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Japan: Lost and Found – Episode 8: Naked Time

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The onsen in Hakone was my first experience in a public bath, and with public nudity in general. 

My family, falling victim to the influence of Pauline/Augustinian doctrine—not to mention good old Irish guilt—had always encouraged a hearty shame for the naked body.

As a skeptical, cosmopolitan young adult, I supported the notion of public nudity, in theory.

But actually shedding my clothes and showing myself to friends and strangers was something else entirely.

Yet after a night’s worth of drinking, I was finally ready to take the plunge. 

As I neared the entrance to the men’s side of the onsen, I wondered if I would have to be the first one to bare all. Such worries were rendered moot once I entered the changing room and saw two naked Japanese men, their skin red from the baths, cooling themselves in front of large electric fans.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do! With the suspense gone, I untied my yukata and dropped trou. 

The ryokan had provided us with small wash towels, which are used for some measure of modesty as you walk to the baths. I caught up with two of my friends, and we were goofing it up, still quite buzzed from all the sake. We reached a shower room that preceded the baths, and we each sat down on a small stool and proceeded to scrub ourselves with soap and shampoo until we were 100% clean.

In Japan, baths are not for cleaning; they are a means of relaxation for people who are already clean.

I rinsed off thoroughly, then reapplied my fig-cloth and headed to the main chamber of the onsen.

This ryokan had an outdoor bath as well as indoor ones, so we headed outside, where the cool night air stung our wet bodies.

The pool of water that sat in front of us was steaming hot, however, and one step into it made all memories of being cold instantly vanish. 

Once I was fully immersed, it was almost too hot to endure. I felt like I was going to burn up, or faint. I lost control of my balance and stumbled into some hard rocks lining the bath. Not a good idea to bathe when buzzed after all.

We soon realized that there was a second bath hiding behind some jagged stones, and it was there that we found the rest of the guys in our group. And we were all naked. It wasn’t an issue at all though. It was just part of the experience. 

And the experience of an onsen is truly heavenly.

At first the intensity of the hot water is almost unbearable, but deep concentration helps you deal with it, and relax.

And just soak up the minerals of the mountains.

Afterwards, your skin feels like silk, and your brain feels like cotton. I’ve never felt cleaner or more relaxed than after soaking in a steaming hot mineral bath.

It was so relaxing out there, just sitting on the rocks of the outdoor bath, that a few of us stayed there two hours after everyone had left to go to bed. We just enjoyed the hot water, the cool air, and the conversation. Then we sleepily headed to our rooms, and collapsed on the incredibly soft futons that had been laid out for us. I fell instantly asleep. A perfect way to end the night.

The public bath is important to Japanese communities.

I once read a short history about sento baths at a youth hostel in Kyoto (sentos are regular public baths, while onsens are hot spring baths).

Apparently, until the 1940’s, no one in Japan had private baths in their homes. Instead, it was the age-old practice of the Japanese to go every day to the sento. This was a time of socializing and gossip as well as cleaning.

The sento offered community members a valuable “naked time,” which served to promote an air of humor and humility amongst its patrons. 

Traditionally, the sentos were not segregated by sex; men and women often shared the same rooms and baths. After Japan lost to the Allied Nations, however, the implementation of same-sex public baths changed this practice forever. Although all public baths are now separated according to sex, there do exist some hotels that give their guests the option of using shared private baths in addition to segregated baths.

Once the taboo of nudity had been abolished during my time in Hakone, I began to frequent public baths somewhat regularly.

There was still some learning to do.

While in Kyoto, I visited a sento near our hostel with two friends. After removing our shoes, we walked through a set of curtains into a small room with lockers and stools. To our left was a desk with a kind-looking old woman motioning for us to approach her. Next to her was another old woman…as well as a ten-year-old girl. 

We paid the entrance fee and walked nervously toward the lockers. Was this where we changed? I looked at my friends, and they looked as confused and embarrassed as I was.  We all looked to the three females for some clue. 

The old woman at the desk gave a smile and said “Douzo.” (Go ahead). She was motioning for us to undress, but…

I just couldn’t be the first one to bare myself in front of two old women and a ten-year-old girl.

What if that’s not what she meant?!’ I kept thinking. That’s a pretty big faux pas to commit!

A rather humiliating one at that.

Thankfully, at that moment, a large, naked figure emerged from the steam of the baths and entered the changing room, completely indifferent to the women at the desk. This signaled us to begin undressing and exposing ourselves to these fully clothed onlookers.

Because Japanese culture is so sensitive to context, I made it a rule not to do anything in the baths until I saw an example set by the locals. So, if stripping in front of old women was okay for the man next to me, it was fine for me too. I soon bared myself in front of another old woman at the neighborhood sento near my school without a second thought. 

Little kids are apparently a common presence at public baths. Soon the sight of little naked boys scampering around a room was just part of the background for me. At an onsen near Kichijoji, I was sitting alone in a small bath roughly the diameter of a wishing well, when a man and his five-year-old daughter climbed in. That was definitely weird, but I kept cool, and even made some polite conversation with the father before trying out a different bath.

In short, nudity has its place in Japan. I think this is a good practice to cultivate esteem within oneself and humility with others. The human body is not ugly or evil. It is what it is. Nudity can be funny or sexy or neutral, depending on the context. 

America doesn’t really have a place where nudity is desexualized, which is a shame. It’s a humbling experience. And a thoroughly enriching one. 

Provided the facilities are actually kept clean. Which, come to think of it, would be much less likely in the US. 

But at least those of us who visit Japan can try out the baths and get scald…er, “schooled” with some valuable naked time.

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Phylum of Alexandria

Committed music junkie. Recovering academic. Nerd for life.

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cstolliver
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cstolliver
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April 25, 2023 5:18 am

Agreed with the conclusion about the lack of a counterpart here as well as the reasons why. It took a while for me to get over changing in front of the other guys at the Y — I suspect it would take more time to get used to remaining naked for a while.

JJ Live At Leeds
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April 25, 2023 8:58 am

Pretty much the same approach to public nudity here as the US. The Japanese approach appears much better and healthier in removing the view that any nudity is sexualised. I can’t see it changing here anytime soon, would be way too much of a culture shift and I can just imagine how some of the less enlightened areas of the media and public in particular would react to any display of public nudity where children may be involved.

Last edited 1 year ago by JJ Live At Leeds
dutchg8r
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April 25, 2023 11:45 am

Phylum, so there’s a difference between mineral baths and hot springs, right? Are there some that are both? And 2 hours lounging in one – isn’t that unhealthy?! I mean we see all the disclaimers on hot tubs and saunas to limit your time to that heat…

We’ve got the Berkeley Springs about a hour drive from us that we keep saying we need to get to one day, just to see if soaking in mineral springs really does make a difference. Of course, one has to reserve a time to get your own room, and it’s only for a half hour at a time, but you’re not sharing with anyone else so maybe that’s the counterbalance to not being able to sit around at your leisure…

cappiethedog
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April 25, 2023 5:18 pm

In film, supposedly, and this would be the mentality behind the European school of “art films”, is that if you show nudity in an unbroken master shot, you’re not objectifying the male or female body. It’s realism. It’s a fact of life. People get naked. I’ve seen French films, mostly, in which naked people do mundane things like check their smart phone for e-mail. Or simply getting dressed for work. e.g. Woman puts on bra.

It’s not meant to turn the viewer on.

cappiethedog
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April 25, 2023 7:01 pm

Gary Numan covered this. I didn’t know what I was listening to. I checked Wikipedia. I just saw something that made me gasp a little. Woody Allen used the piece in one of his films.

cappiethedog
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April 26, 2023 8:39 pm

After he dies, I’ll watch his late-period films. I checked out after Blue Jasmine. I believe the victim. And she has corroboration from Ronan Farrow.

I know the biographies of many dead writers, and it’s not pretty. The only argument, I guess, is if Woody Allen’s filmography is important enough. Like how any film buff can’t avoid Olympiad, Triumph of the Will, and The Birth of a Nation. The last title is so over-the-top, it’s almost like watching a Mel Brooks/Lars Von Trier mash-up.

I think you know this. But just in case you don’t, Von Trier utilized “Young Americans” at the end of Dogville to terrifying effect.

I loathe myself a little for being a Von Trier fanboy.

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