True confessions of memories that you just can’t scour clean.
We’re all guilty of getting naked. Even the most vigilant and stalwart among us eventually slip, removing their pants against their better cloth-clad judgment. The people of Japan are no different. In fact, they have even more opportunities for bare-boned “free”dom fighters to shed their slacks. I’m talking, of course, about Japanese hot springs, or Onsen, which can be a wonderful way to relax and woe away the stress of the world … up until the moment they turn on you … hard.
1. You can accidentally ingest soap.
This one you won’t see coming until you’re frothing at the mouth. In Onsen, you will often run into lotteries, promotions, gifts, coupons, Hello Kitty duckies full of strawberry poof spray … anything it takes to advertise their presence and benefits to the customer. It’s a business. It makes sense.
The thing is, sometimes it isn’t exactly clear what they are giving you. Is this a delightful snack … or a hygiene product? What first appears to be a bite-sized treat while waiting in line, can turn into burping more bubbles than Barney Gumble in a beer-laden bathtub. They’ll be packaged the same, look and smell the same; the first bite will even taste the same … until you keep chewing. By then, it’s too late one way or the other, so happy hunting!
2. You might accidentally leave your wallet, and your underpants, in the lobby
Onsen, like many businesses in Japan, decided handling money is a dreary and tiresome task better left to the machines, vending machines to be precise. So simple in theory. Put your money in, grab a ticket, give ticket to employee, proceed. But what options to push? It’s not like there’s just one. There’s at least a dozen, all providing different levels of comfort, towel combination packages, and amenities of every variety to confound even the brightest hot water aficionado.
Am I considered a senior? Do I really need a courtesy towel? How courteous am I really when subjecting others to my nakedness?
All these questions and more running through your brain, you are bound to leave something behind while you decide. Luckily, it’s the two most important things you should never forget in any situation you take your clothes off. It’s Japan, though, so the good news is you won’t get robbed of anything except your dignity.
3. You might see Japanese Crime Lords in their birthday’s best
Members of any criminal organization are no laughing matter, and that includes the Japanese Yakuza. That being said, it doesn’t exempt them from wanting to enjoy the same steamy sensations as much as the next pair of elbows. Simple law of averages dictates you are bound to brush bums with them, intentional or otherwise. There is something incredibly surreal and terrifying about being naked, surrounded by the verdant green of Japanese countryside, next to a mob boss with absolutely nothing between you but hot water and courtesy space. I mean, what do you even talk about?
Of course, there are usually laws prohibiting tattoos in Onsen, but I’d love to see a staff member with the gumption to tell them to leave when every inch of body real estate, down to their butt-cheeks, is covered in an elaborate snarling dragon. So many images will be burned into the very foundation of your retinas.
4. Regardless of age or gender, someone you know will catch you naked
Yes, I said it, and there is no getting around it. Just as the law above dictates, and seeing as most of our social circles extend further than seedy criminal underbellies, it’s bound to happen, and happen often. Usually it’s just your friends, which is great, nudity builds the bond. Maybe it’s a far distant, met that one time, cousin to your neighbor’s god nephew with front row center to your happy bits. Also, not really the issue.
But what do you do when it’s your boss? Your landlord? … Or your five year old student of the opposite sex? She’s just too young to go into the women’s Onsen alone; she has to tag along with dear ole dad to his side of things, nevermind the horrible mental scarring to all parties involved.
No, Reika-chan! I’m naked. The last thing on Earth I want to do right now is practice English with you. Leave now!
Good luck ever landing a job or successful night’s sleep after that petrifying scene of legal and moral ambiguity. And on a similar note …
5. …Your nude form can turn into the next Broadway show
Though modern times has wiped most of them out, there are still a few mixed-sex Onsen in Japan, called Konyoku, where men and women can enjoy soothing, medicinally laced baths together. These are great as an ideal, breaking down gender barriers and public nudity taboos like Rosie the Riveter with a sledge hammer of equality from concentrate.
But the reality is, if you are a foreigner who blends into the Japanese norm about as well as Scooby Doo into the Spice Girls, people are going to stare at you, and that’s just on the sidewalk. What do you think happens when all clothes are off? Then all bets are off, too. The white-hot spotlight upon you as you scurry from pool to pool, trying to keep your most valued parts covered up, is enormous and unrelenting. Hope you chose the courtesy towel option from earlier, because what’s left of your shattered shame is going to need it.
6. Old people are going to talk to you, and probably touch you, too
It’s hard for people to chat in awkward situations. When you’re beside someone trying to use the toilet, it’s awkward. Getting caught stealing your neighbors patio furniture … again, awkward. What about force-starting a conversation from vapor with a naked person you’ve never met, old enough to be your grandma, and senile enough to think they are your grandma? Yeah … thought so. Imagine sitting casually on an outside bench, nothing between you and the sun-warmed stone but the rumination of whether Udon or Ramen makes the better noodle, when you suddenly feel a soft hand on your leg — part creepy, part caress, and all parts not attached to your arm.
Elderly, sweet, and nubile as a ruddy potato peel, they sit down, patting your bare thigh tenderly as they reminisce in soliloquized Japanese about their life’s work with mandarin oranges and how you will one day inherit it all. It’s an image to keep you tossing and turning onward until dawn, lying in wait around every soap-sodden flagstone of an Onsen. Enjoy. And still…
7. … Despite everything, it’s one of the greatest cultural experiences you will ever have in Japan
Yes, you might bathe with a criminal warlord, make a fool of yourself in any number of ways, or get thrown into such a horribly awkward situation you’ll want to melt into the very foundations of bedrock beneath you. It happens. In the end, though, as you stand alone in a steaming pool, watching fat snowflakes drift across sloping Dentou cottages and mountains older than memory, it won’t even matter. You’ll experience something so beautiful, so beyond the crude meaning words could flounder, you’ll understand why this cultural icon reigns supreme. You’ll risk anything in the world for a moment so pure.
That is what Onsen truly can be. They are fueled by the unknown, filled with potential embarrassment, and will forge moments you’ll never forget. So what are you waiting for? Ditch the pants. Zen is waiting.
— J Broc Sewell