Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nothing better than naked time. (裸の時間は一番や。)

Whenever I find myself strapped for post topics, I delve back through the annals of memory, desperately searching for something that I did in Japan that is (a) not too personal to share with an audience of strangers and (b) interesting enough to keep said strangers entertained.

It's a tough line to walk, let me tell you.

And yet I suppose that it is the line that all we bloggers must face... at least, those of us who like to keep our internet and real-life identities a little bit separate. Call me paranoid, but hey.

Needless to say, it works best when I can think of something which I have experienced, yet is broad and general enough to speak about in entirely non-personal ways.

Thus, today's topic of 温泉 (onsen; hot springs.)

Actually, that's technically a 露天風呂 (rotenburo; outdoor bath), a sub-set of onsen, but hey. They're prettier to look at.

And yes, as you may have surmised by both the title of this post and the two gentlemen in the picture above, onsen involve naked time.

But that is no reason to withdraw in fear! Return to me, gentle Western readers!

Though I admit, I do sort of get where you're coming from. Admittedly, I got over it as soon as I dropped that pesky "teenager" classification, and was the better for it.

But before I get into exulting the benefits of public nudity, let's hear what JTB has to say on the subject, shall we? (As we all know I'm better at the snark than the thoughtful exposition pieces.)

As Japan is a country of volcanic activity, natural hot springs abound: there are said to be around 19,500 of them.
The custom of bathing in hot springs in Japan dates back over 2,000 years. Hotels and ryokan and other tourist accommodation have developed around most hot springs. Travelling to such resort areas is a favourite form of recreation among Japanese people. Although many large resort areas have developed around famous hot springs, there are still numerous springs along sea coasts and in the mountains that remain undeveloped, and in their natural state. I guess they're not much better, really.

They also seem to think that the only locations worth mentioning are "near Tokyo," "Northern Japan" and Beppu (which they so tastefully define as "Western Japan"... pah.) The 関西人 (kansaijin; Kansai person) in me protests mightily, especially since Wakayama is renowned for its excellent onsen, two of which I have been to and been amazed by.

Dude. They were in a cave. On the ocean.

In a cave. On the ocean. I was there.

Really, guys. If you don't want to drop everything and go there right now, you're missing the whole point of this post.

You're naked. By the ocean. And then you're soaking in the hot, sulfury water. As the ocean smashes against the rocks in front of you.

Sweet Genji, I'm getting all worked up just remembering it.

Oh, the Hotel Urashima. The premises may look straight out of an 80s hotel flick, and you may have to take a ferry to get there, but oh my goodness are the onsen worth it.

Six of them, in fact, including the two in the caves. Our goal was to bathe in each and every one, but due to crowds and time constraints, we only got around to... oh, three or four, I believe.

Not to mention the fact that the men got the "Jungle Bath" on the weekend we were guests. Talk about unfair.

Though really, I think that may have been a misnomer, and we weren't really missing out on anything. It's Wakayama, not Okinawa. Come on.  


Like I was saying before. Onsen is a beautiful thing, not only because you get to soak in ridiculously hot water and emerge feeling as clean and as warm as you could ever hope to be (seriously; best way to warm up on a winter evening, especially if you have to walk back to your hostel half a mile away...), but because you get to be naked with other people, hopefully your close friends.

Why is that a beautiful thing, you ask, already covering your respective jiggly bits self-consciously?

Well, I'll tell you.

I could go into research about the human condition and how it's been proven that we're healthier when we can accept and deal with the naked human form, especially as separate from sex, and pull out study after study, textbook after textbook to prove my point...

But I think that, in this sort of setting, it's much better to work from personal experience.

With the knowledge of three extra years, I thoroughly regret being too prudish during my first trip to Japan to make use of the onsen during a program trip to Onuma National Park. At the time, I felt the way many Americans do now--embarrassed, nervous, and thoroughly uncomfortable about the idea of baring myself in front of friends, much less people I had never even seen before.

However, somewhere along the line, I wised up--I'm a little unsure as to exactly when my first time in an onsen was, so you can all rest assured that there was nothing at all mentally scarring about it. Needless to say, I can't be happier I did. Some of my fondest memories from my time studying abroad are from onsen (or, to a lesser extent, plain old 銭湯 [sentou; public bath/bath-house]), and I truly do think that my time in them helped me to bond with my lady friends.

What I'm trying to say, with all my rambling, is that it's good to be naked. It's good to see other naked people, and to realize that no one is perfect--to realize that anything about your body you may have thought of as odd, off, or even downright strange is, in fact, perfectly normal, and that people come in every conceivably shape and size. Americans (yes, I'm picking on us again) have a thing about nudity that simply makes no sense to me; our aversion to it and tendency to link it always to sex is ultimately on of our downfalls. We feel pressured to look like models in magazines, who are either airbrushed, photo shopped, or both, not to mention ultimately unhealthy in many ways. We are never exposed to normal people, and we never are given the chance to feel good about ourselves because of it.

Aside from that, being naked with friends is an excellent bonding experience. I'm not sure what it is, but there's something both liberating and comforting about being with people in the all-together. No embarrassment, no separation based on fashion and its implied wealth, and true companionship that can only be shared when you realize that "hey, we're all normal, and not a one of us is perfect."

Because absolutely no one is perfect, and the faster you realize that, the faster you can accept and truly appreciate yourself.

...and then you can always say "hey, I've seen you naked, you can tell me," or similar derivations thereof.

Sorry, the snark always sneaks in when I feel I'm getting a bit too serious.

In short: onsen are amazing, and truly one of the best parts of living in Japan, especially if you're only going to be there for a short time. Don't let the nudity throw you off, and you may come to find that you appreciate it just as much as I do.

In really short: go to an onsen. Quick as you can. I mean it.

This is Edo, signing off already making plans in her head for her first "welcome back" onsen trip...

No comments: