When was the last time you saw someone naked in a non-sexual way (excluding your partner)? Include images in magazines, on TV shows and in movies. You can’t remember can you? And a few months ago I wouldn’t have been able to remember either. Then I went to Japan, and used the onsens.
(By the way, I’m using “onsen” here as shorthand for both proper onsens (naturally heated water pools, either in or outside) and Japanese style public baths, which are manually heated.)
I remember talking to my friend Tom about them a few years ago, when he had just returned from three years of living in Japan.
“But you’re naked?”
“With your friends? In a bath?”
“Boys and girls?”
“Some are both, most are single sex”
I have to admit the idea freaked me out somewhat, especially the “with friends” part. It’s the sort of thing that I’d feel so much more comfortable doing on my own, with women I never had to look in the eye again, but my friend Kateline was joining me in Japan for the first two weeks. She messaged a month or so beforehand saying how much she was looking forward to the onsens. I replied:
“You know we have to be naked right?”
“Really? I’m sure there are bikini ones”
“Nope. There really aren’t”
I did not grow up in a naked family. I remember once accidentally ending up on the nudie end of a beach in North Norfolk with my family, and us all being rather startled to see a naked man rising out of the sand dunes. My dad hastily told us all (my mum included) to “cover your eyes, girls”.
At boarding school, where I shared a room with two other girls, I developed an effective but very clumsy technique of putting my bra on over my towel to hold it up while I then put my knickers and tights on underneath. The thought of flashing either of the other girls was enough to bring me out in a cold sweat.
Yet just a few days into our time in Japan, Kateline and I were asking each other every morning “where and when shall we onsen today?”. Being naked was our favourite part of the day, and a day without being so never felt quite right.
I really loved the whole ritual surrounding onsens, and how it didn’t matter where you went, the rules and etiquette were pretty much always the same. You enter into a changing room, strip naked and leave all your clothes and belongings in a basket or locker. You take just a small, rectangular towel with you into the bathing area, and, if it isn’t a fancy one, then your own shampoo, conditioner and soap. There are rows of taps, and sometimes shower heads, along a wall, with small stools in front of them. You take a seat and wash yourself, before getting into the communal pool (there is often more than one, sometimes with different temperatures or made out of different materials – I always loved the cedar wood tubs!). There are sometimes saunas, but you must remember to wash yourself again after using them before getting back into the pools. The whole ritual is based around the idea that the water baths must be kept as clean as possible (More on onsen étiquette)
And it is a really lovely way to spend an hour or two. You’re not meant to talk in the bathing area so it is restful and soothing, and quite meditative as well. It’s about taking care of yourself, and getting as clean as is humanly possible. It’s also something of a communal activity for the Japanese, with groups of friends or families all going at the same time. I met quite a few kids who said how much they love onsens, and look forward to their weekly family trip.
One of my highlights of my entire trip was the afternoon I spent at an onsen just outside Takayama with three much older Japanese women who were staying at my guesthouse, and had invited me to join them. At one point we were sat in the outside section, overlooking the rain drenched valley, each on a little stone plinth underneath a Utase Yu (waterfall shower for massaging your shoulders), naked, obviously. It was surreal, but one of my sharpest, and dearest memories of my whole trip.
Having said all that, I’m not going to lie – the first few minutes of being naked with Kateline were a little awkward, and I’m fairly certain my cheeks turned the same colour as my nipples. But we were both very surprised by how quickly it became normal. And I guess that’s the thing, it’s just not something we Brits are used to.
It made me think how different our attitudes to nakedness and cleaning ourselves, are in the UK as opposed to Japan. The only images of naked bodies we regularly see are very sexualised ones, whether on page 3 or the like, or during sex scenes in movies or on TV. Women (and men, although perhaps to a lesser extent) are only naked in the UK for the purpose of providing pleasure for other people. Our bodies are for other people to look at and enjoy; not for ourselves.
Washing is also very much a private activity in the UK. In much of South East Asia people wash outside, in rivers, streams, or on the shores of lakes, the women covering themselves with sarongs and carefully washing underneath. While this is mostly born of necessity, not everyone has an indoor bathroom, I often saw groups of women washing themselves together and clearly taking great pleasure in doing so.
And I think this is something that is detriment to the UK and our attitudes towards our bodies and sex. If the only naked bodies a young girl, on indeed any woman, sees on a regular basis are porn stars with no pubic hair, actresses with personal trainers and dieticians, and models whose tiny limbs have been photoshopped even thinner than they actually are, all actively being sexual, then I don’t think we can be surprised when she has a warped impression of what her body ‘should’ look like, and the belief that her body is not, primarily, for herself.
What I found so refreshing about Japanese onsens (other than the cold water pools, obviously) was that they normalise nakedness and display normal bodies naked. Being presented with such a cross-section of naked female bodies, made me realise how underexposed I am to “normal” women’s bodies, other than my own of course. The only place I could think of in the UK where you get that (gym changing rooms do not count in my opinion – far too posey) is the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath. One of my favourite places in London, it is often on a warm summer’s evening surrounded by topless women enjoying the last rays of sunshine.
And not wanting to perpetuate the stereotype of awkward, uncomfortable Brits, I quickly stopped attempting to hide my bits with the tiny towel, and just embraced the nakedness!
Maybe the UK needs a few onsens.
Apologies for the lack of photos in the this post. Cameras are banned in all onsens for obvious reasons! The cover image is of a natural onsen (the water in that round pool is hot!) on Yakashima, an island off the southern tip of Japan. We were taken there on a fantastic Yes Yakushima tour.