An American Girl in a Japanese Onsen: Adventures in Nudity, Self-Confidence, and Public Bathing | My Family Travels

Long walks in the snow make a warm Onsen even more inviting.

Walking into the Aso Yamanami Golf Resort where my class would be spending the night, I was completely oblivious to the fact that later that evening the People-Who’ve-Seen-Me-Naked club would be expanding its membership by an utterly unprecedented six.

Yes, a good portion of the classmates I had been singing karaoke with on the bus just a few short hours ago would soon be sharing a really big bathtub full of totally naked people with me. Strange, no?

Well, not if you’re Japanese. Communal public baths, or onsens, have a rich history in Japan, from serving as inherently weapons-free meeting places for Yakuza gang members (quite the challenge to be packing heat in the nude), to facilitating spiritually important Buddhist cleansing rituals and providing numerous purported health benefits.

At first, I was hesitant to enter the onsen, as you might expect if you’ve grown up in a place where seeing people naked isn’t exactly the cultural norm. However, the Japanese attitude to nudity is radically different from Western views. In Japan, nudity is not inherently sexual, and instead is seen as one’s most natural state. The Japanese even have a word for friendships forged in the nude: hadaka no tsukiai. They believe that once you’ve removed the barrier of your clothes, you also begin to overcome mental barriers, facilitating a deeper level of friendship. So, in the spirit of stepping out of my comfort zone, and getting some hadaka no tsukiai of my own, I finally caved. Onsen it was.

My classmates and I met in the hall, across from the buffet, wearing quaint matching hotel pyjamas. When we arrived at the onsen, everyone quickly changed into only towels, however not one of us wanted to be the first to go completely bare. A nervous giggle here and there, some awkward eye contact, but most definitely no removal of the towels that were the only layer between us and the frigid locker room air. That all changed when one of the girls popped out of the room where the hot springs were, completely naked, and gave us a look.


One by one the towels came off. Loathe to be the last one, I took a deep breath and stowed my towel next to the discarded hotel pyjamas, running to the spring. Goosebumps rose on my arms, both from the cold air and the mix of subtle tension and nervous exhilaration that accompanies breaking one of society’s unwritten rules.

Of course there was really nothing to fear from one another’s naked bodies. We’re all a little bit different in wonderful ways, and overall much the same in others. Once you get over the fact that there’s slightly less fabric around than usual, conservations in the nude become commonplace quite quickly.

If anything, what that experience taught me is the whole uproar around nudity is complete and utter nonsense. I went in the onsen with six wonderful ladies (for anyone who’s wondering, the hot springs are split by gender; don’t worry mom) who I admire immensely, but I came out with a level of friendship that can only be obtained in the nude. For now, I look forward to giving nudity a little less thought and maybe visiting the Japanese Onsen a little more often.

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