Is Going to an Onsen Preparing for a Nudist Colony?

Man, I have the absolute best litmus test to access how we feel about our bods. Last week, I flung myself, into the onsen doors, pretending to be confident, knowing I was going to obviously, take it all off.

Have you been in an onsen, a Japanese hot spring bath? They are all over Japan; the water can vary in terms of mineral content and acidity, but an onsen is always healthy for skin, muscles, and your average, tense mind, especially in a busy city like Tokyo.

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Unless, that is, if you were not born here, in this naked-in-front-of-everyone-bath-environment. If you are like me, only now, totally middle-aged (holy crap um), full-on adult, finding yourself in a public bathhouse sans bathing suit, you are most likely sifting through so many thoughts that you might as well have one of those Wild West gold sifting trays and a nice cognac. The Japanese women who’ve been raised in these waters probably carry little-to-no self consciousness. I imagine, though, when they drifted into those preteen years, they may have wanted to take a big break from public nudity. All I know is my sixth grade locker room, okay? All I know is that I’m immature, mostly. 

Last week wasn’t my first time; I’ve visited a good few times, prior. Once with my visiting, onsen-obsessed mom who finally cajoled me into coming. “Hey, if I can’t get naked in a spa-type facility with my mom, what hope do I have?” I hung my head a moment, then squared my shoulders, and prepared myself for something awkward. I onsened with my daughter and mom, together, in a sort of grand, three-generation day of womanhood, and still tried to nonchalantly hide behind my itty washcloth to and from each tiny pool. I’ve gone once or twice more, alone, and again with mom and my girl.

My goal is to hide my discomfort for my girl, showing instead, a peace, even general malaise. “Ho hum, naked me, us, we”, but also cultivate a healthy respect for the bodies G-d creates. I think it’s the biggest feminist action I can muster–not just showing a girl chics in Spanx, or photoshopped anti-aging make-uped masks. This is it: life, man. Boobs at every age. 

The same day I sat reflecting upon my latest trip to the onsen, Japanese hot spring bath, better phrased as a “same-sex public bathing experience in the nude”, I read an article about proper etiquette while dining at a nudist colony or some nude place like that. (Who are these nude diners and why don’t they don pants?)

I guess you’d better have good manners in the buff; there’s nothing else really after you’ve thrown away your clothes.

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Also, fine for those nudies, but what does my experience at onsens reveal about my comfort with nudity?

Well here it is:

1. If you are not raised in a culture that knows how to relax, even have greater peace, bathing in the nude, then it will be a shock. A doozy. The whole onsen experience, and I guess nude beach or whatever, could leave you wishing you’d begun with a drink. And held onto it. (Then again, after birthing children, what’s your body, anyway? You gain a little more perspective).

2. If you are not raised with such a healthy setting of seeing women in all stages of their lives and therefor, bodies, it will be a shock. (“I’m going to look like that when I am older??” Or “She is a grandmother and look at those abs!”, but mostly, it’s more like the first example. The body changes, but it is all beautiful. In an onsen, you see the whole spectrum, from young girls scrubbing up with their mothers, to tweenish girls rinsing their hair with friends, to me, to my mom, to the lovely great grands. They have been through each stage. They are the wise ones looking on at the rest of us, or maybe just relaxing on a cedar bench. And they don’t care if I’m uncomfortable with my body. I’m sure of it.

3. The things I worry about is…if I am growing more comfortable with my naked body being our in a public place, then am I on the road to some nudie life where I’d consider a stint at a nude farm?

4. Perhaps these co-ed naked people are also, at times, uncomf with their body and this is their way of coming to terms? Maybe we all want a drink?

5. Maybe some of us enroll ourselves in these challenges, in these opportunities to be a spectacle or feel the part, just so we grow. Maybe getting naked is like joing Toastmasters, only you don’t have to picture your audience sitting in their boxers and briefs. There are no props. You, yourself, are free-cheeked. It is like coming to terms with a potential, or old, nightmare. There are no pants. There is coming to terms with YOU and your boobies.

6. I may will always compare myself. It is not enough that I am the hairy girl with furry teddy bear arms who came to live with hairless, beautiful Asians. This is how I sometimes perceive myself. I once was given a thorough wax job by the most gorgeous, intimidating Russian woman you could ever see, dramatic accent and everything. I must have been to her, an experiment. She was my dream, hairless.

So not only is it possible that I have a bit more hair than the men here, but now I need to get naked with these ladies? The ladies who shave whatever wisps of NOTHING they have growing on their arms? I am my own spectacle, I think. Maybe. No one has said anything to me yet. I don’t know what they would say, actually. “Please take my razor, Miss. Please. You are offending the guests? Here are some websites for lazering off your everywhere-but-lashes” (I swear, even brows here are shaved and drawn back on, sometimes even by the men).

Skin gleaming, hair super conditioned, I returned back to my husband last week, post-onsen, feeling radiant in some ways, but a bit pruned and glum. Before going, I thought I was okay with my body. Now, there is a list of what I see happening, sliding towards unatractive, sailing towards “not pretty”. This is a sad state of affairs. There is some work to do, some on the inside.

I guess in retro-retrospect, I really am not on a fast track to the nudist colony. I guess if I am to leave my comfort zone, it will be but for a short dip in a bath. I won’t need my own parking spot or my own mug at some nudie resort. No “I’ve moved” postcards to send out, not just yet.

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Maybe, instead, I’ll just do some squats, some crunches, and the occasional lazer hair removal session. Or I’ll go and choose to relax, to just sit. Or I’ll order a nice plum wine before it’s time to derobe. Because getting comfortable in these onsen waters is a process. Above all, the goal is to chill out and to not lose your locker key. Otherwise, it’ll be a long day. 

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7 thoughts on “Is Going to an Onsen Preparing for a Nudist Colony?

  1. Oh gosh, Melissa! You are too funny 🙂 Yes, the whole onsen culture is very difficult to get used to… I remember the first time I went to one with my friends, I couldn’t believe how people just stripped down like it was nothing. I’m also guilty of trying to use that tiny towel to hide bits and pieces. haha… Anyway, I’d always known that I wasn’t really uh… blessed in the chest area, but being in a room full of other naked women made me feel like about, eh, five years old? And to top it all off, one of my friends pointed at me and said, “Look how flat Miwa is! haha!” just as I was stepping into the bath. Yeeeah… that was a nice moment. Teenagers will be teenagers I guess.

    But yeah, I guess you just have to sort of get over all the nakedness and just soak it all up. haha.

    • Miwa! I just was looking over this and I realize I never replied to your wonderful words! Oh, my at your recollection of being younger and bathing with your friends–gulp!

      Have you found any Korean or Japanese bath houses in Cali, I wonder?

      • I actually know one Korean bath house in the area that I live (my Japanese friends have been there), but I’ve never been myself. Don’t know about Japanese bath houses… I wouldn’t be surprised if they have some! (I grew up in CT in a town where the Asian population was pretty low, so being here in LA surrounded by lots of Asians makes me feel very strange!)

  2. You are a brave lady. I’ve never had enough courage to go. Yet, I’m dying to get the onsen experience, my husband loves it so much it makes me jealous he’s not scared at all. Then again he grew up with it and I certainly didn’t.

    • Hello! Oh, this is from ages ago and I never replied! Please excuse my rudeness–I so appreciate your reading and writing this response! I guess it’s all about growing up with it or not…mostly, right? Maybe as we get older, we’ll be more free. 🙂 I wonder if you’ve been to an onsen yet?

  3. Pingback: Stay Cool in Tokyo, With Leza Lowitz | Melibelle in Tokyo

  4. Hi! You know I have since had a baby and thought such an exposing experience might change my feeling about onsens. But when we visited Japan in March and the whole family went to an onsen I only got as far as the locker room. Where I waited for my mother-in-law to return my baby to me after his first onsen (which neither his dad or mom witnessed). I don’t know, just didn’t feel
    comfortable onsening with my mother-in-law. The inlaws have just recently started to like me sooooo… Hmm maybe after having a second baby and moving back to Japan I’ll reconsider and give it a try.

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