The Full Monty for the First Time
“Where do I change into my swimsuit?” asks Greg, anxiously looking around at the many signs in Japanese that he can’t read. Pat and I glance at each other surreptiously.
“You didn’t tell him?” I ask Pat, with a grin on my face.
“What, that all onsen are nude? Of course not, do you think he would have come?” replies Pat, slyly glancing at Greg to wait for the reaction.
“What?!?! Nude? But what about foreigners? Can’t they make an exception?” This is quite a speech for Greg. On the three hour drive down to Kumamoto, he contributed to our conversation a max of 15 minutes. His taciturn persona is falling from him as his voice raises in pitch and he continues to question Miki, Pat’s Japanese friend who planned this onsen experience for us.
He’s not alone in his anxiety. This is my first time at an onsen, a mineral rich, natural hot spring. I knew before I agreed that it was nude, but was still feeling apprehensive. Strip down to nothing? With a bunch of strangers, and Miki, the 73 year old woman I met this morning? Then walk around and bathe in an outdoor pond? Onsen are a distinct Japanese experience and I knew I had to do it.
Onsen are a key part of Japanese society. Heated by volcanic vents, in natural settings, they are a way to unwind after a grueling work week. Escaping to the country to immerse your naked-self in water with your family, friends or coworkers is a past-time for many Japanese. The mandatory nudity is enforced to ensure the cleanliness of the water, but is also representative of the stripping of the social hierarchy at work in Japan. Every level has a uniform to wear, from the Sailor Moon and Sargeant Pepper type worn in Japanese schools to the monochrome suits of officeworkers, clothes represent status. By wearing the yukata (a type of bathrobe) provided by the ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), everyone is equal and better able to relax.
Kyushu, the southern island of Japan, has an abundance of onsen. The Aso volcano range, in Kumamoto prefecture, is the source. In this area, there are over 100 onsen to choose from, all attached to a ryokan or hotel. Miki, with her tour guide cap on and ready to show Greg (visiting from Canada for three weeks) a good time, has chosen the best three to show us. Expensive you ask? No! The onsen association has created a great deal. For 1200 yen you get a passport to visit any three onsen. Very affordable, considering accomodation at the ryokan is over 15000 yen a night.
We arrive at Yamamizuki, and are immediately charmed. The buildings are designed to calm, and the murmured conversations mixed with the hushed forest sounds put you at ease. With our passports paid for and our belongings locked up, we head outdoors to the onsen. We reach a fork in the path, men to the left, women to the right. With Pat and Miki leading their respective ways, Greg and I exchange a look of anxiety and follow behind.
Walking down the short path I take little notice of the surroundings, focused on the task ahead. We enter a small wooden hut, which has baskets for our clothing, a mirror, a table and a hairdryer. There’s no backing out now I realize, as Miki begins to undress. Glancing at the shoes in the entrance of the hut, I think other people have done it and survived. Just do it, just do it, just do it. Okay. Belt first. Socks. Sweater. Shirt, pants, underwear. Naked. The full monty. With nothing to cover me but a very small 12″ by 24″ towel. I’ve never felt so exposed.
We pass through a curtain, and I immediately forget my inadequate covering. The tight forest has opened up into an idyllic glen, with rays of sun lighting the pool. Six women are soaking in the pond, eyes closed and tiny towels folded on their heads. Off to the left is a stream with tiny rapids that I would have heard earlier had I been paying attention. On the right is a roofed area, with two bamboo spouts.
“Shower massage,” Miki says quietly, as she bends over to pick up a bucket. “Wash yourself before you get in,” she continues. Onsen have strict etiquette, which includes cleansing yourself thoroughly before getting in. The baths are for soaking and relaxing in.
After washing we ease in to the hot water and my glasses immediately steam up. Surprisingly, the pond is not deep, and when I sit on the rocky bottom the water crests at my shoulders. This is nice, I think. Hot. Calm. Nobody is looking at me. Nobody is laughing at me. My body loosens, clenched muscles relaxing, and I stretch out from my hunched position, towel folded neatly on my head. I think about how I usually feel like a giant in Japan. At 5’4″, I’m at least a head taller than most of the parents of my students. But here, despite being naked and your body on view for everyone, it doesn’t matter.
After a few minutes of glorious soaking, Miki suggests I try the shower massage, so I crawl over. Its one thing to be comfortably naked in the water, and another to stand up and march over to the shower. Of the two spouts, one is occupied.
“Hello,” says the lady next to me. Oh cripes, I think. Just let me relax. “Where are you from?” she asks. Smiling, I reply Canada.
“On vacation here?” she continues. Nope, an English teacher. We continue making small talk as the hot water works wonders on my shoulders. She is from Fukuoka and in Kumamoto for the weekend. This conversation is like a hundred I’ve had since arriving in Japan, and memorable only because of the absurdity of us both being naked.
After thirty minutes, we are ready to leave Yamamizuki. As I’m dressing, I’m aware of the weight of my clothes on my softened skin, the roughness of my jeans and the wrinkles in my socks. We find a very relaxed Greg waiting for us on a bench outside, his hair in wet spikes.
“How was it?” Miki asks.
“Good,” replies Greg, taciturn once again. We climb into the van where Pat, Greg and I are plied with beer from Miki, ever eager to please. She comments on the onsen that we drive pass on our way to Sin-ai Kougen Hotel.
“See that one over there?” points Miki. “That one has a bath for dogs.” I’m not surprised. The malls here are full of boutiques with doggie jackets, and other accessories.
Sin-ai Kougen Hotel is a modern, boxy hotel with nothing to distinguish itself except the view. Settled atop one of the peaks on the Aso range, Sin-ai Kougen has a view of the Aso caldera, and with the sun setting we couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Its a lot easier to strip down the second time, especially since we have the onsen to ourselves. Its six o’clock, and the hotel guests are having dinner. Easing into the water, we head for the jacuzzi feature. In this hot spring, the massage is provided by hundreds of tiny bubbles. Sitting naked on top of a mountain, in a natural jacuzzi, watching a steaming volcano, I think of how I can describe this to my friends back home. Not just the view, or physical sensation, but everything together. I want to share this experience with them, but know I never can, and feel sad. But then Miki starts to chatter, some more women enter the onsen and the melancholy passes.
Just as the sun is dipping behind the caldera, we make our way to Kurukawa Onsen, a community of ryokan and hot springs. We’re headed to Shin-meikan Ryokan, famous for its cave onsen. Owner Goto Tetsuya dug the cave himself over a 10 year span, determined to save his failing ryokan. It worked, and revived the business of other ryokan in the area. Kurokawa Onsen has numerous old wood buildings in good condition, offering a traditional Japanese accomodation: tatami mats, paper sliding doors and a kimono clad woman to set up your futon. We walk along cobblestone roads, no bigger than alleyways back home. Wood bridges cross the river to many ryokan. Night is falling and windows are illuminated with a yellow glow reflected in the river, reminding Pat of when he was in Europe. Twisting and turning among the tiny streets, we would be lost without Miki.
Crossing one of the bridges we arrive at Shin-meikan. We arrived just after dinner time, and the reception is busy as guests are arriving for the night. Splitting up once more, Greg heads towards the mixed onsen, in hopes of finding a beautiful and available Japanese girl. I don’t have the courage for the mixed onsen and head to the women’s. Stripping down for the third time that day, I realize it has become as natural as if I were at home. The steam is so thick its filling into the changing area. Miki and I round the corner and are greeted with an ethereal view. Ghostly female figures move slowly through the steam, and tunnels disappear further into the cave.
Exploring the caves, we find dead ends and another entrance. Not sure who will pass by, we turn back. We round a new corner, tentatively touching the walls we can’t see through the thick steam. Out of the steam we hear a voice. A male voice.
“Miki? Is that you?” My sense of adventure dissolves quickly as I recognize Pat’s voice. Where is he? And, more importantly, CAN HE SEE ME?? I don’t wait to find out and gallop back to the entrance, startling the two women soaking there.
“Anata no tomodachi… otoku… hanasemass.” I’m so frazzled, I inform the women that their male friend, not my male friend, is speaking to us. Miki comes back and explains the situation. Apparently there is a vent high in the wall between the men’s and women’s caves and Pat, hearing Mikis distinctive voice, called out. I’m laughing now, but I don’t know if its because the situation is funny, or because I’m in hysterics. I decide to stay near the entrance and continue to soak a little longer.
I get dressed for the last time that day, revelling in the feeling of my silky smooth skin. Miki, Pat and I wait for Greg to emerge from the mixed onsen.
“Did you get lucky?” we ask.
“No,” Greg says glumly. “It was just old men.”
“They were probably there for the same reason you were,” grins Miki. Heading back to the van, we make jokes about how we’ve never been this clean. We pile into the backseat like kids, and fall silent, happy and tired.
Squished in the back between Pat and Greg, I realize onsen are not only good for cleansing the body, but also the mind. A sort of spring-cleaning has been done in my mind, clarifying how I’ve changed since coming to Japan. Each time I took off my clothes was an affirmation of my new confidence and self acceptance. Back home I always saw myself reflected through my friends and family. Living on my own and away from the familiar has allowed me to re-examine myself and find that I am indeed the person I want to be. While I’m not ready for a nude beach, I will definately visit an onsen again.