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.

‘Well?’

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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2 Replies to “An American Girl in a Japanese Onsen: Adventures in Nudity, Self-Confidence, and Public Bathing”

  • JimmyV

    Emily, my coming of age years were the late 1970s, early 1980s at the YMCA. I agree with you about the open showers versus the individual shower stalls. From a guys perspective, I spent many nights and weekends swimming or playing basketball at my local YMCA. Showering with not only my friends, but over the years, dads, neighbors and guys from church. It really makes one comfortable, not in a sexual way, with one self and others. Never had the nude swimming, I think that ended in the 1960s as women/girls joined the YMCA, forcing may YWCAs to close their doors.
    Amelie, here in the US a number of Korean Spas have opened. As with Japanese, Korean families bath together (grandmother, daughter, grand-daughter), (dad, son) separated by gender. They are starting to attract a diverse clientele (age, race, etc). So who knows, maybe the nude swimming will return to the Y someday.

  • Emily

    Thank you so much for your beautiful article!
    I’m so happy that you enjoyed your experience at the Onsen!
    I’ve never been to an Onsen, but I would love to get to visit one some day.

    Back in the 1980s and 1990s my mom was the head supervisor at a YWCA in Ohio. I practically lived in the YWCA (not literally, of course) for the 19 years that my mom worked there. I had a part time job at the YWCA for a few years in the 1990s.

    One of the great things about spending so much time at the YWCA was that I grew up using the locker room all of the way from a young child to a young woman and being 100% comfortable with both my own nudity and the nudity of all other females.

    I feel that it was so much better back then when the Y had one big room full of shower heads on the walls than it is with stalls these days. The group shower setting was great from a bonding experience. I feel that it’s much healthier psychologically speaking that females are exposed to other women’s and girl’s bodies, as opposed to feeling that we need to hide from each other and change clothes in toilet stalls or under towels.

    One of the benefits of having a mom who was a supervisor of the Y was that after hours my mom and my sisters and myself could just skinny dip in the pool, and my sisters and I were allowed to have our female friends with us for a skinny dipping session on Friday and Saturday nights.
    Also, my aunt and a few of my female cousins would skinny dip with my mom, my sisters and I every once in a while.

    My mom said that she had heard that the YWCA used to have one night a week that was for nude swimming back in the 1960s and most of the 1970s. Obviously it was a female only facility at the time.

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