Clean break

Bath time in Japan is a big deal.

Clean Break

As the steam rose from the indoor bathing spring, the tension was almost audible in the changing-room. The Japanese girls dropped their towels and got on with it, turning back to giggle at our obvious hesitation to get naked.

The Americans claimed religion, and the cute Oxford girl the size of her thighs as an excuse. For me, it was the white New Zealand winter skin. Anyway, I was brought up in a white middle-class North Shore household. I don’t think I have seen any adult member of my family naked.

Now I found myself standing in the elite onsen (hot spring) of the Hiranoya ryokan—the word for a Japanese travellers’ inn—in Takayama, surrounded by other students of varying western cultures.

Our confused Japanese friends beckoned us through the steamed-up glass doors.

“What are you doing out there?” they cried. Crunch time.

It was a ridiculous feeling. What, I had to ask myself, was I afraid of? After all, it’s only skin. We were all women.

We disrobed slowly, item by item, placing each article hesitantly in the wicker baskets provided. The Oxford girl followed suit. But the Americans stood in defiance, examining the detailing on their towels and delaying the inevitable. Finally, the curly-haired New Yorker announced that the onsen was “too crowded” and that she would “come back later on”.

Painfully aware of the masses of pasty flesh, I moved through to the black-tiled bathing area to join Naomi, my Japanese host. She ushered me to a row of 10 small wooden stools, each with its own shower-head close to the ground, and we began the rigorous washing process.

Half an hour later, prune-fingered, I was running out of pale body to wash. Surely, I thought, even the dirtiest of potatoes couldn’t endure this much scrubbing?

Perched awkwardly on my low stool pretending to re-rinse, I began to understand that the washing was not just about getting clean; it was about cleansing—symbolically and mentally. This was a time to escape the frantic 12-hour days, to simply sit still, to enjoy the therapeutic qualities of the mineral water.

“A lot of businessmen come up here to get away from their worries,” Naomi told me.

Her friend Maho chimed in: “Yes, because it’s so relaxing.”

The onsen, they explain, are also popular for colleagues to enjoy together. The relaxed environment helps to dissolve a rigid hierarchy and wash away social boundaries.

At last, Naomi filled a small bucket and doused herself theatrically, explaining that you must be soapsud-free before entering the 10m by 4m pool. We slipped into the knee-deep thermal water and the tension that had previously been in the room dissipated instantly.

The Americans eventually conquered their nudity fears and joined us, though two remained resistant and entered in bathing suits. The Japanese girls didn’t bat an eye, but later that evening in the confines of our tatami room, as we curled up on our futons, they confessed they had wondered what the Americans were hiding under their togs.

The next morning we returned to the onsen, this time chattering with the Japanese women and examining the high-end lotions in the beautiful room. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, products that are potentially going to trap eternal youth will be universal. “If you ever see this massage soap, you must put it on every inch of your body,” stressed American Anna to some bewildered blokes later in a sake bar.

The transition from being completely self-conscious to losing all inhibitions was contagious. Even the most prudish of people became comfortable in their own skin. “I don’t even feel like I’m naked any more,” one of the Americans twanged, waltzing nude across the room to the basket shelf. “It’s almost like I’m the Emperor in New Clothes.”

Laughter erupted. We had become true converts.

The girls joked about a reunion, to visit onsen right across Japan, but I don’t know if I can wait that long. When will the New Zealand version open?

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