said you get used 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, my day trip to see the snow monkeys there was so rushed I decided to hold off.
As in the United States, early February is still the middle 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 Japanese onsen, which I was told was a popular one.
Because if I'm going to have this cultural experience, 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 was 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 gender.
At the same time, in the countryside, both men and women are more likely to share the same baths.
The locker room featured plenty of lockers (duh!) and a camera crew, to my surprise.
I felt a bit concerned 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 women seemed to avoid eye contact with me purposefully, so I decided they were doing their best not to pay attention.
I removed my three layers of shirts, hoody, jeans, socks, and boxers.
I swiftly walked 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 2 or 3 pm on a weekday afternoon, and there were at least a half dozen men in there, sans clothes. I was too, but I tried not to think about that.
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 four feet high.
If I felt awkward standing, I felt ridiculous sitting on that little stool, trying to wash under a tiny shower. Nobody warned me about this part.
As I washed, I tried to scope out what the other guys were doing to figure out the protocol.
Some of the Japanese men seemed to spend ten minutes under the shower.
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; a few older men were hanging out.
Slipping into the water, I read a sign posted on the wall that indicated the water was electrically heated (i.e., not supplied from a natural thermal spring).
It turns out I'm going through the whole routine without the payoff provided by naturally-occurring spring water. Was this all for nothing?
I tried to make the best of the jacuzzi-like environment, but I found it hard to relax.
After a few minutes in the pool, I got out and showered awkwardly again before making my exit back to the locker room.
The camera crew was long gone, and I quickly dressed as it was cold once you stepped outside the steamy room.
Walking outside, I felt surprisingly refreshed. But I surely would've felt the same way had I taken a private shower at my hostel.
I couldn't help but feel my first Japanese onsen experience was lacking, and with so little time in Japan, I'd be leaving the country before I'd have a second chance.