You can find lots of images and descriptions of onsen, especially the beautiful traditional outdoor onsen that can be found all over Japan. But it is actually the social process of preparing to enter the onsen that had the most profound effect on me, and on my self image.
My first experience was not at one of the wonders of nature that we so often see, it was at the hotel Pacific Pearl (now called SeaPal Hotel) in Kobe, in the spring of 2000. The onsen was on the top floor (about 20 if I remember correctly) and had glass all around looking out onto the Pacific and over the lights of the city. I was by myself but when I entered the area and saw a young girl about 10 years old. She saw that I wasn’t quite sure what to do and wanted to show me how to bathe on the little stool, something that is done out of considerations for others, to preserve the quality of the water. When I was finished she demonstrated filling a small bucket with water and pouring it over her body to rinse off the soap.
We then entered the pool leaving our towels behind. The girl was quite at ease and started teaching me the names of body parts as we soaked. She was completely comfortable being naked in a social situation with someone she didn’t know. As we soaked there were moments where I felt detached from my body watching myself and this young girl interacting as comfortably as we might if we were sitting in a restaurant. This was a rather unusual perspective for me since I had put on forty more pounds than was comfortable.
When the girl left I stayed awhile longer just enjoying the soak.
Few Americans will ever encounter this type of experience . Here, where we cover the body to hide it or strategically uncover it to show off its alluring qualities, walking around nude is something that makes most people uncomfortable. When I was younger I thought it was an issue of modesty, but as clothing became more revealing and models got skinnier I began to realize that it had become an issue of ego protection and separation. We are obsessively trying to hide or mask our perceived flaws, comparing our bodies to some unattainable cultural definition of beauty.
My second experience was in a ryokan in the heart of Japan that same spring. We drove over a narrow rushing river in the middle of an old town deep in a valley with crowded little streets. On the other side of the river that ran along the edge of town was a ryokan, a traditional hotel, and some small farming plots and trees, lots of trees. Inside the entrance were rows of geta, wooden sandals for the guests to use. A couple walked by as we entered. They wore matching yukata (lightweight summer kimonos) and each stepped into a pair of geta from a row that I later found out were for the guests to wear when they went outside. In our room there were three futon (sleeping mats), three matching yukata like the ones worn by the guests we had passed earlier, and three pair of tabi, a kind of sock to wear with geta or on the tatami throughout the building. I enjoyed the feeling of unity that was created by the shedding of fashionable clothes and putting on something comfortable, clean, and unpretentious.
The building was above the bank of the river. When we entered the room our windows were open, allowing the sound of flowing water to enter the room. Dressed in yukata standing at the window staring at the river below with the feel of the tatami under my feet I felt almost as if I was standing somehow out of time.
In the evening my friend Michiko looked at the towels that were available and wondered how I would modestly use one to enter the river onsen. Eventually she discovered a much larger towel and informed me that I would use that one. We left our room and drove, wearing our towles, back into town to a spot with a somewhat slippery set of metal stairs going down about 30 feet to the river bank . People were soaking in three areas separated by stone walls. People left their towels and clothes on the stone dividers and slid into the water. One area was used by the young men, one by the young women, and one by families with obaasan and ojiisan (grandma and granddad), parents and the children.
I melted into the warm water of the family area and for a few moments all the sounds and sights disappeared.
It was only after awhile that I realized that this water could not possibly be river water. I reached my arm out over the stone wall and felt the icy river. Of course, the river didn’t feed these delicious pools, the pools had its own underground source that would eventually feed into the river. The stone walls simply confined the pools giving us the opportunity to nourish our spirits first before the waters of the hot spring reached the icy river flow.
There were at least 15 people in each area. Conversations and occasional laughter could be heard around us, especially from the men’s area. And yet at the same time there was a sense that no one would care or notice if you simply sat in quiet contemplation. No one seemed to notice anyone except the people they had arrived with. This was an informal area that the locals used. There was no emphasis on preparation before entering the pool, unlike experience of spas in the cities.
It wasn’t until my trip to an onsen in “downtown” Yonezawa city that I fully recognized the profound beauty of each of these experiences.
The last onsen, in Yonezawa, was in a very ordinary building next to some shops and at first it was like going to the YWCA. The aesthetic was much more utilitarian then the earlier experiences. Everyone was there for the water but not transported away by the ambience. There was a row of stools and spigots and naked female bodies of adolescent girls, young women and shriveled grandmothers. Women chatted and smiled. These were not fake twittering smiles they were cordial and matter-of-fact. It was there, as I looked around, that I felt a sense of something that I have no name for. Sisterhood would be a fitting term. At the same time there was a sense of comfort with myself, my own body. Not one woman or girl there had a perfect body and no one cared.
Our bodies are vehicles for our thoughts and smiles and contemplations. Those thoughts and smiles and contemplations were what I saw as I looked around the room and found the pool that I wanted to slip into. When it came time to leave I almost hated putting clothes back on. They seemed to create a barrier. We, or at least, I ceased to see the wholeness and beauty of each spirit and noticed, instead, the clothes, the color, the fit, the style.
Each experience of onsening is different but there is a common thread. For me it’s the whole experience from the respectful cleansing, to the delicious melting moment, to the comfortable a social setting with no affectations or barriers, that are the gift of onsening.
If you ever do make it to Japan this is the BBC’s list of their best ten onsen http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20100803-lonely-planets-top-10-japanese-hot-springs .