On and on and onsen

Posted by on Sep 17, 2011 in Niigata, Travel Volunteer Journey | One Comment
On and on and onsen

There is some fatal flaw in the British psyche that often leaves us paralysed with embarrassment. I think a lot of it come from some out-dated state of mind about things being “proper”. Frequently we seem to find ourselves scandalised and muttering into our chests. Hugh Grant does it a lot on camera.

We are a very self-conscious people. You see it a lot in bars around the country, where folk need to be blind drunk before they’re willing to stand up in front of a crowd or sing karaoke. We don’t like to draw attention to ourselves.
It goes beyond the waking world too: I used to have a reoccurring nightmare when I was a teenager, where I’d be a on a school trip, then suddenly find myself naked on the bus, unable to get off, with everyone staring at me. In other words, the idea of, say, walking naked into a room full of strangers has plagued me for a long time. (Katy never used to have this dream, but is still terrified by the prospect of naked strangers.)

Unfortunately, that is precisely the idea behind the Japanese onsen.

We’ve been to many spas before, but none have had this all-naked policy. Nor have they generally frowned upon tattoos. The first time we tried to visit an onsen I was politely told that because of my tattoos (I have four, none of them are good) perhaps it would be better if I didn’t go in. It seems that here in Japan tattoos have a strong, negative association with gangsters.

In my case, I couldn’t look less like a gangster: I have my nickname with a tribal symbol that looks unfortunately like a barbeque; a band around my arm that looks like two slugs crawling towards each other; a declaration of brotherly love that arrived in a drunken haze; and a Japanese symbol that roughly translates as “ogre” (as a 17-year-old I thought it looked cool without knowing the meaning). As I said: not good.

So in the end, being turned away was a bit of relief.

Thankfully, though, when we arrived in Niemonya last night in Toyama prefecture, we both got to enjoy our first proper Japanese spa experience. Although we were on separate floors (men and women are kept apart) we both had to fend off a strong desire to make a mad dash to run into the water; onsens are peaceful places and seeing a pink blur sprinting through the steam is unlikely to easy anyone’s troubled mind.

So with gritted teeth and tense shoulders we both managed to wash ourselves publicly. For Katy, there was something of a romance from the old world about sitting down to bathe herself, rather than the slap-dash shower of modern times. Soaking in the soothing warm water wasn’t bad, either.

And now that we’ve done it once, there’s no turning back. As I write now, Katy is off enjoying another one, here at Hananogi on Sado Island.

At this rate, by next week naked could well be the new black.










1 Comment

  1. Lesley
    September 19, 2011

    Jamie! Naked is absolutely the new black!

    I really loved going to the onsen when I was in Japan, in fact, it was probably one of my very most favourite parts of Japanese culture. I’ve thought a bit about why I enjoyed it so much and have decided that the experience of being naked around strangers was a positive one, totally lacking from our culture.

    In Britain, we do almost naked all the time. Geordie girls with mini skirts and bare arms in Jaunary, builders’ bums, bare chested football fans, you know all those very British stereotypes that are linked by a showing of flesh. But people are never ever totally naked around others.

    It’s really different in Japan of course. The onsen are so secluded and private and serene, which is quite a feat considering how busy and bustling most of Japan is. Also, there’s absolutely nothing showy or brazen about bodies in the onsen. Quite the opposite really, it’s very dignified. I found it liberating to be around lots of other women with no clothes on. I saw all shapes and sizes of bodies, all just equally naked. Skinny wee pre-pubescent girls and wrinkly, ancient grandmothers, friends, sisters, mums-to-be with ripe round bellies, really all sorts. And it felt really nice because there was just no judgment. Everyone’s got the same bits and bobs. For young women, you get quite used to feeling like you need to look a certain way, the way women look in magazines, but then, at the onsen, you remember that most people don’t really look like that, that you’re not that fat actually, and nobody there really cares what you look like anyway.

    I went lots of times by myself, with my friends and also with my mum when she came over to visit. For me, there was a lovely communal feeling of being sort of just all women together with no barriers, especially when I was used to feeling very foreign and different and not understanding much of what was going on around me in Japan. Washing in a public bath is such a simple pleasure, and also really timeless, you could just imagine lying back in the same hot water pool in imperial Japan centuries ago – and that it wouldn’t be much different.

    The closest I get here to feeling the same liberating, communal spirit is the changing rooms in Topshop, which, yeah, isn’t quite the same….