“You should try the onsen here. It’s very relaxing,” our Japanese tour guide helpfully suggested as we made our way back to our hotel in northern Hokkaido of Japan, just seeking respite from the biting February winter. An onsen, our guide explained, is a Japanese hot spring bath where people normally take a dip to unwind and take advantage of its therapeutic properties. Traditionally a communal bath, nowadays, it’s evolved into a wellness facility of sorts for rest and relaxation and is a common amenity in hotels and resorts in Japan. As our hotel was also a well-known hot spring resort in the area, this was an opportunity not to be missed.
“That sounds like a good idea,” I answered, still shivering in my winter coat and boots. We had just returned from dinner after trudging through ankle-deep snow, a unique experience for this tropical body used to sun and sand. A warm bath that I didn’t have to draw myself in the chilling climate seemed enticing.
“You also have to go in naked,” my colleague whispered beside me. I heard myself gasp and clutch my non-existent pearls. Naked? Now, I was certainly no prude, but I have enough trouble getting undressed for the shower and stopping myself from recoiling each time I catch my reflection in the mirror. To do it in front of other people? It was almost unthinkable.
Meanwhile, our Japanese guide was unfazed. “The Japanese love their public baths, especially during wintertime. People of all ages go there to relax. Don’t worry, the women are separated from the men,” she soothed my fears.
I returned to my hotel room, still at war with myself. Back home in the Philippines, you get a stern warning from your parents each time you’re about to leave the house showing the slightest hint of skin. The concept of an onsen, baring yourself in the most unabashed way possible in front of strangers, was a complete 180-degree turn from what I had grown up with. Of course, there was also the very real fact that I was deeply insecure about the way I looked. Taking a good look in the mirror, pointing out my physical flaws came as second nature: short, a somewhat stocky build, a bit of flab and cellulite here and there. I have enough trouble picking out a swimsuit for the beach that could manage to conceal all the less desirable parts of my body. Given all my reservations and inhibitions, the offer was too easy to pass up.
At the same time, however, there was the unshakeable thought that I was being too much of a coward, skipping out on a cultural experience just because it was different from what I had been used to. I felt that I was going against everything I stand for when it comes to travel: opening yourself up to new experiences and leaving your own comfort zone in order to gain a better understanding of people, other cultures and the world.
Back in the corner of my room I eyed my yukata, the lightweight cotton kimono similar to a hotel robe, usually worn to bath houses like the onsen. Defeated by my own argument and mustering enough courage, I changed into the yukata and made my way to the public bath.
As I entered the onsen, I was first greeted by a changing room where women can store their clothing and valuables, with multiple sinks lined with Shiseido skincare products, hair dryers, disposable combs, and cotton buds for those finishing up. Because I came in close to midnight, there were a few women of different ages left, one of them who even brought children. Like in a typical locker room, women dressed and undressed in the same area. Reading the instructions on the wall, I was advised first to store my valuables (phones and cameras are not allowed in the onsen, for obvious reasons), wear a shower cap, and rinse my body before entering the bath.
There was a separate washing station with shower heads on the wall just outside the bath, with its own range of shampoos and toiletries to be used afterwards. Instead of cubicles, each station was separated only by a half wall, with individual stools to sit on as you wash your body with warm water. Aside from getting rid of sweat and grime, the rinse also helps your body get used to the hot bath.
As I dipped my toes and slowly slipped in the tepid water, my worries of being judged were completely eased. These women, all of various body types and appearances, were doing their own thing and minding their own business, all paying attention to nothing and no one but themselves and their own pleasure. Right then, it dawned on me how an everyday experience to others can unexpectedly enlighten an outsider like me.
We live in a world where we pay too much attention to how we look, and seeing these women of different shapes and sizes not giving a damn was refreshing. In this part of the world and in others, we’ve equated flesh to immorality, reduced skin to mere aesthetic. Yet in the onsen, these women took control of their own bodies in such a nonchalant way that the concept of owning their bodies was second nature to them. They weren’t making a statement; they were just moving in a manner that felt natural to them. Bodies can be all about sensuality or appearances, but only when they want it to be—after all, there are many other things our bodies can be other than sexy or covered up. In this case, the onsen was the most natural act of self-care to them, cellulite and all.
It helped me be comfortable in my own skin and silence the voice in my head that people judge you for how you look—because in that onsen, they only focus on themselves. Soon, it became easy to tune out the people and the surroundings as I felt my cares and worries melt away, entering a state of trance.
Is it an experience I would recommend to anyone? Definitely, whether you’re struggling with body issues, looking for a de-stressing activity while in Japan, or both. I hardly walked out a new person out of the bath, but one thing’s for sure: I learned to check my self-consciousness and leave it at the door. In return, I received a relaxed body and some peace of mind.