The Onsen Experience

I am probably more reserved than most people.  But I am not alone in my reservation about being naked in public.  To be fair there are few situations where it would be appropriate; an onsen in Japan is one of those situations.

This is my third time in Japan and most of the initial culture shock has worn off.  I can navigate the train system, am used to constantly being surrounded by people and can speak the minimal amount of Japanese to get by.  A goal of this trip was to keep Japan new and interesting, a big part of this is doing things outside of my comfort zone.  I used a bidet for the first time this trip and am still eating strange foods, but it wasn’t enough.  I had to try the onsen.

An onsen is a public bathing place, traditionally in naturally occurring hot springs, but now many hotels offer indoor onsens.  The hot water and mineral content are believed to have healing qualities.  Sounds like a must do right?  But in my previous two trips to Japan I have neglected to try it; the key reason being that you must be completely naked to use the onsen.

The hotel we were staying at in Tokyo had an onsen.  On the second night I built up the guts to try it.  I entered the change room and was relieved to hear the quiet; there was no one else around.  It was a weird feeling removing all of my clothes and putting them in a locker; there was no rush to quickly put something else on, just a lingering feeling of awkwardness.  Still alone, I went to the wash room to have a shower before entering the onsen.  The shower stalls were very open, but I suppose if you’re going to walk around the entire bath house naked there is no reason to have doors on the showers.

Eventually I entered the onsen.  The water was hot, a welcome relief after the crisp temperatures of early April in Tokyo.  There was steam rising off the top of the water, but not enough to obscure the view; the water was crystal clear.  I just sat there with hot water up to my neck and with a small towel balanced on my head.  I didn’t know the culturally acceptable way to sit in an onsen, which began to freak me out.  Should I cross my legs, bend my knees or just stretch out my legs?  What do I do with my hands?  It felt weird to cross my arms, but equally weird to leave them floating in front of me.

It was the longest 20 minutes of my life.  I constantly had one eye on the door; not sure what I would do if someone else came in.  Despite the constant worry, my muscles were feeling quite relaxed.  As time went on I could feel my heart rate racing and started getting light headed; I wasn’t sure if it was due to the anxiety from sitting naked in public or if the hot water was starting to go to my head.  And that was about all my comfort zone could take; I didn’t want to add passing out naked in a Japanese bath house to my list of experiences this trip.

So I got out and dried off.  I definitely felt less self conscious getting dressed in the change room compared to 20 minutes ago.  I also felt a weird sense of achievement; I had just done something that I thought I would never do.  When you try things outside of your comfort zone, the actual result is often not as bad as the worse case scenario you imagined in your head.  In fact it is quite the opposite, they are often the best experiences.  This is certainly a part of my trip that I won’t forget anytime soon.

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