Naked and Afraid
Ok, not afraid, but with a dash of discomfort.
We just visited Hakone, Japan about an hour and a half by train from Tokyo. Hakone is a popular destination in large part due to the hot springs which have for centuries been used to feed onsens, the beloved bath houses of Japan.
Up a steep mountain into the beautiful area you find lots of resorts, hostels and hotels offering the onsen experience. They even extend the hospitality to visitors not staying on the property. The mountain is riddled with vents spewing sulfurous steam and hot, hot water. The other minerals in the water are said to have healing properties and are ideal for having a good soak.
There is a nice cable car and gondola ride up from Hakone that lets you view the source and even try their famous black eggs. The eggs are cooked in the spring right at the source and mysteriously turn a deep black. Sounds unappealing? We had to try and Dan thought there was no real difference in taste. I felt like they were a little more “earthy” in flavor, but that’s quite subjective. We had quite the time monkeying around, peeling the eggs sitting on stools that look like Hakone eggs and joking with everyone else doing the same. As inhospitable as that vent made the bath experience look (and smell) the water in the baths are actually a translucent milky appearance and had no odor.
So. The naked part. Onsens have a deep history of rituals and traditions. There is a protocol one must follow in order to be appropriate. Luckily we researched this and, to the best of our knowledge, had no faux pas during our visits. Our hotel had an onsen and we were welcome to use it throughout our stay. Some onsens have outside baths in beautiful gardens or a stunning view of the mountains. Ours was not that fancy, but definitely well kept and serviceable.
First, the hotel provided very nice quality kimono style robes that even covered our super sized American bodies. As all hotels, and many other businesses and residences do, they also provided slippers. Clothed in that you were expected to go down and through the lobby. That in itself caused a certain discomfort. It’s not like the robes zipped up or anything remotely secure. Men and women bathe in separate baths or at different times. Our hotel has 2 baths so we could go at the same time but separated. You take the slippers off before entering the ante room where you disrobe entirely before proceeding. You are provided with a small towel and a larger one for drying off. The small towel can be used for modesty, you decide which part of your privates you’d most like to conceal. The large towel you leave in the ante room.
In Japan the baths are not for cleaning oneself. As you share the water with others, you are expected to shower yourself first. Our onsen had the shower in the same room as the bath. Multiple shower hoses each had a low stool and bucket. Traditionally you sit on the stool and use the bucket and nozzle to bathe. Lovely soaps and shampoo were provided. At this point I found myself squatting on a tiny, low stool with my backside to the bath and my front to a large mirror. There isn’t a towel in this planet that would provide for any type of modesty in this situation even if I wanted it. A thorough shower is expected and care given to washing down the stool and the bucket after use. Once finished women with long hair must secure it so that no hair will be left in the bath. The small towel at this point must also not touch the bath as it is seen as unclean. The best solution is to rest it on top of your head so you can blot the dampness from your face if needed.
With arthritis in too many places to catalog, I am never graceful getting on and off low stools or in and out of the water. Doing so naked made it all the more mortifying! But in I went. The onsen was limited to 6 women at a time and during my visits there were 3 or less of us. It is funny to exaggerate the memory of being discomfited during the experience but in reality, since I knew what to expect and how to behave, it was not uncomfortable at all. The bath was hot, but not scalding, and Dan and I both found that about 15-20 minutes was about as much as we could handle.
When done luxuriating in the milky looking water you can employ the modesty towel for a brief moment. You can shower again or simply leave. It is polite to use it to dry yourself as much as possible in order to go back to the dressing area where your robe and larger towel await. Washed, soaked, relaxed, dried and re-robed we met back upstairs to compare notes.
Our conclusions: onsens are wonderful! We both felt that the slight aversion to being naked with others washed away with our first visit. we were delightfully relaxed both from the water and the ritualistic character of the experience. Definitely something we’d recommend and do again.
What? You didn’t really think we’d have more pictures than that, did you?