26 September 2012

How to use a Japanese Onsen

There are certain levels of friendship, like Friends You Grab a Beer With and Friends That Will Pick You Up From the Airport. Then there's the people that are really worth their weight in gold: the Friends That Will Help You Move. (Otherwise known as the people I Give Thanks For.)

I just discovered a new category called Friends You Get Naked With. I know; I didn't know it was a thing either.

Chalk it up to my Irish Catholic upbringing or Midwestern parents or American puritanism but I was not raised in a 'naked' family. I had friends whose families seemed more comfortable with a certain level nakedness, like blowdrying your hair in a bra or walking around without a shirt on, but it wasn't really done in our family. My mom once mentioned that when she was little, the word 'naked' really bothered her, and I completely understood what she meant.

It's not to say my parents and family were anti-naked. It just wasn't really our shtick, right up there with baseball, Chinese food, and classical music. We weren't opposed or against it by any means; we just didn't do it.

Then I moved to Japan, land of the onsen, a word which I only had a basic understanding of when I arrived. This country sits right on top of the Ring of Fire and, in a country the size of California, has 25,000 naturally occurring mineral hot springs. Bathhouses are built around the springs, and water is pumped into pools and cooled to a variety of temperatures, from hot-hot-hot to a cold plunge. Some pools are inside, some are out. Some are made of concrete, some look like giant planter pots, some are landscaped to look more natural, with rocks and flowing water. These are onsens, and they are an integral part of Japanese culture and have been for hundred and hundreds of years. It's both a noun and a verb: you onsen at the onsens.

It seems for almost every activity, there is a scheduled onsen after it. Hike? Then you onsen. Ski? Onsen. Raft? Onsen. Stay in a hotel? Onsen.

I wasn't sure about the whole thing, and the first couple times I avoided them. Not only for the naked part -- which is intimidating enough -- but also because of the RULES. I knew there were extremely strict ones, and I had no idea what they were. Breaking the rules is one of the easiest ways to Piss Off Japanese People, so I skipped the onsen.

I finally broke and went to one in Takayama, near the Japanese Alps, after a day of sightseeing. It was connected to the hotel, and there was an English pamphlet that clued me in on onsen etiquette before I showed up. I wasn't hooked, but it felt pretty good. No one else was there, so I was okay being naked.

The next time was post-Fuji, with a group of hikers, including some Japanese women who made sure we all were onsen-ing correctly. This was my first time going with friends. All naked.

Surprisingly, not as weird as I thought it would be.

I went rafting up in Gifu with some good girlfriends. After rafting? You guessed it. Onsen. The onsen was outside, and we sat in the pools under cover as the rain poured down on us. We chatted for about an hour, sitting in the hot water. It was really fun, this naked hanging out. I was beginning to see the appeal.

Most recently, my friend Anna showed me an onsen just north of Nagoya. It was more extensive than the others. This one had the standard inside and outside pools, but it also had a milk dipping pool, a cold plunge pool, and an electro-pulse pool that send waves into your body as you got close to the walls (so weird...). It had a sauna room where you could exfoliate (!) with a salt scrub (!!). You could leave the onsen area, wearing a completely unflattering pajama set, and head to a lobby that had a series of separate rooms each heated to a different temperature that purported to have different healing and health benefits. You set your towel down in the rooms, usually over hot river rock, and laid back in total silence (aside from some cheesy flute and harp music, which apparently is a universal requirement for 'spa ambiance.') We spent the day there, relaxing and sweating, refueling with water and juices before ending the day with sushi and soba noodles.

Can I state the obvious and say that it was at this moment that I became a total onsen convert? I think the sauna and exfoliating may have gotten me. Or the way my lower back felt after the electric pulse pool. If those two things hadn't won me over, laying down on hot river rocks at 57° C and feeling my whole body sweat out toxins totally did. It was amazing. My body felt so good.

I also realized something about the onsens and a culture that is more comfortable with nakedness:

There are no perfect bodies.

To be honest, that's what always kind of threw me about the naked part. I was always self conscience that it would be awkward to be in a room full of naked people. I assumed that I would be focused on my imperfections: cellulite, pouchy stomach, body hair... the million little things I fixate on if I a compare myself to women I see in movies and magazines. Plus, I live in a country of thin, beautiful Japanese women. I'm intimidated by them enough when we are all wearing clothes. Being naked next to them? That sounds about as appealing as, I don't know, being naked next to Gwyneth Paltrow (who would look good naked and be insufferable).

But here's the secret: thin, beautiful Japanese women also have cellulite. And pouchy stomachs. And saggy spots. Everyone looks different while naked, no one looks perfect, and no one looks bad. Being in an onsen was refreshingly healthy for my self esteem and body image. Here was a host of other 'real women' (ugh, what an awful term) and they looked so normal. So non-sexual. So natural. So... well, it was not was I was expecting. It was really, really easy to be comfortable in there.

The onsens in Japan seem to be a community gathering spot, a place where women (and men) relax quietly, chat with friends and family, where mothers wash their daughters' hair and vice versa. It seems to be one of those places that we always talk about as something that holds the ills of society at bay; a place that, if it existed in America, Fox and Friends would always be harping on about, probably something along the lines of the War on Onsens by the Liberal Media.* ( * Um, I don't watch Fox and Friends, so this is a guess.) It's a community touchstone, for sure.

For those that are, like me, a little nervous about the onsen, here is how you get down:

Onsens have separate areas for men and women, and tattoos are not allowed. (I think there is a tiny bit of leeway for gaijin but no sleeves or large-scale ink. If you are discreet and it is small enough to easily ignore, usually you're okay.)

1. Enter the locker room. There will either be lockers or baskets for you to place your clothing and large towel. Get naked and grab your small onsen towel (which is the size of a hand towel, but a little thinner. You probably can buy or rent one at the front desk).

2. Enter the onsen and wash up. There are shower stations with a seat. Sit here, soap up really, REALLY well, scrub yourself with your towel, and then rinse off a couple times. Showering well beforehand is how the onsens stay clean, and if you do a good job, no older Japanese women will look at you sideways. Otherwise, you will be shunned because you entered the onsen dirty, which is kind of a dick move.

3. Enter the onsen. Each pool has a different temperature. Some have bubbles, some are milky with minerals, some have electric pulses that are for muscle relaxing. Just go slowly, keep your towel out of the water (put it on the side, around your neck, or on your head), and if you don't like a pool, you can just get out. No big deal.

4. Once you're done onsen-ing, rinse off again. This is when you can shampoo and condition your hair.

5. Wipe off with your little towel, then head to the locker room to dry off completely and get dressed.

6. Eat out to the lobby to drink water, rehydrate, and eat ice cream (a real must for any onsen trip). Try not to fall asleep right then.

1 comment:

  1. Loved reading this post! I think I would feel the same way about the public nudity--good for you for embracing new cultural experiences!


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