There's nothing better than slipping into a hot bath. You feel your muscles relax. The cares of the day float away on a cloud of steam. A butt-naked Oba-chan (old woman) is staring at you… wait! What?!
Does that seem like one of those dreams that turns into a nightmare where you've forgotten your clothes? Well, you could see onsen, Japanese communal baths, that way, but you'd be missing out. Not only missing out on a relaxing experience, but also missing out on something that could profoundly change how you view yourself.
Before we plunge into the onsen, let me come clean about this article. What I've written here is based entirely on my own personal experience in onsen and of my own body. I'm not claiming any authority beyond that of personal experience. I recognize that who and what I am has influenced this. I'm a woman. From talking to guys, it seems that women can sometimes have more positive experiences in onsen than foreign men, who sometimes come under close scrutiny in one particular area.
This Towel Isn't Big Enough For The One Of Me!
The first time I went to an onsen I was terrified. A Japanese friend had suggested we go to an onsen hotel in the next town over. I agreed, but all the way there I was tense with fear. Would I disgust the other people in the baths with my terrible foreignness and cultural faux pas? I was also carrying all the baggage of my own culture's attitude to nakedness. Like a lot of people, I had a lot of hang ups about getting naked in front of other people. These were twofold. First was a sort of general feeling that nakedness was wrong. This came from my primary school days, a time when all the girls herded into a changing room before swimming lessons and I perfected the "knicker-twist". (This is a method of putting on a swimsuit over one's underwear and then removing said underwear in one complicated twisty movement.) The aim was always to avoid having anyone, even our peers, see us naked for even a moment.
The second hang up was a sense that my own body was unacceptable. I was intimately familiar with my own body's flaws; the orange peel cellulite, the width of my hips, the wobble of my upper arms, the way my hair either made me look like a member of a 90s boy band or a wet cat. That first time in the onsen, when I was handed a narrow towel, I thought, "There's no way I can cover all my flaws up with this little thing."
My friend was so excited though. She'd been looking forward to this trip for weeks. I didn't want to let her down by refusing to go to the onsen. I gritted my teeth and undressed, putting my clothes in the basket provided. I tried to cover up as much of my front as I could. Through the door I found a steam filled room with set of individual showers. I followed my friend's lead and settled myself on the short stool in front of one of the showers. With great reluctance I put my towel on the small shelf in front of me and began to wash myself. I kept my head down, not wanting to see anyone else's nakedness or their reactions to mine.
Washed, I grabbed my towel again. I tried to shield myself with it as we headed to the onsen pools. Again, I had to let go of my precious modesty covering as I slipped into the water. I was so conscious of myself. I tried to angle my body so that nothing showed. My friend didn't seem to notice. She floated with a peaceful expression. I tried to relax too, but it was difficult. Even the gloriously warm water and the beautiful view of stars overhead couldn't free me from my own self consciousness.
Now contrast that description of visiting an onsen with this one, three years later. A couple of weeks ago I visited an onsen with a two of my friends. I stripped off and put my clothes into the basket, chatting as I did so. At the showers I grabbed soap and shampoo from my own little onsen basket, lathered myself up and rinsed myself clean. We headed for the pools. I had already used my towel to tie up my hair, making no effort to hide myself. In the rotemburo (outside bath) we chatted and laughed. It was a hot bath and at one point I sat on the edge, with just my legs in the water. I felt the cool night air on my skin. I felt happy.
What took me from a nervous, self-conscious girl to a relaxed, happy woman? Oba-chan butts. Seeing so many Oba-chan butts.
OK, it's a little more complicated than that. But after that first nerve wracking onsen experience I didn't stop going to onsen. At first, there were times when visiting onsen was unavoidable, when it was the only bathing option at English camp, or to wash off sweat after snowboarding. But soon I actually started seeking out onsen. Each time I visited, I became more comfortable with my own and others' nudity. Once I let my preconceptions about nakedness go, I realized what a rare and wonderful space the onsen is.
The Naked Truth
We are constantly exposed to women's bodies. But almost all of these bodies are ones that have been chosen by some arbiters of what is hot and what is not and then often retouched, creating impossible standards of beauty. At the opposite end of the spectrum, candid pictures of celebrities in magazines have every flaw ringed and pointed out. It's not surprising that this affects women's views of themselves.
Onsen were the first places where I saw actual women's bodies without photoshopping or judgment. These were bodies that weren't being displayed to sell me something or to titillate. They were just being people, relaxing and chatting as usual, except they were naked. All of the bodies had "flaws," but only compared to the impossible perfection that exists in the media. There were broad women, skinny women, women whose bodies had cesarean scars, women who didn't shave, women who did shave, women with large breasts, women with small breasts, women whose breasts showed the signs of nursing children, all kinds of women. But what they looked like didn't matter. They weren't there to be looked at or to look. They were there to enjoy the onsen. Once I realized that, I found that I could enjoy the onsen too.
I carried this positive thought out of the onsen and into my daily life. I began to think of my body in terms of "doing" things, not how it appeared. My body is my tool for doing what I want to do, from climbing a mountain to writing this article. My fingers are moving across the keyboard because I have a body that lets me type. I feel more connected and thankful for the body I have.
Only Oba-chans Know The Secret
I was talking about this with a friend of mine the other day. Actually we were at the onsen. (After three years it doesn't seem strange to have a chat while relaxing naked in a bath in the open air.) She is gorgeous in a totally unjapanese way, with many of the features that Japanese people associate with foreigners, blonde hair, blue eyes and curves. She was the one who made me realize about the "grass is always greener" aspect of onsen for both Japanese and Non-Japanese women. Japanese women told her how she was their ideal; while for many non-Japanese women Japanese women's slenderness and elegance can seem like an ideal. We all want what we can't have. Living in Japan as a non-Japanese woman sometimes made me feel like Godzilla lumbering through my city. This always hit me worst when I went shopping for clothes. Skirts that would be reasonable on a Japanese girl are scandalous on me. Someone once asked me if I'd ever bought a bra in Japan and I just laughed. But we have to recognize that the flipside exists too. Just the other day a female student said to me, "Sensei, give me your oppai (breasts)." If you take the lesson of the onsen in the wrong way, envying the way others look, it could make this "grass is always greener" thinking worse.
Because for all that I've found onsen liberating, they don't seem to have solved the problems of body image in Japan for Japanese women. 29% of Japanese women in their 20s are underweight. This statistic is being blamed on Japanese media, with celebrities and models having increasingly slender frames. Women diet and skip meals to try to attain similar weights.
Perhaps this has something to do with the demographics that enjoy onsen. In my experience it's rare to see young women in the onsen. The main groups who seem to visit are ladies of retirement age and mothers with young children. Young women most at risk of body image problems likely don't have the time to spend at onsen as they are working the hours expected of Japanese workers. The young people who would, according to society's expectations, have the least reason to worry about their bodies are too busy to enjoy the onsen, while the oba-chans have plenty of time to learn the secret that there's nothing to worry about, no matter how wrinkly you get.
Let's All Get Naked!
I have a friend who lived in Japan for over a year, but never went to the onsen. Sometimes she would come with us, but she'd just sit in the changing room, fully clothed, while the rest of us enjoyed the hot water. She didn't feel comfortable enough in herself to enter the onsen. It seemed like a tragic irony that going in the onsen would probably have helped her overcome the anxieties that kept her from going in the onsen in the first place. Don't let yourself be kept from something so good for you!
There are so many wonderful onsen in Japan, from Dogo Onsen that the baths in Spirited Away are based on, to free onsen deep in the mountains, to the kitschy fun of Oodeo Onsen in Odaiba, Tokyo. I'd really recommend trying an onsen if you are visiting Japan. If you are lucky enough to be here for a long time, you can visit lots! Don't let embarrassment hold you back from something wonderful that's not only good for your skin, but good for your mind too!