Monday, July 4, 2011

No clothes beyond this point

It's surprising how quickly you can get used to being naked in public. I plopped my small towel on my head as I entered the 40 C outdoor pool at one of Sapporo's city onsen. Around me, other women similarly attired as the day they were born, chatted quietly as they soaked in the hot water.

The traditionally Japanese onsen always feels to me like an cultural oxymoron. Here, where people are reserved enough to bow rather than make contact when greeting one another, everyone is perfectly happy to strip down to their birthday suit and climb into the same bath. The genders are usually separated but my new country has still seen more of me than all of my old ones combined[*].

Onsen are geothermally heated by the hot springs that are prevalent throughout Japan. In previous onsen I had visited, everything you required was provided on entry. There was usually a large pile of bath towels, a smaller one to take into the onsen with you and soap and shampoo at each of the wash stands you use before entering the pools. Perhaps because it was a city onsen, as opposed to a larger resort-type establishment, this facility worked differently. At the entrance was a machine covered with buttons where you could select the options you wanted. This then dispensed tickets that you took to a counter. I pressed the button for an adult admission to the onsen, looked at the others in blank confusion and went into the changing room, showing my ticket as I entered.

Then I came back out again.

Whatever the other options were, one of them involved being able to rent a towel. I approached the woman at the desk and gestured my confusion. She spoke a little English, I a little Japanese and more helpfully, her spiral binder of options and prices for the bath house spoke both. I pointed to the choices for two towels, a shampoo and a bar of soap. She walked over to the machine and showed me which buttons they corresponded to. I tried to remember the combination, realised I was likely to fail, and made a mental note to bring my own toiletry bag next time.

Back in the changing room, I pushed my clothes into a locker, picked a location to conceal with my tiny towel and stepped through into the bathing area. There were a series of pools to choose from; two indoor and one outdoor. There was also a jacuzzi and deckchairs half emerged in water to relax in.  Before entering any of the communal pools, you have to wash at one of the multitude of little stands around the outside of the room. Each place has a small seat, shower and bowl associated with it. I washed thoroughly. Then I did it again because I didn't want to be thought an incompetently unhygienic foreigner. I was half-way through my third rinse when I realised this was ridiculous. I cleaned my area and walked to the outside pool. Later, I tried the chairs, the jacuzzi, the outdoor pool again, the .... You get the idea. I bathed. It was good.

Not all Asian women have model-thin bodies and gleaming hair, but enough do to be slightly disconcerting. However, any feelings of inferiority are masked by the realisation that you are COMPLETELY NAKED in public. Fortunately, you are also quite obviously the only person who considers this remotely out of the ordinary so the feeling of awkwardness doesn't last.

Since my accommodation only has showers, being able to easily drop by a natural hot spring is all kinds of amazing. The only problem was I was so tired afterwards, I only made garbled sense to my parents when I called them. It is feasible they didn't notice anything strange.

[*] OK, so possibly this isn't true of the UK, but if I don't remember those early years, they didn't happen.


  1. Game Show ChaserJuly 5, 2011 at 7:50 PM

    I'm sure a tourist's experience in any country differs from a resident's substantially... perhaps though this is especially true in Japan. It will be interesting to see if you ever spot a brave-enough Western tourist at one of these springs.

    I could see tourists more readily eating worms though, as although they might not be used to it, eating such foods seems to be more in vogue on, e.g., popular cooking shows.

  2. I'm not sure about the inner city onsen, but the bigger ones I went to in and around Tokyo had some of their signs in English. I guess those at least might be more part of the "Japanese experience". This one felt more like a local amenity though.

  3. Japanese women are born with towels on their heads? I always knew leaving England was dangerous.

    1. No no. One just gets put there within the first 24 hours.