Getting naked north of Tokyo

I’ve had some pretty awesome hot water experiences growing up over the years.

As a teenager on a family trip to Banff, I discovered how amazing it was to soak up the heat in an outdoor hot tub after a day of lumbering down the mountain.

There are few places I'd rather be than on a mountainside after the lifts close for the day.
There are few places I’d rather be than on a mountainside after the lifts close for the day.

In my twenties, the best money I spent on a trip to Tofino, BC was the $100 for a trip out to Hot Springs Cove – an amazing natural hot spring and waterfall that was right on the ocean.

Like a scene out of "Survivor" - Hot Springs Cove is a Canadian treasure on Vancouver Island.
Like a scene out of “Survivor” – Hot Springs Cove is a Canadian treasure on Vancouver Island.

So in preparing for my Japanese adventure, when Chris and I started talking about sights to see and things to do, the topic of the Japanese hot spring – also known as an onsen – came up.

No matter where you go in Japan, you’ll find an onsen nearby.  Hot springs are plentiful across the country (volcanos make for lots of hot water. ) Often, an onsen is part of a bigger property much like a mineral spa in North America.  In Japan, these are called “ryokan,” and often feature an all-inclusive experience including traditional lodging and meals.

So, the research began to try and figure out which onsen we’d want to check out while I was visiting.  That’s when I realized something I had long forgotten about onsen from my first ever conversation with Chris about them.

Unlike a trip to a tropical all-inclusive… unlike hot tub night in your buddy’s backyard… unlike a dip in the pool while on a business trip… you enjoy a Japanese hot spring completely naked.

In the buff.

Wearing your birthday suit.

The same way you came in to this world.

Wearing… nothing… at… all.

Sorry, Tobias.  "Never nudes" need not apply.
Sorry, Tobias. “Never nudes” need not apply.

No board shorts.  No speedos.  No two piece, itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie-yellow-polka-dot-bikini.

Naked.

It’s funny the reaction I’ve had to this from many friends I’ve told about the experience after coming back from Japan.  It usually starts with “whaaaaat,” followed by “come again,” maybe a little “ummm….” and often finished up with a whole lot of “nope… never.”

Now, don’t mistake me for a card-carrying member of a naturist club  (where do they put their cards, anyway) – but I don’t have a huge problem with being buck naked at a Japanese bath house.

Why not?

Well, a big part of it is the whole idea of “when in Rome.”  Much in the same way I did with food during my trip, I approached the idea of going to the onsen with the attitude that I wouldn’t want to be a  “baka gaijin.”  If people who live in Japan are comfortable with the onsen being a place to be naked, why should I question it?

Also, nearly seven years of going to the gym has helped desensitize me to seeing dudes nude in a locker room setting (that’s a whole other blog post filled with funny stories, like the one gym-bro who thought nothing of holding his junky Blackberry just inches from his junk while he was texting a buddy while in the buff.  But, I digress.  Back to the hot springs.)

I decided for this trip we’d skip the ryokan experience – even though it is something I want to do when I go back later this year.  From everything I read, it is the epitome of relaxing.  But there just wasn’t enough time this trip.

One of the onsen I wanted to hit up  was a place called SpaWorld in Osaka.  It can best be described as the West Edmonton Mall of onsen with two entire floors of themed onsen.

"Onsen from around the world!" (Source : http://www.spaworld.co.jp/english/onsen.html)
“Onsen from around the world!” (Source : http://www.spaworld.co.jp/english/onsen.html)

One floor features Asian-themed onsen, replicating the experience of an outdoor Japanese bath, the south pacific and the middle east.  Another floor features European-themed baths including a Roman bath, a Finnish sauna house, and an Italian grotto.

Another floor of the facility includes themed saunas including something called a “Canadian Forest Bath” that I really wanted to try out.

At ¥1,000 for an entire day, SpaWorld sounds like a pretty decent deal (and it gets good reviews on TripAdvisor.)

But, alas, the trip to Osaka was way too short and so SpaWorld got cut from the list.

So where did I end going to enjoy my first Japanese bath experience?  It would be when we were visiting Yuki and her family in Sakura-shi.

Around the dinner table at Yuki's home.
Around the dinner table at Yuki’s home.

After dinner, Yuki, her friend Will, Chris and I piled in to Yuki’s car – each of us holding a plastic shopping bag containing a bath towel and a facecloth.  Through the dark of night, we careened down the road before ending up at an onsen seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  It is most definitely not in any guidebook (just my kind of place!)

When you walk in the lobby of Matsushimaonsen-Otomenoyu, it feels like you’ve arrived at the neighbourhood swimming pool.  It is warm, friendly and cozy.

A bit of a fuzzy view in to the lobby at the onsen.  To the left are lockers where you leave your shoes.
A bit of a fuzzy view in to the lobby at the onsen. To the left are lockers where you leave your shoes.

A quick transaction with the people at the front desk, and we had our keys to the change rooms and we were off to get naked!  (I realize that sounds like I’m really excited about getting naked… but hey, just roll with it for a bit here.)

It’s important to note that tubs at this onsen (and many onsen) are separated for men and women, so there’s no gender mixing once you leave the front desk.   There are co-ed onsen in Japan, but you’d be expected to wear a bathing suit at those ones.

The change room was incredibly clean and warm.  Warmer than pretty much any other change room I’ve ever been in.  After stripping down to nothing, I grabbed my washcloth (also known as a ‘modesty towel’) and followed Chris and Will to the bathing area.  I had no idea what to expect, and was more than a little surprised when we rounded the corner.

In one part of the room is a large bath tub – about triple the size of any large hotel hot tub you’ve ever seen.  (According to the onsen’s website, it’s made of molten steel, but I was sure it was covered in slate or some other rock.)

Bordering the room are a number of showers.  They’re not stalls so much as they are ‘stations.’

A mirror is mounted low on the wall and above it is a handheld shower head.  A basket of cleaning products sits on a ledge below the mirror containing shampoo and liquid soap.  There’s also a bucket about the size you’d use to build a sandcastle – it is used to rinse yourself and to wash those hard-to-reach places.  And – the part I really wasn’t expecting – a short stubby stool (think a kiddie’s plastic stepping stool) to sit on while you clean yourself.

I walked up to an available shower station and went to sit on the stubby stool – only to fall flat on my butt.  (Squats… need to do more squats.)  Nobody noticed my full Bambi move, and I regained my composure and saddled up to get squeaky clean.

Cleaning yourself before entering the tub is way more involved than the simple spritz-yourself-in-a-crappy-shower-before-entering-the-waterpark you’re used to when going to a North American pool complex.

You need to be clean when you enter a Japanese tub.  In fact, there’s a fine if you’re not and you contaminate the water.  This means scrubbing ev-er-y-where.

While sitting on a low-rise, kiddies stepping stool.

Have you ever tried to throughly wash your body with your knees up to your neck and your centre of gravity way below where it normally should be?  It’s an adventure.

After about ten minutes of washing, re-washing, and washing again, I rinsed off and proceeded to enter the tub.

The moment of truth.

And man – was it warm!  In fact, the onsen’s website says the water stays around 40 degrees celsius (or about 104 fahrenheit.)

The mineral content was pretty high and as a result it took a bit of will power to keep from floating around the tub.  Even so, it was very relaxing.  Probably the most relaxing hot tub experience I’ve ever had.

Letting everything hang out in the tub wasn’t all that awkward.  The water was cloudy from the minerals to a certain extent, so not much below your waist is terribly visible.  (Your ‘modesty’ washcloth, by the way, does not go in the public tub – but rather on the ledge of the tub.  Or – if you want to do-as-the-locals-do – it’s folded up in to a square and placed on top of your head.  I opted to wear the towel for fear of it falling off the ledge and getting my germs in the tub.)

After about 40 minutes of soaking and chatting, we decided it was time to go.  I was sad to leave, but also relieved a bit as you definitely feel the heat after a while.

While some people prefer not to wash the minerals off their bodies, we decided to take a quick rinse before heading back to the change room.  It’s perfectly acceptable as we saw a whole bunch of other locals do it before leaving.

One of the nice things about the change room is that not only is it incredibly warm, but they provide a lot of the supplies you’d want or need after a good bath.  There is hair gel, blow dryers, and other toiletries that you are free to be used by anyone.  It’s handy.

Chris and Will left the change room before I did, and when I emerged, I didn’t see them right away.  I headed out to the car thinking they were there… but no luck.  I ended up waiting in the vestibule (where the picture above was taken) thinking they’d eventually emerge.  It was there I experienced my second earthquake while in Japan.

A magnitude 5.5 earthquake near Tokyo.  (Courtesy QuakeFeed)
A magnitude 5.5 earthquake near Tokyo. (Courtesy QuakeFeed)

The big green plants behind the front desk of the onsen waved back and forth as the quake rumbled.  I thought that some kids were running around the onsen – it didn’t feel the same as the quake I experienced at Chris’ place a week earlier.

Despite a little rumbling to end the experience (that was the source of more laughing than fear), my first (and only) Japanese onsen visit was an incredibly relaxing highlight of my trip.  

Getting naked with a bunch of strangers to enjoy the hot springs might sound terrifying to a lot of people… but it’s a great example of how putting aside North American conventions can give way to a unique experience worthy of sharing with friends – if only to see their reactions as you tell the story.

 

(As a footnote : the folks over at Japan-Guide – awesome site, by the way –  have a pretty good visual explanation of what an indoor public bath looks like.  Check it out – it’ll give you even more of an idea of how things look.)

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