Let me preface this by saying that I have never been to Japan. I haven’t been to Tokyo or Mt Fuji, Kansai or Kyoto. Hell, I’ve never even been to Disneyland. But I have, just recently, got a little taste for an ancient Japanese custom – the onsen. Or ‘onsening’, if you’d prefer a verb.
While I’m aware public bathing isn’t a Japanese invention (after all the Spartans spawned the steam bath and the Turks have been heating up hammams for centuries) the onsen ritual is a pretty unique one. Traditionally built over natural hot springs, they are super chill bathhouses where people gather to wash, soak, and cleanse their souls. Totally naked.
And as a human who has a limitless propensity for curiosity and a liberal appreciation for nudity, this concept intrigued me. I wanted to know more. So one Sunday morning, when I was feeling particularly brave (and just a little hung over), I decided to give the onsen thing a go. Here’s what I learnt:
#1 You can onsen, and onsen good, outside ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’
Yep, you read right. As it turns out, Australians are actually pretty big (albeit covert) fans of the onsen, and a handful of savvy Japanese expats are happily catering to the bathing crowd.
If you, like me, hail from not-so-sunny Victoria then you have a few onsen options – you could hit up the Japanese Bathhouse in Collingwood or head to inner city Onsen Ma. Just don’t take your parents, that would be weird. Sydneysiders, never fear, you’ve got the Blue Mountains Sparadise (not a typo) for all your nude soaking needs. For every other state, just get on the Google (hello word limit). Though I will say, with a degree of confidence proportionate to my research, that wherever you are in Oz, it’s highly likely there is a tatami fortress just sitting on your doorstep. What are you waiting for?
#2 Everyone has inhibitions…and then they don’t
I’m going to be honest here and admit that I was initially hesitant to strip off. As was the old lady next to me and the young girl standing in the middle of the room wearing just her undies (it was like her bravado faltered at the waistband of her Bonds).
For me, my hesitancy wasn’t a body conscious thing but more of an audience wariness. I mean, I was in my hometown. My thought process went something like – what if I see a colleague or an old teacher or, oh my god, what if I see my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend and she looks better than me naked? Big issues, right?
But as it turned out, once everyone is down to their respective bathing suits it takes approximately 30 seconds for the awkwardness to dissipate. And then you’re just strutting around the bathing room with a small towel on your head, drinking water from paper cups and washing your armpits with a hand-held shower nozzle. Intimate.
#3 Regular swimming pools are actually pretty gross
I’ve never really thought too long or too hard about the state of the average public swimming pool. In the past, I’ve just chucked on my togs and jumped right in, trusting that the teenage lifeguards got their chlorine to pee ratio right.
But after indulging in possibly the purest water activity of my life, I am now saying hell no, not again, to tepid bathwater. Because the Japanese know how bathing should be done. Like, there are rules. Such as, don’t contaminate the water by putting your head under, don’t bring your wash cloth into the bath, and always shower in between using the sauna and the tub. And the biggest rule of them all? No swimwear in the spring, because you never know what you might be carrying in the lycra lining of your one piece.
#4 We don’t wash properly
That’s not a slight on your cleanliness. It’s just an observation. Most of us get in the shower and rub a little soap here and a touch of shampoo there, maybe shave our legs and splash a little on the face. We don’t really put much thought into the cleaning process, it’s more of a ‘where there’s water, there’s a way’ kinda situation.
But that’s what made the onsen ritual so special. You sit down on a tiny stool in front of a mirror with a bucket, washcloth and shower for company. Then you wash. Methodically. With more care than perhaps you ever have. I mean, when it’s just you and your naked body and all the time in the world, washing can become pretty relaxing. I felt the cleanest I ever had and I’m the kind of gal who takes very long showers.
#5 Being naked is liberating
You could be forgiven for thinking that stripping off and washing your hair in the close vicinity of other men or women (also naked) would be slightly uncomfortable. What with all the parts we usually keep covered up. But the reality is that the whole naked experience is pretty damn liberating.
You’ll come to appreciate that freckle on your thigh and forget about the extra roll around your middle. You look different to everyone else and that’s cool. So go and celebrate how good you look naked with a post-sauna sake. You deserve it.
#6 There are perks to onsen-ing in Australia
This was probably my biggest onsen lesson, mainly because I crossed the tatami threshold thinking that the whole thing would be more fun, more authentic and less awkward if I were in Japan.
But there are perks to hitting the tubs in your home country. You’re allowed to take a dip despite having tattoos (in Japan, it’s not uncommon for people to be turned away for having super large tatts) and the ladies at the front desk speak impeccable English which makes explaining onsen etiquette to first-timers that much easier. But the biggest perk? You can onsen with your mates. You know, if you’re into that.
(Lead image: Onsen Ma)