Venus in Japan

There is nothing quite like getting naked with a stranger.

Which is what I’m about to do in Sky Town, the heart of Nagoya Centrair Airport although I don’t know it yet.  I’ve arrived in Japan to join a small group travelling round rural Japan and we are meeting for the first time.  Our group leader, Andy has decided that our first introduction to Japanese culture will be the Miya-No-Yu Sento (Japanese public baths) overlooking the airport runway. The baths are segregated and the two men in our group have already disappeared through the blue noren whilst we three woman are to enter through the red noren. We have no idea what to expect.

Our instructions are uncompromising: having removed our shoes at the entrance of the baths,  we are told to undress fully and place our clothing in the lockers provided. We are then each given an extremely small towel,  what it is to be used for is not clear (it’s certainly not modesty; you can either cover your breasts or choose some other body part but not both at once) and told to proceed through to the bathing areas. There we are to wash ourselves thoroughly with the soap and shampoo provided at the seated shower stalls and only then are we permitted to submerge ourselves in the steaming hot waters.

In the locker room are several Japanese women of varying ages from teens to their seventies, walking around completely nude and I am impressed with the open artlessness with which they carry themselves. We three new companions eye each other reluctantly.

“Well come on girls, there’s nothing we haven’t seen before.” mutters the young American woman Anne as she begins to strip energetically.  These words turn out to be not quite true.

Feeling bold, I undress quickly too. The third woman in our group just can’t quite bring herself to join in and pleading a sudden migraine brought on by culture shock disappears to wait for us outside. I try to emulate the composure of the Japanese women around me.  Walking the distance from the locker room through to the bathing area is an exercise in faking a dignity I do not feel.   And washing myself in full view of the 50 or so other naked strangers – normally a relatively private ritual for me (let’s not count lovers or the kids) – takes even more of an effort in maintaining an air of cosmopolitan poise. I’m aware that unlike my very close Japanese neighbours who are vigorously scrubbing their backs, brushing teeth, shaving their legs and washing their every bodily crevice with meticulous care, I’m hardly doing a thorough job and hope there is no watching Sento wardress waiting to chastise me for inadequate hygiene practices. Finally I enter the bathing pools.

There are a variety of options to choose from; invigorating icy-cold baths, pools with jacuzzi spa-jets to loosen travel-tense muscles, even a pool zapping out electrical currents adding a mildly shocking zing to the heated water. The scenic bath is large and overlooks the airport runways where we can watch planes soar into the sky and disappear into the horizon.

Once our bodies are safely submerged under water, our initial shyness floats away and Anne and I discover how much easier it seems to share your life story with a stranger when you’re both stark naked in a hot water bath pretending not to study the other person’s body from the corner of your eye.  Scrutiny is slanted sideways.  Skinship is the apt term given to the cameraderie of communal bathing where the Japanese can shed the professional facades of hierachy which normally divides management from workers for a few hours.  In the warm fog of the spa-bath  there’s so much less to separate us from each other.

Anne is in her mid-30’s, pretty and fresh-faced and had been conventionally dressed in t-shirt and jeans. Now naked, it’s hard not to be surprised by the unsuspected nipple-ring and two tattoos – one an ominous looking skull on her shoulder, the other a Japanese kanji motif on her ankle.  And it isn’t long either, before we are noticed by the fully clothed Sento attendant who descends upon us with discreet haste bearing an official looking waterproofed notice.

“Please. You read.”  She says to us in halting English.

The notice informs us that tattoos are strictly forbidden in the public baths. Embarrassed,  we begin to make ready to leave. However, to save us the indignity of being evicted from the baths, the attendant now offers Anne thick plasters which bemuse us until we realise through her gestures, that she means her to cover over the offending tattoos. Later we find out that the ban against tattoos is due to the strong association with the Japanese Yakuza – the underworld gangs who declare their allegiances through heavy tattoos.

We’ve observed that it’s expected to keep the small white towels we’ve been given on our person. Literally. They are used for mopping one’s face and neck in the heat and later for drying oneself, but in the meantime, leaving them on the side of whichever pool one happens to be in is hazardous – for of course they are all identical.  We watch with covert amusement as a pair of Japanese matrons conduct a conversation whilst lolling decorously in the hot water, towels neatly folded and carefully balanced on their heads.  Until we notice that every woman is bearing a white folded square of towel on her head.  A simple and ingenious way to avoid misplacing your towel.  We follow suit and after a time somehow manage to stop looking ridiculous to each other;  but not before  we both have to submerge ourselves, snorting with laughter underwater as we clutch our towels above our heads.

I am struck by the lack of inhibition in the baths.  As much as the Japanese value privacy and seem so formal and reserved when meeting them in everyday life, here they display a carefree ease with nakedness I don’t see in the eye-averting  self-consciousness of South African changing rooms.

No matter what their age or shape, these women are completely at home in the aesthetic of their bodies in a way Western women are not. This is not the flaunting pride of believing yourself to have a perfectly shaped body.   This is something altogether different – a natural self-acceptance not bought by comparing yourself favourably with some magazine model.

In the hazy mist I see so many curves and forms, some solidly sensual, others elegant and angular, some voluptuously rounded and smooth, others delicately boned and fragile.  And all beautiful.  A woman sinks slowly down deeper into liquid warmth, eyes closing with contentment, another surfaces, then bends gracefully to scoop up cool water over her body.   So many Venuses rising from the steamy waters.

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107 thoughts on “Venus in Japan

  1. Pingback: undressed in aachen | nina nakamura

  2. on a trip to rural japan in july, i held off going to an onsen for 2 days because of body issues. after acclimating and realizing that body hang-ups are practically non-existent in public baths, i was heading to the onsen first thing in the morning and late at night. i miss it.

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  3. The cultural differences between East and West are great, more so than any other cultural division. Your story demonstrates that, thank you. I live in Waikiki, favorite vacation spot for the Japanese tourist, I am reminded of our vast differences daily, most are not as pleasant as yours.

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  4. Pingback: Some tortures are physical and some are mental | Kan Walk Will Travel

  5. Nice post!

    I was very embarrassed when it was my first time to be nude in the baths but after a few visits I just care less, as it is so relaxing in hot springs. I want to travel to Jap now!

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  6. My focus on your post was more on the overall picture of culture shock and the interesting perspective you have! I loved it!

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  7. Your post reminds me of my first experience at the Japanese baths! Enlightening and invigorating and definitely one to remember lol. You write wonderfully.

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  8. What a wonderful post!! I’d like to think I would be okay falling into place there the way you did, but I honestly can’t imagine how nerve-racking that experience would be. Kudos to you for not only handling it, but for (eventually) doing it like a pro!

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    • I just read your post Between a Veil and a Dark Place Lynn and found it so interesting to consider the nature of freedom. Without in any way wanting to detract from the very real issues around personal freedom you raised so rightfully in your experience as a muslim woman especially around the continual surveillance and interrogation, do you not also experience the paradox of how freedom from surveillance is also an issue the western world? Cameras everywhere, privacy issues on our communication systems? I’d be very interested to hear your views on this.

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  9. Ahh this is such an interesting post! It’s true though, wearing no clothes is liberating, and not just in a ‘oh look we’re all naked way’, not judging people by what they have on is an experience you don’t get really unless clothes are taken out if the equation. For you that was obviously these great baths, I had a similar thing in Costa Rica where we were volunteers and so all our home clothes (a freezing England) were massively inappropriate. I felt myself acting and seeing people completely differently, an experience I’ve remembered! Wrote about in on my blog if you wanted to see in ‘bikinis and beach bodies’ but either way, great post!

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    • Thanks Ella, I did visit your blog and like your take on things, that you’re a volunteer and that you believe an alternate planet is possible. For me it’s about being naked in more ways than just physically though – and that’s what I’m enjoying about this blogging world – that we’re not as constrained by the normal real-world ID tags – what we do for a living, where we live, relationship status, age etc blah etc. We can reveal ourselves differently…

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      • Ahh thank you, it means so much that you visited my blog, and completely agree! The entire escapism of blogging is why I originally began, it really gives you the opportunity to share what’s in your brain without the constrains of how you’re perceived elsewhere! So glad I found this blog, what freshly pressed is all about!

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  10. What’s the point of not trying if you travel to experience the culture? But I’m too self-conscious, and conscious too of the people around me. Cross the bridge when I get there 🙂

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  11. Pingback: Memories of Japan: Summer Reading Challenge | go mama o

  12. Well this brought back some memories. I spent a week in Tokyo in 2000 attending an Aikido training camp and enjoyed the communal bath house each evening. A sorely missed routine, sitting in the pool chatting with other students from around the planet.

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  13. Great post! Just visited Japan a couple of weeks ago and had the opportunity to visit an onsen in rural Japan. My seven year old daughter also go to experience the ritual of Japanese bathing. To me it was a truly relaxing and wonderful experience after a long day of training in Aikido. I wish we had them in the U.S!

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  14. Just came back from Korean spa near my house..I love it. I love the whole idea that you bathe and relax and just BE. With family and/or friends. It is the best. There is something intrinsically wrong with USA culture that we don’t have anything like that.

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  15. I could definitely relate to this post, having gone to onsen and other public baths! I was very awkward and uncomfortable, but it was really wonderful once you were in the water – like you described so beautifully!

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  16. Hi there, this is a great post. The second I saw the word tattoo I thought `you read this` I thought `oh oh it`s about her tattoo`. I somehow managed to enter a public bath while in Japan but was extremely self-conscious about it. There was no one there I knew so it was ok. That said, I only did it once. I would be shy about doing it in front of workmates or even new acquaintances though.

    By the way, another reason to put the small towel on your forehead is to avoid passing out from the heat of the water.

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  17. Pingback: Venus in Japan [reblog] | msg2theming

  18. Better to be the woman who gets into the bath than the one who runs away… bravery pays off! Well done you.

    Different cultures definitely have different levels of ‘awareness’ when it comes to body shapes etc. I once had an American roommate in Glasgow who couldn’t believe how accepting people were of different body shapes, especially those classed as ‘overweight’ – I was so surprised because to be frank there’s much worse obesity in the states than over here…

    We were all made different and it would be a shame if we all looked the same, so I think the Japanese attitude in public baths is actually quite refreshing!

    Loved you post, it was amusing and light hearted, but it definitely touched on some of my ‘rant’ issues! 🙂

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  19. Pingback: Venus in Japan | Big Ketchup

  20. Usually I have a hard time reading longer posts, but this was so beautifully written it went by so fast. I absolutely love hearing about different cultures and this is definitely different from what I know! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  21. I was this close to a panic attack even imagining myself at a public bath. You were so brave to try, It does sound like fun.You outlined the cultural differences and transcended them beautifully in your post. Excellent writing!

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  22. Wow this is for real? I picture these only in anime, most of them are a bit ecchi. Hmm, well Japan is certainly interesting 😀

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  23. Sounds appealing. The German baths have greeted many since the days of the Romans. We miss so much of life’s joy by closing off the simple pleasures of life. Our natural form sans clothes should not be demeaned whether tall or short. You found that. What a nice gift. Enjoy!

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