An onsen is a hot spring that is used for communal bathing in Japan. Sometimes the water is pumped indoors at an inn, sometimes they’re natural outdoor springs, but regardless they are very popular among the Japanese. The Japanese love their onsen.
I discovered that, as with all things in Japan, there is a strict set of rules to follow for communal bathing in Japan that is nearly ritualistic to keep the bathing experience pure. The bath is for soaking, not for cleaning and thus. . .
-You must wash your body and your hair before entering the onsen and rinse thoroughly.
-You must not bring a wash cloth into the onsen.
-You must not use soap in the onsen.
-No splashing please!
-Bathing in any sort of swimsuit or clothing is frowned upon. Yes, that means naked.
I was cautious not to knowingly defy any rules while vacationing in Japan, because I respect their culture of obedience and conformity for the greater good.
But I badly needed to clean off the sweat and dirt from walking in the scorching temperatures all day, and communal bathing was the only option. . .
. . .thus, off went my clothes.
I’d love to say something romantic like “as I let my yukata fall to my feet to expose my body, I was immediately liberated” but, let’s be honest, I was way out of my comfort zone.
I started out by quickly showering myself next to a foreign girl wearing a bikini that made her look out of place. Then I joined the group of women in the bath, all of us nude.
I was more self conscious about etiquette than about my body with a million questions running through my head:
Am I doing this right? Should I tie my hair back? Can I make wrapping my arms around my chest to cover my boobs look natural? If I just stare down at the water does it look like I’m staring at the other women’s ladyparts?
But the women were very pleasant and welcoming and deeply engaged in a natural conversation. No one appeared to be uncomfortable so I tried my best to let my apprehension wash away with the water.
There is a saying in Japan, hadaka no tsukiai, which means ‘naked friendship’ that refers to both the literal nakedness as well as philosophically stripping away of formalities which provides an openness that allows people to get to know each other a little deeper.
That’s not the type of thing that exists here in the West. Here, physical nakedness tends to make us feel exposed in a way that makes us want to stay anonymous, hide our personality, and keep to ourselves. As I mentioned in my last post about spa nudity, the veil of anonymity is powerful. Nudity doesn’t bring us together, it drives us apart. It comes with shame and discomfort and even embarrassment.
It all makes me question, once again, how it has come to be this way?
Are we afraid that our bodies aren’t quite right because they don’t look like the images of bodies that we see in print and on screen? Are we afraid of being judged for our appearance? Are we ashamed?
When we feel that we need to cover up the implication is to immediately associate nudity with shame. The implication is to make us uncomfortable being naked, even among those of us that are normally confident with our bodies.
I’d love it if we could all take a page from the Japanese’s book and be open to the concept that communal bathing can strengthen our sense of sorority with other women, be one more place where we can socialize and get to know each other, and make us feel more comfortable in our bodies (not less).