We're making strides in Western culture but—as I learned after a week of bathing in Japanese public hot baths—we still have a ways to go.
Photo: Hotel Urashima
"So, who's going to get naked first?" one of my fellow travelers asked as we sat on the porch of Kirinosato Takahara, the minshuku (or Japanese guesthouse) we were staying in, sipping refreshingly cold beers after a long afternoon of hiking. My newly made friends and I had spent the last three or so hours gaining over 1,300 feet in elevation along one of the historic Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes as part of our 11-day trip through Japan with REI Adventures. My glutes were tired, my hamstrings wanted a rest, and that local draft beer tasted unbelievably good.
"Sam, do you want to go to the onsen before or after dinner?" The question made my heart flutter. As I took in the picturesque mountain views of the Hatenasi Valley—a sight so tranquil that I normally would have felt nothing but peace—I felt a tremor of panic course through me. In remote areas of Japan, it's not common for travelers to have private bathrooms where you can relax in a luxuriously long bath, or even enjoy a hot tub soak in your bathing suit. Instead, Japanese onsens, or public hot baths, are the traditional way to get clean and relax hardworked muscles. And here's the kicker: There are absolutely no clothes allowed. (Related: What Hiking With Total Strangers Taught Me About Solo Travel)
I knew it was something I needed to do—a cultural experience to cross off my travel bucket list. But I was nervous about other people seeing me naked. I don't have any particular reason for my fear, other than years of American culture conditioning me (and all women) to shower solo, change your clothes as quickly as possible, and use robes and towels whenever possible. (You know you've wrapped a towel around your waist while sliding underwear on and off in the locker room.) I worried that if I stripped down in front of other women and stayed that way for more than five seconds, then they would find something to silently judge. The cellulite on the back of my thighs. The slight pudge in my stomach. Hell, maybe I had too much—or too little—pubic hair for their liking. I didn't know, but certainly, they would find something. (Related: These Dreamy Destinations Are Filled with Adventure)
This way of thinking is very much a part of Western culture. Strides have been made to leave it in the past—the current movement around body positivity certainly helps. But it can't erase what 20-plus years of thinking has done to my psyche *just like that*. Yes, I firmly believe that women should celebrate their bodies, in all shapes and sizes. And I tell anyone who thinks differently to, well, f*ck off. But I'd be lying if I said I showed myself that same level of love all the time. And I think any American woman who tells you she does is probably lying, too.
Which is why, unsurprisingly, I wasn't the only one on this trip who was scared of the public bathing rituals. When I entered the onsens, I learned it was tradition to leave my clothes or yukata robe in a basket, then walk—totally naked—over to a row of showerheads that were set at a height that required me to sit on a stool (it's considered bad manners to stand, lest I accidentally splash someone). Which means that—gasp!—my stomach would have visible rolls. From my seated position, I'd wash my hair and body and thoroughly rinse off. Then, I'd slip into the bath, which was basically a hot tub filled with geo-thermally heated, natural hot spring water that's believed to improve skin, circulation, and overall health. I'd soak for as long as I wanted (typically five or 10 minutes, as the water tends to be hotter than a Jacuzzi dip), then hop out, dry off, and slip back into my robe.
That first night, it was clear how uncomfortable all of us—Americans, I should note—were with the idea of getting naked in front of others. So while the question "Who wants to get naked first?" was casually tossed out, the reason for it was not so casual: We were setting up a schedule for who would enter the onsen bath when, so each of us could have our privacy and clean up without being interrupted.
It was a nice thought—one we all took advantage of multiple times throughout the trip. But as the days wore on and the miles on our feet added up, a shift happened among the group. Slowly, we adopted the Japanese mindset around body confidence. And, to put it simply, we stopped caring what other people thought of our bodies. Actually, scratch that—it wasn't that we didn't care (again, I'm not convinced you can erase that way of thinking so fast). It's that we realized everyone else didn't care.
Photo: Samantha Lefave
In Japan, communal baths are an integral part of the culture. My local REI Adventures guide, Fumiko, told me that, in the past, not every home had a bathtub—that was more of a luxury. So many times people would go to the communal area to bathe and rejuvenate their bodies. Nowadays people have those in-home tubs, but locals still head to the onsens from time to time. They're not there to gawk, stare, or pick apart another person's body. They're simply there to relax, and being naked is something that just happens to be a part of the process. (Related: These Women Will Inspire You to Love Your Body)
We weren't forced to use public onsens the entire trip. In fact, only four of the 11 days had them as our only option. The other, larger accommodations had private onsens or personal en suite bathing facilities available. But by the end of the trip, we were all forgoing those private tubs and opting for the public onsens instead. There wasn't much talk, if any, of who would go when. A simple, "I'm hitting the onsen!" sufficed as we checked into our rooms, ditched our dirty hiking clothes, and slipped into our yukatas. Sure, my heart still skipped a beat each time I derobed, but the cry for a rejuvenating soak was louder than my body image fears. And as the warm water soothed my achy muscles and the quiet conversation between other women buzzed around me, my fears were, little by little, washed away.
I may not be down to dip in my birthday suit on the regular, but if this trip taught me anything, it's that body confidence—just like everything else—is always a work in progress.