Getting Naked with the Neighbors
“Take off all your clothes and put them in this basket.”
“Even my underwear?”
I had come to an onsen, or public bath, with my best friend in Japan and his family. Every Sunday Kyo, his parents, and some of his extended family head out to the local onsen hot spring to spend a relaxing day in the baths.
I had heard that Japanese people bathed together, but I didn’t expect to experience this part of the culture during my first week in Japan.
This was WAY out of my comfort zone.
Oh well, I was already in the changing room, Kyo’s parents had paid for my entrance, and hell, everyone else was butt naked, right?
When I bring up onsen to Americans, I often get the same question: Do men and women bath TOGETHER!? Well, yes, and no. Most onsen are completely separate nowadays. The men’s side is on the left, and the women’s side is on the right or vice versa . The baths are separated by a wall, and while you can sometimes hear the women laughing on the other side, there’s no peeking to be done.
In olden days, men and women would bath together. Later, they would be in the same area with a rope separating the sexes. More westernization happened and for the most part men and women are completely separated nowadays. There are some unsupervised baths up in the mountains that are still mixed, but they’re extremely rare and I doubt you’d find anyone under the age of 80 lounging about. You’ve been warned…
There are “kazokuburo,” or “family baths” available at most onsen that have a private changing room, a small private bath, and a door that locks. Mostly used by families, but also a popular destination for young couples. What happens in the onsen stays in the onsen!
Kyo hands me a small hand towel and opens the sliding doors into the bathing area. There’s a row of low-hanging shower heads and he bids me to sit next to him. Each spot has shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, and it’s time to get clean!
In Japan, you always shower before hoping into the bath. This rule applies to getting clean in your house, and getting clean in public. Everyone shares the same bath water, so you want to make sure you’re so fresh and so clean when entering communal waters.
When I went to China it was the other way around, but that’s a different story for another day.
There were floral infused baths, cold baths, warm baths, hot baths, scathing-hot-melt-your-skin-off baths, and even a small electrically charged bath. Kyo told me to get into that one and lean back. I yelp and jump out of the water as I get a charge of electricity right in my spine and Kyo doubles over laughing.
“You’re not supposed to lean back in those! You’ll get electrocuted! Hahaha!”
Now that the white boy has yelled out in pain every dude in the bath is looking at me. I now have all the attention I’ve been trying to avoid.
I take a swing at Kyo’s shoulder, we both chuckle and move to the sauna.
That day with Kyo and his family at the onsen was one of the most relaxing days I’ve ever had. After getting out of the bath, we put on thick, soft bath robes and headed to the private tatami room his family had rented. They didn’t pull any stops; food was plentiful, and so was the beer and sake.
Full belly and happy heart, I fell asleep on the soft tatami floor. Kyo woke me up, everyone headed back to the baths for one final soak, and then we went home.
My skin smelled great, every inch of my body felt warm, and life was chill.
From that day, I took every chance I could to visit a new onsen.
If you visit Japan and don’t head to one, you’re missing out on what is probably one of the most unique and rewarding parts of Japanese culture.
Don’t worry, everyone else is naked, and no one stares at you. If you’re really brave, start up some conversations! It’s usually pretty quiet in onsen, but who’s going to pass up the once in a lifetime opportunity to chat with an American in his birthday suit?