travel · Uncategorized

Stripping Off in Suwa, Japan

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I walked into the Katakurakan onsen with trepidation clawing up my throat.

A smiling lady handed me a small towel and a small key at the window of reception, then gestured gracefully towards a door on the left. This was something I’d noticed a lot since arriving in Japan; every Japanese person I encountered seemed to have been born with the kind of grace that eludes me on a daily basis. Clutching the towel to my chest, I pushed open the door to the women’s changing room and walked in.

In no way was I excited about getting naked with strangers.

I was dragging my feet with dread. My skin had started to itch with a strange, cold, prickling sensation that wasn’t in the least bit pleasant. It hadn’t been my idea to visit the onsen, but the lovely Japanese man showing me around Lake Suwa had seemed personally affronted when I said I would rather not. His smiling, insistent head-bowing had worn me down until, resigned, I had nodded and followed him into the brick building.

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According to Wikipedia “an onsen is a Japanese hot spring and the bathing facilities and inns frequently situated around them. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens scattered throughout all of its major islands. Onsens were traditionally used as public bathing places and today play a central role in Japanese domestic tourism.”

I knew very little about onsen before visiting, other than the fact that you have to be naked and tattoos are strictly verboten. Now here I was, standing in a changing room, clutching a towel, wishing the tiled floor would open up and swallow me whole.

Once I’d accepted that this was, in fact, happening, I looked around for any hint as to what was expected of me. I knew that I would have to strip down, but where? Here? Signs in unintelligibly bubbly kanji laughed at me from the walls. Trying to act nonchalant, I sat down and started to untie my shoelaces ever so slowly as panic bubbled up in my chest. Nobody there spoke any English, and I sincerely doubted my rudimentary phrases of Japanese (O-genki desu ka? Sumimasen! Kore kudasai) would get me very far in learning the intricacies of onsen ettiquette.

Just then, the door swung open and, as if sent to deliver me to salvation, a middle-aged lady walked in. She might as well have arrived in a beam of light, I was so glad to see her. I watched her out of my peripheral vision as I pretended to be absorbed by the process of peeling off my socks. I could undress myself – that part didn’t present a problem; after all I’ve been doing it every day of my life – but I needed to know what came after. I didn’t want to have to stand there naked like a total gom while I fumbled to understand what to do next.

The woman, unaware that she was the hero of the moment, kicked off her running shoes and started to briskly remove her clothing. I kept my eyes on the bench as she dropped her blouse, her bra, and her bobby pins into a tidy pile on the pale ash slats. I picked up the pace with my own clothes, pulling off my loose knit jumper and tank top in a single movement. Now that I had found this unwitting guide, it was important I keep up with her. I couldn’t let her disappear from view.

When she was quite nude, she put her belongings in a locker.

I also put my belongings in a locker.

She used her key to lock it, then slid the elastic keyring onto her wrist.

I did the same.

Picking up her towel, still ignorant of my careful observation of her every move, she walked through the changing room and passed under an arch into the room with the main bath. I followed, now so intent on following this poor woman like a creepy stalker that I barely registered how weird it felt to be totally naked around perfect strangers.

I said barely.

It was weird. It was very weird. I have a somewhat strange notion about my body in that I’m okay with showing it off to an extent – I feel comfortable in a bikini, and don’t mind changing in front of people if the situation demands it – but I don’t like getting completely naked in front of anyone who isn’t my partner. It’s a personal thing. I’d just rather not share the sight of my entirely unclothed body with anyone else. Make of that what you will. It’s not a matter of prudishness or shame or discomfort with my body… It’s just a personal preference.

I never said it made sense.

So here I was, standing in a room in Japan decorated to look like an ancient Roman bathhouse, stark naked, holding only a small towel and trying not to stare at anybody.

…Which, I mean, if I’m going to be naked around strangers anywhere, Japan is probably far enough away for it to almost not have happened at all.

My mentor turned to an area on the right, and sat on the tiniest stool I have ever seen. The stool was positioned in front of a little washing station, with toiletries on a similarly tiny counter. I followed her lead and sat two tiny stools down, with my knees up around my chest. I watched her surreptitiously as she used the shower head provided to wash herself, and copied her movements while wondering why the uncomfortably tiny stool was necessary. What was wrong with a shower cubicle?

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When she stood and made her way to the bath, I followed a couple of minutes behind. I walked to the far end of the bath and stepped into the warm water trying to look as unperturbed as possible. When my whole body was submerged in the warm water, I folded my towel and placed it on a ledge just like my onsen angel had done, and then I lay back, closed my eyes, and tried to stop thinking.

It’s almost impossible to stop thinking. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but it’s like trying to herd cats. Emptying your mind of all thoughts is a lovely notion, but if you actually sit down and try to do it you can find yourself thinking about how hard it is to stop thinking, and then thinking about thinking about how hard it is to stop thinking…

Basically what I’m trying to say is that my mindful meditation didn’t last very long.

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I opened my eyes to see my onsen guide walking along the bottom of the bath. I stretched my leg out and felt around with my toes. I was surprised to find that there were thousands of small pebbles lining the floor of the bath. I slid down a step so that my chin was barely above water, and pressed the soles of my feet into the pebbles. It felt good. I could see why people loved the onsen. The water was exactly the right temperature; not too hot to step into without wincing, and not too cold to lie there for an extended period of time. It was quiet. The few women in the room were absorbed in their own rituals, washing and relaxing and combing out their hair. I’d never been in an all-female space like this before, and it felt very safe.

Strange, but safe.

I soaked there until my fingertips wrinkled.

Afterwards I stepped out to find my onsen lady getting dressed. Apparently it’s good to keep the minerals from the onsen spring water on your skin, so it’s normal not to shower after your soak in the bath. I pulled my clothes back on with no small sense of relief, and emerged into the cool air with a pink, flushed face and a new appreciation for onsen culture.

I feel like maybe after a couple of visits I might have managed to feel comfortable with the whole thing (although my brother told me he had to go to one with his coworkers and even just typing that sentence out now makes me incredibly uneasy, so who knows?). I’m glad I did it at least once, anyhow.

Have you ever been to an onsen? If not, would you try it?

And the real question… WOULD YOU TRY IT WITH YOUR COWORKERS?

63 thoughts on “Stripping Off in Suwa, Japan

  1. When I started reading, I began to panic for you. I was assuming this story would take a strange twist and end with you naked in front of a group of patrons at a sushi restaurant or something. I literally breathed a sigh of relief (as I’m sure you did too) when the other woman came in.

    I’ve never hear of an onsen before. I’ve gone skinny dipping in mixed company, so I feel like trying one wouldn’t be too terrible for me. Though I would never do it with my coworkers. Uh-uh. No thank you! Kudos to your brother though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahaha god that would have been uncomfortable! Skinny dipping in mixed company! I want to give you a high five! I’d definitely be the person still in their bikini refusing to get involved!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I know right? The mixed gender colleague thing just sounds like it would lead to discomfort down the road! Maybe if you’ve grown up around the culture though it’s not that weird? Maybe…?

      Like

  2. There seems to be something unappealing for me to be sitting in a bath with other naked men. 😉 Seriously! One of my pet peeves is when the guy in the shower stall next to me at the gym starts a freaking conversation. I want to get in and out as quickly as possible, and not discuss the score of last nights game amongst jangly bits dangling. OK, I’ve gone on too long, haven’t I?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You wouldn’t believe the amount of Google-fu I needed to employ to not only find where I had been on google maps (didn’t remember the name of the holiday town) and then find the exact onsen. Apparently I really need to jot down notes on where I’ve been before I forget!

      And you could always use it to establish dominance in the herd?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You have no idea how apt the word “herd” is when describing my cohorts. Constant grazing, predation by management, scat everywhere. So you might be on to something. One trip to an onsen with them and I’ll bet they all line up to groom my pelt and pull ticks off me. RAAAWWWR!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Certain onsens in Japan have private rooms you can reserve for a small group, like families with young children or close (I mean CLOSE) friends. Hahah. Japan is really really really high up there on my list of places to go. And aside from the fantastic hotels in Tokyo I want to stay at a real traditional hot spring inn. Japan seems like heaven for a solo traveller. And it’s really only when I’m surrounded by absolute strangers that I feel most at ease and comfortable in situations like this. I’m terribly terribly jealous of your Japan adventure.

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  5. I lived in northern Japan and always liked going to the hot baths, especially on bitter, cold winter days. Afterwards a hot bowl of noodles and some sake’. The one I went to had a dividing wall between the ladies and men’s baths, but it was only about 4′ tall, and the ladies were always peeking over the wall. It also had three different temperature baths: warm, hot, and really hot! Felt like a dish rag after soaking. Enjoyed your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved this post, as per usual, and am so glad to hear that someone else just cannot get a handle on mindful meditation BUT all that being said, I think the single greatest thing happening on this post today is that someone with a username that reads Naked White Guy (nkdwhtguy) left a comment on your post about being naked around strangers.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Dude that sounds awesome, I definitely want to go. I don’t work so I can’t really answer about coworkers 😂 by the way did you mean that tattoos are forbidden? (You misspelled the word.) What would you do if you had a tattoo? Would you just not go?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, in Japan tattoos are linked to the yakuza (Japanese mafia) so they’re very frowned upon. Most onsen don’t allow anyone with tattoos. I suppose more touristy ones might though… maybe in Tokyo? ‘Verboten’ means forbidden in German!

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  8. Excellent story. To answer your question I won’t try it and most definitely not with coworkers. Dont get me wrong I’m very comfortable with my body but I guess in someways like you I prefer not to. I think it is quite brave to be completely naked as to me it’s an odd balance between it being liberating and also vulnerable in some ways. I applaud people like you, truly. You try new things and it’s admirable. I’m too much of a “prude” personally to be that bold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I could have refused without feeling like I was being rude I would have! Onsen are such a normal part of the culture there and he was so excited about my trying it that I really didn’t feel I could say no without really offending him!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That makes sense. I guess because its so normal people probably wouldn’t notice anyone else and their nakedness. Kind of like a nude beach? I never knew about onsens until I read your post, it’s really quite interesting

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, it’s a huge part of the culture there – they go really often with friends, family, coworkers (!)…. You aren’t allowed to visit with a bathing suit on because it’s considered unhygienic!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I love your travel stories ( which reminds me I’ve yet to post about being pushed on a tomb) it sounds like it could be pretty relaxing if you get over the awkwardness!
    I Always laugh when the yoga teacher says empty your mind…that automatically makes me imagine all the crap in my head being emptied into a bin, which defeats the purpose because I’m still thinking about something, strange as it is…I know I’m weird!!
    I’m the same with the nakedness, we went on holiday with friends, my friends husband almost caught a glimpse of me in my underwear, I ran to my room in a flash when I realised he was there I was so embarrassed ….even though I’d spend all day with him on the beach wearing a bikini that probably covered less!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I used to go to a Korean bathhouse in Melbourne, so was comfortable and familiar with onsen practices when I went to Japan. Korean and Japanese bathing etiquette is the same as far as my understanding goes. I would go to the Melbourne establishment with a friend. One day when we were there on our own, we were asked if we would be happy to be interviewed for a piece for Korean telly. We were totally starkers but submerged in the bath as the journalist asked us questions. She was very happy with our replies and told us when it would be on in her country. The owners of the baths would get a copy of the tape, and we would be able to see how it turned out. We asked the next time and the next if they had received their copy but the answer was always no. We eventually forgot. I would still love to see the segment!

    Another enjoyable piece, Quinn! Oh, and no, I wouldn’t go with colleagues!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you find the segment some time that sounds like a memory to treasure and all the better if it’s on film somewhere! Youtube maybe? Did you know what channel it was on? Might be worth contacting the TV channel!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. You should go to an outdoor one. We went when we were in Kyoto up in the mountains. It was just magnificent. Just bathing in the middle of nature surrounded by beautiful pine trees. I had to strip in front of my friend from childhood . It was awkward but I loved the experience so much we went to one in Korea.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It was a great experience. As for the childhood friend bit it was awkward but all good in the end. We just shrugged it off. It did make me feel closer to her. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  12. That was a fascinating story! Thank you for sharing it.

    I’ve never been to an onsen. Perhaps the closest I’ve come to such an experience has been to frequent Colorado’s hot springs, including the clothing optional ones.

    I was just as nervous as you were the first time I got naked in public. After I had stripped down for the very first time, I spent about two hours fretting about every blemish on my body, and wondering what the friend I was with thought of them. At last, I decided to accept myself as I was, if only to stop the worrying. I suddenly felt as if a burden had been lifted from me. It was quite a roller coaster going from my fears to a feeling of liberation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thankfully I wasn’t with any friends and the likelihood of my every seeing any of those lovely people in Suwa again (much less recognising them!) is extremely, EXTREMELY remote! I didn’t worry about my body exactly, more I just felt very exposed. Like, if an alien spaceship had descended in that moment and declared war, I would have been entirely unprepared and vulnerable.

      On second thought, that may not have been the best analogy.

      Like

  13. Great story! I know the feeling of trying to meet unfamiliar customs, i went to Japan in 2013 for school, and got to stay with a Japanese family for a week. The two major things that were odd, speaking as a Westerner, were the showers. You sat on a stool and washed yourself, and the tiles on the floor depressed a bit, so the room would not overflow 😀 Personally, i appreciate this from of showering than to the Western one, and if i could, i’d get a Japanese style shower room 😀 And since you stayed in Japan also, you were probably unaccustomed to sleeping on a futon on the floor too!

    Paul (the Paul right above my head) recommended this post to me on Cafe Philos, due to the fact that i’m clinically a storyholic 😀

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I did like it! I rather fancied it myself, the room was a lovely heated temperature so i wasn’t complaining 😀 I’m quite small too, although i don’t recall if the stool was too small, perhaps the difference comes about due to the fact that i was in a household? Another trip to Japan will only say! 😀

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  14. “To do but how to do …. that’s the question ! ”
    Your story had all the ingredients of a super entertaining blockbuster – beautiful locale, adventurous heroine, plot twist, the confusion, the terror , the panic and a happy ending , all served with dollops of humour . Ah! Informative too . Now I know what in the world is onsen!

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  15. I really enjoyed your story! Well, my daughter and I did visit an onsen as a part of a package deal on the way back to Tokyo after climbing Mt. Fuji when we were there. Most everyone on the bus went inside except for a few reluctants like us two. We got off the bus and went for a walk to a local grocery store and bought some snacks instead.
    I think because I’m normally a fairly outgoing and adventurous person, my daughter was surprised that I wasn’t comfortable sitting in a bath naked with other men. However, she had been to one before and wasn’t that excited to do it either, but was willing for me to have the experience. However, I still declined. Now feeling a bit like a stick in the mud, I answer your question; even looking back five years, I still don’t think I’d want to do it. Thanks for sharing your experience though.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Oh my goodness I love Onsen. I think this is the the thing I miss most about Japan (…as well as the food! How could I not miss the food!) Once you get used to it, it’s not even weird to go with coworkers or friends.
    I found the only time it gets awkward is when people stare at you for being different. Once I was in a super-sento (it’s like an onsen, but with a huge selection of different types of baths.) I found a pool that was shaped like a figure of 8 with jets that could push you around it. I was too tall to feel the jets, so I walked around it on my knees. After a while a teeny Japanese lady got into the same pool, so I got out to make more room for her. She must have thought I was teeny too, and she looked truly shocked when I suddenly stood up all naked and towering over her. Oops.
    Anyway it sounds like you had the best possibly introduction if the onsen was mostly empty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The food is really incredible. I ate so many different kinds of onigiri and ramen over there that I almost had reverse culture shock when I came home again. Rice comedown!

      Yeah I’m lucky in that I’m brunette and very short so I guess I wouldn’t attract too much attention from a quick glance! You probably stunned that little Japanese lady into a stupor! I did get a drunk Japanese couple laughing and pointing at how foreign I was on the train though… that was slightly awkward!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s more likely that they were laughing at each other and goading each other to attempt to say something to you. I speak Japanese so I could understand when people were chatting about me on the train. It was mostly quite sweet things about them wanting to practice English but not knowing how to spark up a conversation.

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      2. Oh no, these two were drunk as skunks and hanging off the railing in front of our faces. They weren’t capable of conversation. It was just giggling and the occasional finger in the face accompanied by “GAIJIN!” and then another burst of hysterical laughter.

        We did get some of what you’re describing too which was very sweet and they actually almost always worked up the nerve for a chat eventually! 😄

        Liked by 1 person

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