Monday, May 03, 2010

Naked American in Japan: Experiencing an Onsen

Most Americans won't go with us to the onsen, Donna told me.  They have a problem with public nudity. 

The Aguri No Yu onsen was nestled in the mountains (Asama San) near Komoro City, Japan.  The baths were divided, girls on one side, boys on the other.  The steam came up from the natural hot springs, the various pools had different temperatures and some had falls of water that pounded your shoulders and back like a big Swedish masseuse.  I didn't see the problem. Let's get naked.

I was reminded of my onsen experience when I opened my DailyOM email:  "Finding time to be as naked as the day you were born can awaken feelings of contentment, freedom, and self-love."

With Canadian-born Donna leading the way, we walked into the ladies locker room.  Surrounded by smaller Japanese women, I was used to the stares, a tall, very white American. In one small village market, a little 4 year old girl pointed and laughed openly, shocked at my appearance.   Donna married a Japanese man, and even after 20 years living in the culture and behaving more Japanese than Canadian, she is accustomed to the stares.  It's okay, she told me.  They like your pale skin.  A solar-phobe/30 SPF addict living in Los Angeles, I was used to being gawked at for being so white. 

Donna handed me a small towel, light and gauzy with blue Kanji script.  Use this to cover up if you need to, she instructed.  (Cover what? The towel was all of 5 square inches.)  But women use it to wash, and then wrap their hair. 

Naked as the day I was born, I strolled with Donna and women of all shapes, sizes and mostly one hue, into the bath.  We joined the other women who sat on a stool beneath a shower head and scrubbed away the day's dirt.  Clean, raw and pink, we then made our way to the largest pool, the most temperate.

Next I sat under the two pounding waterfalls, that worked out the little stress I had from navigating the Tokyo train system with my dad.  And then I padded outside, where steam rose off the hottest pool.  Sinking in, I smiled to the Japanese women who serenely nodded their approval of my presence, white skin, long legs, big hips and all.  We sat in silence, surrounded by mountains. 

Daily OM reminds us:

"For most of us, it is probably difficult to remember the last time we were comfortably naked for a period of time longer than 20 minutes or so. Many of us are only naked for the length of time it takes us to shower or bathe. We quickly dry off and put our clothes or pajamas on, without taking even a moment to enjoy the feeling of the air against our bare skin. Most of us learned that this was the way to do things from a young age, and we may not have been exposed to another way of thinking, but many cultures regard nudity as completely acceptable, even in somewhat public settings. If you have ever had the good fortune to assimilate yourself to this way of doing things, you may have found the experience liberating enough to allow it to influence the rest of your life.

Perhaps you swam topless in Tahiti or took a sauna in Sweden or Finland. ... You may have noticed the lack of vanity in people who are comfortable with their naked bodies. Old ladies and young girls sit side by side, seemingly without concern for how they appear. We see that it is not necessary to hide our imperfections; from cellulite to wrinkles, all is accepted with equilibrium. We can see the beauty and naturalness of our different bodies, accepting ourselves as just right, just as we are."

(Photo: - Myoko Onsen)

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