So I was skyping with my sister in America earlier this week and my trip to an onsen in Hokkaido this past weekend came up. She was telling me about the hot springs they have in Santa Barbara but she was concerned her swimsuit might start smelling like sulfur, to which I hemmed and hawed and finally came out with “yeah, you can’t wear suits to a hot spring here…”
Her reaction was pretty much what I expect of Americans now, “eeeeeew, gross!” The few friends I’ve told about the onsen here have had the same reaction at this, for Americans, very unusual custom of stripping down completely and taking a bath in front of your friends, family and complete strangers! To the point where I’ve started to just not talk about the many (many…. many) times I like to go.
But to be honest, onsen are one of my absolute favorite parts of living in Japan. I can’t imagine living somewhere without this amazing place of ultimate relaxation, it sounds so sad…
If you want an article on what to do when you visit an onsen I can’t top the very detailed and super helpful article here written by Texan in Tokyo. I love her blog and comics and unfortunately I didn’t see this post until after my first time, I did have a friend talk me through it but I broke a rule. My hair was down and all in the water (gasp!). Oops. No one threw me out though, it’s all good!
Instead I’m going to talk to you who feel nervous and don’t want to go. To you who aren’t confident with your bodies or think it’s too weird or grew up in a place where nudity just doesn’t happen outside “those” beaches. I’m going to tell you what it’s like when all of those conditions apply to you like they did to me before I went for the first time.
When I first heard my friends wanted to go to an onsen, it was the day after I’d been hiking with them. We stayed up north at another ALT’s place and she and my hiking buddy thought it would be fun to go soak away our bruises. I had an inner panic attack. “What?! An onsen?! Like, where you don’t have anything on?! I haven’t shaved, I’m dirty, my acne is bad right now, I haven’t been exercising regularly and the snacks here are sooo good…” On and on and on. But as I’m wont to do, I kept it in and followed right along.
Undressing was the worst part, I was with my friends and it was awkward. I clutched a little towel in front of me like a suit of armor, stared at my basket and waited for my friends to go into the bath area first before I took off everything. And when I got into the bath area and sat at my little stool, the three of us in a row, something awesome happened.
I forgot I was naked, I forgot I wasn’t entirely comfortable in my own skin, I forgot that no one has seen me without my makeup since freshman year of college. We just talked like normal while using the showers and the wash buckets. So was everyone else. No one was looking, no one cared. That was key. Old, young, small, big, fit, flabby, it didn’t matter. Everyone was walking around like normal, lounging on the sides of the pools, dozing in the tubs, letting it all hang out. And no one cared. Even the most flawless looking women (there are many in Japan!) have imperfections; they are all on display at an onsen and they are all regarded as unimportant. Everyone is flawed and that’s accepted.
This was revolutionary for me. I found myself more relaxed than I’d ever been before while I was shampooing (I mean, who doesn’t love washing their hair with instantly warm water and fabulously smelling soaps?) and washing and then I got up and I walked (more or less normally) to a giant tub of scalding, but gloriously so, water. And when it got too hot, I sat on the edge and kept up the conversation, completely at ease.
There’s something freeing about an outdoor bath too. Skin that’s never seen the sunlight (I burned so bad!) glowing and the warm water just sliding over every inch of you. The minerals make your skin and hair seem feather-soft and you just feel beautiful and confident. I’ve never liked my body much, but since I’ve come to Japan (not to lose weight like so many others) and since I’ve started going to sento (public baths) and onsen (hot springs) my confidence in how I look has soared. My confidence in myself as a person has soared because it’s no longer being held down by such a negative body image.
I really think that societies that focus so much on outward appearances could do with an onsen or two (million). You stop comparing yourself to everyone else and accept yourself as you are. And there’s truly no greater feeling than that!