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.