On a recent Saturday, I met up with one of my good friends, and we spent the day together naked. Before you get the wrong idea, this wasn’t anything lewd — we simply chose to go to an onsen. I got to thinking, though, about how much I have changed since I first came to Japan. If you had told me a few years ago that I would be lounging au naturel without a care in the world, I would have shaken my head uncomfortably and stammered something to the effect of, “I’m just not that kind of girl.”
Being a native of the U.S., I am used to hearing proclamations about my country’s Puritanism. It’s one of those strange ironies: In the U.S., we like to go on about freedom of speech and expression, the right to bear arms — but freedom from clothes, the right to bare breasts? Are you kidding?!
So I, like a number of my compatriots, was a tad discomforted by the prospect of exposing it all while bathing. I liked the idea of relaxing in a hot spring, but this was canceled out by horror at the thought of wandering around naked in front of a group of strangers, or — perhaps worse — friends.
The root of the problem seems to be a question of perspective. In the U.S., pretty much the only time people get naked in the company of others is when they’re being born or getting busy, so it’s hard to think about nudity in a nonsexual way. In Japan, by contrast, the automatic equation of nudity to sex is simply not there.
As with most situations here, I think foreign men have it easier than us ladies. Most of my male acquaintances new to Japan have immediately taken to the idea of onsen and the even less accessible (to my mind, anyway) sento, becoming regular fixtures at their neighborhood bathhouses, as well as fast and furious friends with their local ojisan. Is this simply because foreign guys tend to be more often automatically revered and respected, whatever they are doing — or is there something more? Does letting it all hang out make it easier to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers? If nudity does not necessarily equate with sex, then maybe it does with ever-enigmatic male friendship?
My curiosity eventually won out over my hesitation, but I made sure my first visit to an onsen was alone. This has provided endless amusement and surprise to my Japanese friends. They can’t understand why on earth someone would want to go to an onsen by themselves. Perhaps this is again due to a difference in perspective — Japanese tend to view bathing as an activity best enjoyed in groups, whereas us Americans can’t help but think of it as a solitary activity.
I soon learned that there was nothing to fear. I wouldn’t really say that I blended in, but I was able to bask in the anonymity and relax. One of my fears had always been that my obvious differences would act like a beacon, and other bathers would feel no shame about wide-mouthed staring and perhaps even some pointing and laughing. It turns out — thankfully — nothing of the sort has happened to me while bathing in my birthday suit.
So how does one make the leap from solo onsen-going to a group outing? The factors that pushed me farther away from my inhibitions were a potent blend of curiosity and health-consciousness. As I’m sure is the case for many other expats, I have experienced a mind-boggling array of maladies since my arrival. No matter what the ailment, though (from ice-cold hands and feet, to mysterious headaches, to stress, to fatigue), onsen are always suggested as the cure.
The fact that this particular remedy required so little commitment or energy was also a comfort to my weary soul. So I bit the bullet and tossed my clothes to the side. At that point, it seemed only natural to invite a friend along for companionship and commiseration.
I have to admit that spending the afternoon soaking — be it on my own or with a companion — has turned out to be one of those unexpected joys of Japanese life. So my advice to any other reluctant bathers is to just forget your fears and go for it. Because even if you have to endure some slight embarrassment, there’s nothing like the feeling of that anxiety — and all your other worries — melting away the moment you step into the steamy waters.
Melissa Feineman is a freelance writer in Tokyo.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today