On a recent trip to Japan I stayed in a little village called Nozawa Onsen. The purpose of my stay was for skiing. The area is known for its powder, with lots of snowfall over the winter months. We were blessed with three powder days during our week-long stay.
Nozawa Onsen is also known for its abundance of onsen, with the village located on top of many naturally occurring geothermal springs.
The combination of skiing and onsening would make for an ideal holiday location.
What is an Onsen?
In Japanese, ‘onsen’ means ‘hot spring’, with the words ‘on’ and ‘sen’ translating to ‘warm’ and ‘spring’ respectively.
Onsen can be open air, or there are bathing houses with structures built around the hot spring.
In Nozawa Onsen there are 14 public bathing houses, and many more open air onsen. The hottest onsen is about 90 degrees celsius, or 194 degrees fahrenheit. This one is used exclusively for cooking, with villagers steaming vegetables and cooking eggs in the near-boiling waters of the onsen.
Most onsen are used for bathing, with ritual applied to the process, steeped in culture and tradition.
My Onsen Experience
Prior to the trip, I did a little reading about onsen. I learnt two key things:
- That it was part of the ritual to clean yourself before entering the waters of the onsen
- You bathe in an onsen fully-nude, no swimwear allowed
I was unsure how I would go in this situation. However, I knew I wanted to follow the traditional practices to have an authentic experience, and I did not want to offend any locals.
The first onsen I visited was in the centre of the village, O-yu Onsen. It is a very beautiful traditional building, golden in colour and rich in architectural detail, reflective of the Edo period.
On entering the building, I was greeted with the smell of sulphur. It was present, without being overpowering, and I became quickly accustomed to it. The sulphuric smell is derived from the mineral-rich waters of the onsen.
There was a poster with instructions in the entrance however they were in Japanese. There was also a diagram of how to experience the onsen, but I wasn’t sure which pictures were showing what to do, versus what not to do. I chose to be as respectful as possible.
Walking past the small entrance I expected to see a large room, with many baths, based on the grand exterior. I saw there was only one wooden bath with a divider, indicating two sections, one hot, and one very hot.
There was a narrow space to undress and place my items on a shelf.
This was it, the time to get naked and expose myself to the world. Well, not really. But it was time to be nude in front of strangers. There were only a few other women in the bath house.
Once I was undressed in my birthday suit, the next step was to wash myself before hopping into the onsen.
I could see taps around the walls, and yellow buckets stacked on the floor. I walked over to one of the taps and knelt on the cold stone-tiled floor. It was very cold outside, and these floor tiles were no different.
Time to wash. Turning on the taps, I expected warm water, only to be surprised by cold water pouring out. I was shocked. And naked. I didn’t want to hang around for too long, but I knew I needed to get clean.
I wondered how do they do this? Being so cold, with cold water, but needing to observe the ritual of cleansing oneself before entering the communal wooden bath.
It was part of the process, so I went with it, uncomfortably filling my bucket with cold water, then pouring it over me. Then lathering myself with the soap I brought along, filling the bucket to rinse. Rise, lather, rinse, repeat. Only a few times. I was freezing by now, and so tempted by the hot water.
It was as much as I could endure, while still being respectful of the need to be clean before entry.
By this point I was past worrying about any thoughts about my body and what others would think. I was too cold, and it was a necessity I get in the water as quickly as I could, without being disruptive to others.
The water was hot! But it was welcome to my cold skin. I could feel my core heating up, and finally felt I was able to relax in the thermal waters of the onsen.
By this point a few of the women had left, and there was only one other in the onsen.
I did not look at her, choosing to be discrete and respectful of the place I was in.
After a while I was curious about the adjoining bath. I scooted over to it, testing the water with my hand. It was ridiculously hot! I was not sure how anyone would be able to sit in it. However, I was here for an experience, so I got out of the hot bath and sat on the edge of the very hot bath, sliding my legs into the water.
My legs were the sorest part of me anyhow, after skiing and still clumsily improving my technique on the slopes.
My body was exposed, my legs submerged. I didn’t mind. It was rejuvenating. Although it didn’t last long, the water was simply too hot.
I returned to the hot bath and sat comfortably in the water, naked, with a stranger only a couple of feet away from me.
After about 20 minutes of soaking in the hot water, I felt it was time to leave. The heat had penetrated through me, I was sweating and started to feel a little faint. Time to get out.
I rinsed myself again. This time scooping some hot bath water with my bucket, and adding some cold water from the tap, then pouring it over me for a final refreshing rinse, before returning to the safety of my clothing.
What Nudity Taught Me About Confidence
Over the week-long stay I went to another onsen, visiting it multiple times as it was close to our accommodation.
One week, and many onsen visits later, this is what I learnt about confidence.
1. Nudity is Not an Issue
I was uneasy prior to the experience, anticipating what it would be like.
The only other time I felt uncomfortable was during my first onsen, when washing under cold water. This was physical discomfort at the cold, rather than feeling embarrassed about being naked in front of others.
On the first visit my brain only had enough capacity to feel uncomfortable about being cold, I forgot to consider the fact I was naked.
The actual time I spent in the onsen I was not concerned about my body. I was in a hot bath, and I was there to relax and recover. There was no time for body-confidence issues to cramp my naked-style.
2. Nudity Provides a Level Playing Field
Once you’re in an environment where everyone is naked, we are all exposed. At the same time as being wide-open and visible to others, you also become a blended part of the experience. No one is more or less interesting than another.
I feel more self-conscious when I am at the beach or the pool in my swimwear. At those times I feel concerned about how I look, how my swimwear looks, and compare myself to others.
When I was naked, I had an instinct to not worry about others. We were all naked, we were all in the same boat, so to speak.
We were humans, trying to enjoy a relaxing hot bath, soaking up the benefits of the mineral-rich waters, soothing away life’s aches and pains.
3. Nudity Brings About Respect
When everyone is exposed, our manners and approach mean a lot. I found the environment in the onsen to be a very respectful space.
No one was ogling others – at least I know I was not. Everyone gave each other space, as best they could in the small tub. No one was brash or showy, flaunting their body about.
Instead, everyone quietly and gently went about their business. Of undressing, then washing, bathing, rinsing, then drying, and finally dressing.
After experiencing the ritual of the onsen, I am hooked.
I appreciate the opportunity to experience a unique tradition in an authentic setting.
I feel more comfortable with my body than before. Because my body shape was not an issue at any point, it has lessened my need to be concerned about its appearance to others.
The feeling afterwards or warmth throughout your body, through your muscles, to your organs and your bones, is a sensation I won’t soon forget. My skin also felt smooth and soft.
After each onsen, I wandered back to my accommodation, feeling incredibly relaxed, both in mind and body. Grateful for the experience that healed me physically, while easing my concerned mind.
For more pictures of my holiday in Japan, check out my instagram page.