Onsen

One of my favorite, favorite, favorite things in Japan, NAY, in the entire world is the onsen (hot springs). I took my first trip there  (read that post for a more detailed description of what you actually do there) with my sis and my then 10-month old back in 2011 and I’ve been an addict ever since. There was a point last winter where I went almost a month without showering in my apartment because I’d just make sure we went to the onsen at least every other day.

Hi, my name is Lane, and I am addicted to group nudity in a steamy room.

From a purely hedonistic point of view, it’s completely obvious why one would love this experience. The general purpose is getting super clean, soaking in hot spring water, breathing in steam, healing and relaxing. Here in Nikko they are especially plentiful but onsen and bathing culture is a part of Japanese life. In hotels or specialty onsens they can be a place of luxury (and lots of free products to sample), but on a simpler level they are also a place of community. Our municipal onsen is a gathering place of friends and families and we see the same people there all the time.

But aside from the physical pleasures of soaking in a hot, steamy tub of spring fed water, I have a strong appreciation for the communal nudity itself. When you are raised in the confusingly overly sexualized/simultaneously prudish culture of the United States it might be hard to imagine feeling comfortable sitting on a stool 10 inches from another naked woman washing yourself. Or to be at ease soaking in a tub of hot water full of boobies and butts in the bright light of day. But if you want to enjoy the full experience of this aspect of Japanese culture, just zen out all the cultural messages about why you might not want to be naked in a group and jump in. But don’t actually jump in, I imagine splashing would not be well received.

Once I found out the hot springs existed, I was ALL about trying it out. Lucky for me, I grew up with a mother who would flip the script by rolling her eyes at US if we ever whined or cringed at her wandering around upstairs naked (exact words I believe were “Get over it.”), and consequently my sister and I have never been uncomfortable with nudity in general or our own specifically. But I digress.

Here is what is amazing about it: if you go to the onsen often enough, you will find that everything you ever thought was wrong with your body also exists on someone else’s body and it’s not that big of a deal. You will see women who look like they run marathons and women who cannot walk without the assistance of a cane. You will find women with jiggly thighs or soft stomachs or moles or wrinkles or freckles or large birthmarks. Stretch marks and c-section scars and mastectomies and the wounds of hip or knee replacement. And while I have subconsciously noticed all of this, it seems to me that no one else cares much about any of it.

And aside for every body shape, you will see every phase of life. You will see tiny babies and children and girls growing into puberty. I’ve gone to the onsen with several wives of Dave’s teammates and all our children ranging in ages from 2 months to 12 years. Can you even imagine an earthly reality in which you would have voluntarily stripped down and hung out casually naked at age 12 with your mom…and YOUR MOM’S FRIENDS!? But what a great thing! What a great perspective, at that time when your body is betraying you by growing up and changing boldly and you are starting to realize what is ‘ugly’ and what is ‘fat’ and hours are spent looking at your own skin and wondering which boxes your parts fit into. Imagine spending a relaxing afternoon with a room full of women older than you, with the scars and sags of time and the biceps of motherhood and the smiles of female communion. Imagine seeing all that and realizing that you are just starting a journey with your body and even in 20 or so years when you aren’t ‘pretty’ or ‘young’ as defined by the images around us you will still feel good and be strong and be loved and worry less.

At the onsen you will see the future of your own body in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and, I, shit you not, 60 years. You’ll find that some women hold a hand towel over themselves as they walk between tubs, for modesty, but by the oldest and wrinkliest almost never do. They just strut around, bend over to scratch their toe, lean their perfectly aged flesh against a glass window and chatter as though we were in their own living room. They care the LEAST, and why not?  Because if I’m 92 and can still reach my toes and I’m enjoying a soak in the onsen and I KNOW WHERE I AM, you BEST believe I will not give two shits about the wrinkles on my butt.

The communal bathing culture here has become a part of our family life in Japan. V loves the atmosphere, the shower stool, the rocks forming the outdoor tubs. She probably loves how she feels afterwards, too, though she hasn’t mentioned it. We always ask her which one of us she wants to join in the onsen, sometimes she chooses me and we have quiet chats and talk with other kids and let people gawk at my huge (by Japanese standards) pregnant form and blow dry each other’s hair. Sometimes she chooses her father and they splash (only a little) and fill buckets of water and spray each other with cold water and she learns new things (‘Mommy! There was a little boy in there with a penis. A TRIANGLE PENIS!’ whatever that means). And we head home together, clean and warm.

6 thoughts on “Onsen

    1. It’s different in that it is separated by gender which I think is a lot more user friendly, the focus is on the process of cleaning before the soak itself as much as the soak, and the water is considered to be special and healing since it comes right from the earth. There is a lot more ritual aspect to this than saunas that I visited in Germany, NL or Norway.

  1. I am too American to imagine doing this…not opposed but I would have to break through some barriers if this ever happened. Best line…raised in the confusingly overly sexualized/simultaneously prudish culture of the United States… this has always irked me. Thanks for the perspective!

  2. sounds like heaven, Lane! Loved the family tub soak scenes (2 little daughters and their Dad, actually) in My Neighbor Totoro…

  3. LOVE this. But I was under the impression that the Japanese culture has some body issues? Or am I just confused with the whole Hello, Kitty youth thing that was popular. IDK. But in any case, I’m IN.

    1. There are definitely some issues here, just like everywhere. Here petiteness is valued in what seems to be a correlation with youth/girlishness and there are certain style genres (much more strictly defined here) that really emphasize ROUND eyes and white skin and blonde hair, etc.

      The very normal existence of pressure on bodies here is kind of what makes the existence and prevalence of onsen so special!

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