Japanese Onsen Culture Shock- Must Try Experience

If you guys have been following our traveling adventures, which you totally should, you would know how much I love Japan. It had the greatest food, a polite and respectful culture, traditions based on the belief that everything is divine, and really fancy toilets. It had everything I knew I loved, but also had aspects of the culture that made me VERY uncomfortable. One of these unsettling experiences was right when we arrived in the city of Kawaguchiko and tried my first Onsen.

Mt. Fuji second tori gate
On the Summit of Fuji!

2 Days Before Summiting Mt. Fuji

Let me set the scene. It was just a couple of days before our climb up Mt. Fuji and I was experiencing very painful shin splints from all we walked in Tokyo. I had arrived in Kawaguchiko, Fuji’s bordering city, and wasn’t sure how I was going to climb the mountain already injured. I talked to the hotel reception to see if there was a massage parlor around to soothe the pain. She said there were no massage parlors, but that there was an onsen right down the road that would help.

What is a Japanese Onsen?

Onsens are public Japanese bathhouses with water sourced from the volcanic thermal waters all throughout Japan. The thermal mineral waters are known to be therapeutic for various conditions like sore muscles, anxiety, and even skin conditions like psoriasis. This all sounded great to me! Sign me up!

I asked her where it was, and she gave me a packet. As I was reading through the packet I learned that Onsens have a pretty extensive list of rules. You have to go into the locker room, bathe yourself sitting down using a bucket, and then get completely naked before soaking in a warm bath with dozens of other women.

I have to get naked in the Onsen?!

I don’t know about you but in America getting naken in a hot tub with a bunch of strangers isn’t exactly common. As a matter of fact, women breastfeeding in public, for some stupid reason, is still a topic of controversy. Needless to say, I wasn’t keen on the idea, but my shin splints were so bad I was desperate. Reluctantly, and a little embarrassed Daniel and I made our way to the Onsen.

onsen entrance

I Don’t Think I Can Do This

We walked into the reception desk and were greeted by a kind gentleman who charged us the $9 fee and walked us to the entrance of the two baths. The baths use red and blue cloths with Japanese characters on them to distinguish which is the male and female bath. I walked in through the red curtain, holding my towel tightly to my chest. I only saw one woman, fully dressed, drying her hair in the corner, and a shelf full of baskets where people kept their clothing. Not seeing anyone undressed, I sat in a chair and waited to see if anyone got naked, while I looked for my own courage to disrobe.

Finally Going in to the Japanese Onsen

20 minutes later, I see a group of Japanese women, their skin tomato red from the hot water, walk in from the baths. They were talking and laughing as they all gathered by the baskets to get their clothes back on. I even saw girls as young as 10 getting dressed with their moms! They didn’t seem to be bothered by the nudity at all. I anxiously sighed as I walked over to the large baskets. Deciding it was now, or never, I took off my shirt, followed by my pants. Why couldn’t I just go in with my swimsuit, I internally exclaimed! I didn’t feel comfortable. This felt wrong, and I was so self-conscious about my body. Finally, I turned toward the wall away from the women and removed my bra and lastly underwear.

Onsen in Hakone
Outdoor Onsen

The Bathing Area in the Onsen

The bathing area looked like a spa. The floors were a dark mahogany colored wood, contrasted with cream tiled walls. There was one indoor bath that looked like a small, rectangular swimming pool. The two outdoor baths that looked like something that belonged in a jungle. Pools lined with large, smooth rocks with smaller rocks inside for sitting. There was a shower area inside with wooden stools for sitting and bathing, along with fruity smelling shampoo and body wash!

Women were sitting in the water, relaxing, and minding their own business. I walked into the pool that was empty, unable to find the courage the go to a busier one. I closed my eyes trying to forget the fact that I was sitting in a warm tub, completely exposed. Thankfully after about 20 minutes, everyone left and I had the place to myself. This I was comfortable with.

A Couple of Days Later

I tried the Onsen again, but this time with my friend Sam. She had used the Onsen before and loved it, so we decided to go together. I was still, however, so self-conscious of what Sam might think when she saw me bare!

Annette’s Downward Spiral of Body-Shame:

“OMG, now she knows how tiny my boobs really are without a push-up bra”

“Did I shave today?”

“OMG, she’s going to know I have cellulite on the back of my thighs!”

“What if she thinks the scar on my stomach is ugly?”

“Are my nipples too small? Too big?”

“Do my lady bits look normal? What is normal?”

Hakone, Japan
Sam and I in Hakone!

All of the Anxiety Melted Away

We were literally just two friends going into a tub together, not about to have sex! Why was I so worried about her seeing me naked? In spite of my anxiety, we proceeded to the baths! Let me just say, Sam is a rockstar. She’s smart, ambitious, and as open-minded as they come. Sam, if you’re reading this, know that I’ve never had a girlfriend as open-minded and free-spirited as you! After about 30 minutes, all of my anxiety melted away. We talked about everything you can think of: religion, politics, social issues, and everything in between.

“The Onsen made us skip the small talk, and allowed us to be our truest selves.”

Why is the western world is so self-conscious?

This is something that Sam and I discussed at length! We couldn’t understand why something so natural and normal was perverse back home. Because Sam and I were naked together, we felt less guarded and more vulnerable. This vulnerability allowed us to have a deeper connection, and talk about things we may have never have felt comfortable enough to discuss. Furthermore, nobody in Japan cares! You’re naked and they don’t even blink an eye. Some are skinny, some are heavier, some are completely shaven, and some sport the bush. Nobody cares.

Kate Upton
This is NOT real! Most women do not look like this!

If we had public baths like these back home, I would never have been so self-conscious about my body. The only women we see exposed are supermodels on billboards, and magazines and even they’re photoshopped! In American society, it’s only okay to be naked if you’re supermodel skinny, with giant boobs and a huge ass. This is NOT REAL! We don’t have access to seeing what other normal women bodies look like. The majority of us don’t look like the people in magazines, so it’s not fair to our gorgeous and unique selves to compare.

Go to a Japanese Onsen!!

Now I love onsens! Because of them, I’ve found a new love and appreciation for my body. I feel comfortable in my own skin and realize that it’s okay to not be perfect. None of us are. That’s what makes us who we are. Our bodies aren’t a perversion or just an item for sexual satisfaction. It’s our skin, our shape, and what we live with the whole rest of our lives. It’s time to stop being ashamed of it.

I would love to hear your thoughts! Please comment below, and share this with your friends to continue the discussion.

 

  • john Schmitt says:

    Korea is the same way, and after the first 30 minuets it was alright. Everyone was naked and no one cared what size you were or if you were fat or skinny. Old and kids were there. They even had family baths….the whole family naked. I wish they had them here. they are relaxing and refreshing and the massage afterward were great.