The air outside was cold – goose bumps rippled on my skin as I stepped through, not entirely sure where to put my hands. I was entirely naked in a garden full of strangers in the middle of winter – it seemed like an embarrassing dream I might have had as a child.
But nobody looked at me. Nobody cared. Everybody else was naked too.
I wasn’t in a dream. I was in an onsen, a communal Japanese bath drawn from natural thermal springs. Steam rose off the hot water into the chilly air, and I was looking forward to soaking my tired legs after a day of walking through the mountains. A girl in front of me held the door open with a smile, and I looked very deliberately into her eyes as I thanked her.
Beside a tall bamboo fence, blocking the baths from outside view, a cluster of older women sat in the onsen – some soaking only their feet, some fully submerged, all with their towels folded neatly on top of their heads – and watched a Japanese game show. Two friends entered and sat together on a stone bench, chatting as hot water flowed down their backs. Toddlers stuck close to their mothers, occasionally running from bath to bath in excitement. People of all ages, sizes and backgrounds bathed together, spoke together, laughed together. Soaking quietly in the cloudy water, I remembered what my friend Paul said to me before we separated into the gendered bathing areas – “once you’re naked, no one can tell if you’re rich or poor. None of those things matter anymore.”
Living and studying in Japan during the autumn and winter of 2016, I became fascinated with the Japanese ritual of communal bathing. Being naked with strangers was a bizarre concept to me as an Australian, especially in terms of being self-conscious about my body and my general association of nudity with sex. Needless to say, I was surprised by how comfortable I felt once the underwear was off. Despite being prevalent in many cultures, limited formal literature exists around the psychology of social nudity. A common theme is the stripping away of ‘artificial barriers’ created by clothing – an indicator of class, status, modesty and even occupation. Some speculate it returns us to a more natural or animal state where, again, we are judged on our merit rather than our constructed appearance. Removing clothing removed all the social baggage that comes along with it. For me, when everyone around me was naked, it became obvious we are all flawed – in a world of Photoshop and airbrushing apps it was reassuring to remember that others have hair, stretch marks and asymmetry as well. Nudity reminds us we are different, and that makes us the same.
There are over three thousand hot springs across Japan certified by the Japanese Ministry of Environment, not including the artificially heated sento baths which are more common in urban areas but don’t necessarily have the same mineral content as onsen. Nozomi and Natsuki, both 22, grew up in different areas of Nara in southern Japan, and neither women can remember their first time visiting a public bath. It is something they have always done.
“I don’t remember my first experience at a sento or onsen because I go there quite often,” Nozomi said. “[I go] once a week or every two weeks, and usually go with my mother or friends. Or sometimes alone. I feel like sento or onsen is part of my life.” Sento, Natsuki explained, are places frequented by elderly people in lieu of bathing at home – some traditional Japanese houses do not have baths, which is why sento were invented in the first place. She added that bathing rituals are equally important inside the home. “I remember that I really enjoyed taking baths with my family when I was little. I took a bath with my dad, mom, and sister, and [we] washed each other’s backs. This is not the story of public baths, just the story of my bathroom. But I think all Japanese [people] have a picture of their first bath. We take a bath from toes to shoulders, instead of taking a shower every day.”
As I submerged myself toes to shoulders, the heat of the onsen threatened to become stifling. I switched to a shallower pool, where half my body was submerged and half was cooled by the breeze floating in from the nearby ocean. It was a wonderful balance. I hadn’t brought a small towel with me and I had to resist the instinctive urge to cover myself with my hands as I walked between the pools. By then I was convinced no one was looking at me, beyond giving me a cursory glance because I was so obviously foreign. A wooden sign above my head showed the mineral content of the onsen, painted on like a nutritional label. The game show host made a remark that ended with a wink, and several women giggled.