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Getting Naked with Strangers: A Beginners’ Guide to Japanese Onsen
Ask an outsider what their impression of Japan is and doubtless one of the things that always comes up is the work ethic. What people often don’t realise is that the flipside to this is that the Japanese have also invented the greatest way to relax and unwind ever, and no trip to Japan should be complete without experiencing it. I am of course talking about the famous Japanese onsen, or hot spring baths.
Hot springs are everywhere in Japan. Which means that pretty much anywhere you go, you can strip off, scrub up and turn a fetching shade of pink whilst soaking up millions of years worth of eggy goodness through your skin. But hold on a second, that’s right – yes you have to strip off. No swimsuit, no bikini bottoms, no Sydneysiders – not even your trusty Budgie-Smugglers are allowed in the onsen, however small they may be.
This can be initially quite a daunting experience for the naturally prudish Brit. We may pride ourselves on our open mindedness, but in general the only time we get naked in public is after consuming a bottle of tequila on an 18 – 30 holiday in Magaluf. Even in communal changing rooms we tend to favour getting our knickers in a twist underneath a soggy towel or shyly hiding in the corner, rather than boldly striding around displaying our dangly bits for all and sundry.
Hakone is one of the best places for a classic onsen experience, set against a backdrop of lakes and mountains
If you want to experience the onsen, however – you have to leave your body hang-ups at home and embrace your inner nudist. The baths are, of course, segregated male and female, but even if you’re totally comfortable with being naked, your first Onsen experience can still be fraught with worry.
Having arrived at the changing room, you find your locker and slightly reluctantly put away what’s left of your modesty behind lock and key. But then what? Suddenly you realise you’re standing totally starkers surrounded by strangers and signs in Japanese. There are three possible doors to go through – but which one to choose? It’s like Alice in Wonderland – if you pick the wrong door, will you end up standing in reception totally naked? All of a sudden you’re trying to kill time whilst you wait for someone else naked to walk through a door so you can follow them. Have you ever tried killing time whilst standing naked in a room with strangers It’s actually quite challenging – you can’t put your hands in your pocket, look through your handbag, fiddle with your scarf or start writing an imaginary text on your mobile. All you can do is lock and unlock your locker a few times as if looking for an extremely important yet invisible item. 10 seconds feels like 10 hours.But then, like the white rabbit, you spot a pair of white buttocks disappearing through a door, and you have your escape route.
Fear not – as once you’ve tackled the changing room, the biggest hurdle is over. You have now entered a magical steamy world of hot bubbling pools, often set outdoors amongst rocks and trees.
There can be no greater pleasure than lying back in a steaming rock pool whilst the cold air bites your face, looking up at the stars through the leaves of an overhead tree, disturbed by nothing other than gentle chatter and the occasional splash as someone lowers themselves into a pool. Most onsens have a variety of different pools to choose from, of varying styles and temperature. Indoors and outdoors, jacuzzi style baths and steamy caves, or even your own personal wooden pot, that makes you feel slightly like you’re being boiled up for dinner by a hungry giant – but is in no way an unpleasant experience (although if you see some carrots and onions float past, time to make a swift exit). The rules are simple – shower and wash yourself thoroughly in the washing area before entering the baths, take a small handtowel with you, but make sure you don’t dip it in the water – either put it on the side or wear it on your head. Don’t stand timidly at the side covering yourself with your towel – be bold and stride confidently into the water like you’ve done this your whole life. And don’t even think about taking photos, as some extremely ignorant European tourists were doing. Just sit back, relax, and before you know it 2 hours have passed and you’re the colour of beetroot and the texture of a prune.
Unfortunately, most of the onsen ban people with tattoos – although more because of their association with the Yaukuza (Japanese mafia) then for any asthetic reason. Whether they’ll make an exception for your very un-mafia esque I LOVE DAVE tattoo on your buttocks I don’t know – good luck attempting to explain in Japanese – but all I can say is that experiencing the onsen would be worth several hours of painful laser tattoo removal. Emerging you feel like a new born baby. And the great thing is many onsen are open until midnight or 1am, a much healthier way to ease away the day’s worries then a bottle of red wine and an episode of Eastenders.
Could such a thing work in Britain? To be honest, I’m not sure if the UK could culturally adapt to such nakedness without either drinking or pointing and giggling. So for now, it looks like onsen lovers will need to make a pilgrimage to Japan for this truly divine experience.