Visiting an onsen for the first time


First Japanese onsen experience

“I can’t believe I just saw your boobs.”

It was dead in the middle of winter in the sleepy Japanese city of Odate, and I was soaking in a pool of steaming spring water with my colleagues. Butt naked.

Somehow, the stars had aligned to bring us to this very moment in time. It started as an innocent farm stay that ended up with our host, Yamauchi-san, driving us to the neighbourhood sentō (bathhouse) to wind down for the night.

“Is this like, a naked onsen?” I’d asked our guide, Colin, before getting into the van.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, not seeming to pick up on my nerves. Cool. Cool cool cool cool cool.

Back in present time, I looked at my colleagues and made a face. I was with Adria and Jes, both of whom I consider close friends – but no amount of HTHTs could justify me seeing either of them naked.


Our first hot spring experience


Japanese onsen

The end of this story is a good one. We all got into the water, broke down barriers, and had a swell time. But no story is good without some conflict resolution.

When Yamauchi-san dropped us off at the bathhouse, Adria, Jes, and I were left with a grand total of one basket of toiletries, some towels, and a set of pyjamas. As we inched towards our big mental breakdown, Thaddeus (our fellow travel buddy) was looking at us with fear in his eyes.

And then it hit us.

The poor guy had to get in with Yamauchi-san all by himself, with no time to prepare. He just had to…go.

“I guess I’ll see you guys later,” he told us, trailing behind our host who quietly hobbled into the men’s area with no hesitation.

As people who have never visited an onsen before, much less seen each other naked (what are we, a Buzzfeed video?), you can’t really blame us for freaking out. See, before we even got to soaking in the hot pool like 3 boiling potatoes, it took us some convincing to get into the changing area in the first place.

Japanese onsenPublic onsens come with a lounge area for you to have an optional panic attack before heading into the pool

I’ll spare you the details, but this was what happened in essence:

Adria: I really don’t want to go. I really don’t want.
Jes: Okay, let’s just put on our pyjamas and pretend we showered.
Ra: Does this place not have a shower room?
Adria: Oh my god, here no shower room one.
Jes: What the fu-

While our grand do-we-don’t-we dilemma was taking place, a steady stream of Japanese women had sauntered in, stripped down, and gone about their business while paying us no mind. 20 minutes and 4 naked bodies of strangers we didn’t ask to see later, we found ourselves with no gameplan.

At this point, I stared into the world that stood beyond the sliding doors that divided us from the onsen – and an entirely different culture. “Guys,” I said, my hands gripping the hems of my shirt. “Screw this. Let’s just go in. I’ve got boobs, you’ve got boobs, and if we end up seeing each other then so be it!”

And that, my friends, is what I call a climax.

*

That brings me back to where this story begins.

It was the middle of winter, and I was in a Japanese onsen with my colleagues. Butt naked. Y’know that show Naked and Afraid? That was us. After taking turns running into the pool so that we didn’t have to see each other in the nude, we were all finally in the water, hugging our knees like children in timeout.  

Japanese onsenHave a rinse at the communal shower area before dipping in. That’s also where you can bathe after you’re done soaking in the onsen.

“So, this is actually nice,” Jes said after a while. We were all looking in 3 different directions, and right about then was when it was starting to get quite ridiculous.

I decided to look Jes right in the eye – that’s right ladies and gents, the protagonists were attempting to make direct eye contact. But alas, as Murphy’s Law has it; anything that can go wrong will go wrong. As my eyes turned to meet hers, she stood up. We both screeched.

“I can’t believe I just saw your boobs.”

I looked back at the wall and Jes plopped right back into the water.

Freaking Murphy.


Why are we so afraid of nudity?


Once we’d settled down from our brouhaha, I thought about it: Why was I so afraid of my friends seeing me naked? I wasn’t worried about them judging my body, nor was I uncomfortable around either of them as people. Whatever it was, I couldn’t put a finger on why I just felt so…embarrassed.

Maybe it boils down to the fabric of the culture I grew up in. Singaporeans are many things. And in the rojak mix of being everything from pragmatic to kiasu lies the unholy emotion we all feel at least three times a week: paiseh-ness.

Whether it’s not wanting to sit on the reserved seat or larger-scale emotions like “losing face” amongst family because you didn’t score higher in your exams than “Aunty Susan’s great-grandniece twice removed”, the art of feeling paiseh runs in our blood.

To dig a little deeper, we’re also a society where personal space is the holy grail. MRT conversations are strictly friends and family only, and random people approaching us on the street often results with a “tsk” under the breath or general discomfort. Relationships take time to build. Rapport is valued, but a gentle process.

Friends

We’re creatures attuned to safe spaces – both physical and mental; so when I found myself in the situation of having to be in such an intimate setting with not just my friends but also strangers, that was all I felt: paiseh and invaded.

Of course, that’s not to say that Singaporeans are going to crumble at the thought of ever going to a public bathhouse – plenty of us have zero qualms about visiting them. Generalisations will be generalisations, but I just found it curious that many of my friends shared the same knee-jerk reaction to the idea of baring it all together.


Onsen culture in Japan


Funnily enough, the longer I soaked in the water, the less I found myself really giving a crap. Eventually, conversations turned from us worrying about us having no clothes on to things less trivial. You see, aside from helping us achieve QQ skin and solid blood circulation, Japan’s hot springs are an intrinsic symbol of community.

Japanese onsenBesides relaxing, many go to onsens for their health properties. Samurai used to visit hot springs as a post-battle remedy to help with aches and wounds.
Image credit: Taenoyu

The Japanese have a phrase: hadaka no tsukiai

This roughly translates to “naked friendship”, and it doesn’t mean what the average millennial with any knowledge of Tinder and the sorts might think it means. Breaking it down, it refers to the strong sense of kinship one might feel when stripped of any inhibitions. And clothes.

Japanese onsenJapanese macaques living the life at Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano
Image credit: Time Travel Turtle

In an onsen, it’s not just the sweat that melts in the heat. The poor man in tatters and Rolex-wearing bigshot find themselves in a space with no distinctions to tell their worlds apart. A space that is vulnerable, but oddly comforting in that everyone – young, old, local, or foreign – is, for once, the same. 


What I learned from my time ia Japanese onsen


Japanese onsenDisclaimer 2: While tattoos are still banned in many onsens, the laws around this have become more flexible over time in Japan’s current society. I was lucky enough to have visited a public bathhouse that was okay with tattoos. 

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not really about being comfortable naked. Well, at least not physically. By the end of the night, our worries had dissipated along with the steam and we sat next to each other, still naked and still not making direct eye contact, but at peace with the fact that we found ourselves in this situation.

JapanA day after our onsen shenanigans – all smiles, no awkwardness
Image credit@thambellina

The idea of kinship was comforting, and it somehow felt like we’d levelled up in the friendship game. What scared us at first ended up making us laugh, and even though I’d seen a little more than I’d have wanted to, it was okay.

And maybe it’s not even that deep. Maybe it’s not even that big of a deal. People in Japan do it all the time, right? Right. But not everyone is used to that. And with cultures merging from all corners of the planet, it’s exciting to think about how else we’ll be breaking barriers little by little in time to come.

For now, clothes-on conversations sounds a-okay to me.


Check out other articles by this author, because sometimes, she’s funny: