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Tuesday, August 7

This Piece Certainly Warrants At Least An R-Rating

My goal when I moved to Japan was very “when in Rome.” I have really tried to experience everything I should try while I am here. But there was one thing I have held off for some time now. Even now, I wasn’t ready for it, but I did it anyway.

We’re talking Japanese Onsen. These are hot springs, both natural in the great outdoors or indoor man-made spa bath settings. Onsen types are numerous with various minerals dissolved into the water that are there to provide the partaker in different health benefits. But the main thing onsen is for is relaxing. Think of it is a big tub that you relax in sometimes meant for only girls, sometimes for only boys and sometimes even fore boys and girls. Oh, did I mention the important part yet? You do it naked. Yep, unclothed, uncovered, unprotected… in the buck-est shade of naked.

My girlfriend had chosen, Spasso, the seaside spa in Ofura where many gaijin (foreigners) often visit. However, on this day there were no other gaijin outside of the two of us. She at least gets to claim being half Japanese which leaves me a little bit further out of the loop. We had often discussed going to onsen, as she has done it before, but I was more than a little nervous. See, for those of you who haven’t seen me, ummm… in the buff… which, god, I hope is the majority of you… although there were those years in the 90s… I digress, I have a little secret. I have tattoos. Three of them exactly. Nothing kinky or sadistic but there is one that is rather large on placed on my lower back. The thing about tattoos here in Japan is that they are not looked on so favorably. Certainly, the younger generations are more tattooed as is the way in our culture. But onsen is a traditional experience and therefore traditionally partaken in. My friend considered this in choosing the location for my onsen experience. With the proximity to a major American base, and the number of gaijin that frequent the location, plus the fact that there were no signs stating any anti-drawing-on-your-body policies, I was in the clear with Spasso.

The funny thing I just couldn’t grasp was what was still bothering me. It couldn’t be the naked thing… could it?

I certainly wasn’t considered a prude in my twenties. I was always quick to join a skinny dipping session or just to let the girls free on a party dare. And yet here, I waffled on actually doing this. Perhaps getting married has calmed me down more than I ever realized while it was happening.

When it came right down to it, I simply was not going to let newfound prude ruin what is supposed to be a wonderful experience.

I paid my 1,800 yen (about $16) and took my bag of towels into the locker room. As I rounded the corner to enter the changing area, I was immediately confronted with T&A everywhere. Seriously, I couldn’t figure out where to land my glances because they would surely move over something my brain told me I shouldn’t be looking at. Pushing all thoughts out of my head, I went straight to my locker and began stripping off components of my wardrobe, trying hard not to look at anything around me. How hard that turned out to be when a young girl and boy walked between me and the lockers in all their jay bird freeness.

Once I undressed, my friend directed me that the little towel in the bag was meant to be used for privacy. The aforementioned towel was narrower than a hand towel and only a smidge longer. You hold it over your chest and it hangs down to cover the hoohah. With a chest like mine, this towel honestly did little. But there we were, ready for the next step.

Into the spa room where showers sit off to one side. Here you must wash from head to toe to prepare for the spa baths. I managed to spray soap directly into my eyes because I was still trying to hold the towel to cover me while I washed up. Apparently, you are to put the towel down and wash, but I was still struggling with the fact that I was naked and behind me stood the first spa baths backed by a glass window that overlooked more outdoor spa baths and the ocean that spread out in front of the place. More than a few ships were passing by which I prayed couldn’t see us.

All cleaned up, my friend suggested the outside spas because inside the heat becomes a bit too hard to take and there is at least a breeze outside. Clutching my tea towel to me, we walked outside and climbed down into the spa bath. From there, you take the towel and lay it aside and lay flat on you back to soak in the spa and enjoy the relaxation of it. Seriously? I cannot fathom how to relax in this environment.

There are about twenty women and children (one of which was a boy my friend and I agreed was a bit too old to be in the women’s spa) soaking with all their glory displayed for the boaters in front of them and the heavens above them. While I won’t describe what I saw, I now fully know what the female Japanese body looks like… in every aspect.

I must admit that the breeze felt nice with the hot mineral water. And the view was gorgeous! But I simply couldn’t get over the fact that the boats that went by in front of the hotel and spa could surely see into the bath area, despite the wall that was built along the ocean’s edge. If I could see them, what in the world would make anyone think that they couldn’t see you?

After soaking for some time, we got up and sat out to cold down a bit, only to crawl back in single-sized tubs that were about the size of a sake or wine barrel. When the heat finally overcame us, we crawled back out to sit and soak up the air that no longer had a tinge of the humidity we had felt when we arrived at Spasso. Certainly our body temperature was well past appropriately registering heat and humidity.

We had been there for some time when a woman approached us. My friend speaks wonderful Japanese and was able to interpret that here the woman had come to us because of my tattoos. For all the time we had been at the spa, I still was not comfortable. My awkwardness now peaked at new levels. She had tape to put over them, but I was honestly just done with the spa anyway, as I am not one for handling elongated periods of the intense heat in spas and saunas. I was ready to leave. I wanted to run while doing it. And run I did. I didn’t care that all spa goers were probably staring out of the corner of their eyes at me. I grabbed my little towel and headed inside to the showers to rinse of the salt and mineral water before redressing.

As we discussed it later, we can only think that maybe someone complained about the tattoos. Why else, after such a long time there, did someone finally approach me about it? To each his own, but I couldn’t help but wonder why someone would do this when they are so polite and usually keep to themselves. And then just today I was reading an article about how Japanese people certainly do try to keep to themselves, but when something offends them, they work around the person to have the offense removed. Was this what happened to me?

It doesn’t really matter. My goal was to get a new Japanese experience and I surely did. I even took a chance and pushed myself out of my comfort zone, which I didn’t return to until I was covered again.

Downstairs at Spasso, there is a tatami (straw-mat) room that men and women go to after they are done in the spas to take naps. There were many people laying all about on the floor sleeping the effects of the spa off. I would much rather go home and take my nap in my bed with my pjs on.

Certainly an experience I think anyone living in Japan should try, but onsen is not one that I will be trying again. Unless it is one of those hotels in Hakone, around Mt. Fuji, where each room has its own outdoor spa for just you and that someone special. Then I would definitely do it. He said “I do” which means he is bound to see me naked at some point. And I won’t have to worry about being checked out by a room full of twenty Japanese strangers.


Mike S said...

Very surprising, as in the 70s a friend of ours went to the 'local' weekly with my ex-wife, and she also had tatoos. A heart, butterfly and the famous lower back 'tramp stamp' as they're called in parts of CA. Never a problem:)

Heather Meadows said...

They were all just jealous of your boobs.

I'm sorry to hear that you couldn't get comfortable. I loved each and every one of my onsen experiences.

The first time I was with a lady who I imagine was in her 70s, and a 20-something from England. It was the baths at Tokyo's youth hostel in Iidabashi. It was cool experiencing it for the first time with two women who were also experiencing it for the first time. After that I went a couple other times in different places, and later on my honeymoon I used the one in the ryokan while some Japanese girls were in there. That was actually the most awkward time, since it was a small space and they were chattering away to each other and ignoring me completely.

But in general I really enjoyed it, even the outdoor one.

However, it may be that my poor vision had a hand in it. Without my glasses, I couldn't see details hardly at all. Actually, that's why I don't get embarrassed at the pool, either. I just pretend that everybody is as vision-limited as I am :>

Chris said...

You are not alone! Many of us just don't feel comfortable in this situation. I'm an artist and have painted many nudes - male and female. This doesn't bother me, but to be in a bath filled with strangers was my biggest nightmare while living in Japan many years ago!

Kimono Karen said...

I may shake off the embarrassment and try it again. Who knows... I am a glutton for punishment. I just will have to wait until I forget how uncomfortable it was for me.

I think that is awesome that you loved it so much, Heather! I know many people who do. I tend to feel a bit more like Chris right now though. It was a bit of a nightmare.

Never one to be a chicken, I guess time will tell if I try it again and the second time reaction.

Lisa said...

I can understand why men with tattoos might be turned away from onsen, but why women? Are the Japanese going to exclude a whole generation of women with tattoos from this tradition?