Onsens. Quite possibly the bane of the Japanese existence. I write this blog for those who have never been to Japan, and who, like I did at first, would really drop a jaw at the idea of bathing openly and publicly with others.
For some, it's a form of leisure (where the definition of leisure is 'just because'), for others, relaxation, and for even others, a necessary act. I have experienced onsens in all of these different ways, in many different places, and after 19 months, finally feel: a) comfortable being naked around total strangers, and b) comfortable talking about it.
But first, for those non-Japanese residents/visitors, the answer to 'what is an onsen?' might make for a good start.
An onsen is a public bath. Within separate rooms, men and women enjoy bathing and washing and soaking within the company of friends, family, neighbors, small children, the cleaning lady, and most often, complete strangers. Onsens vary in complexity, from basic stools and pools, to waterfalls and rockslides. They are mostly indoors, but often outdoors, and the nicest ones have pools in both. For less than $10, a person can enter an onsen, strip down to nothing, stare and be stared at, take a seat at a mirrored faucet, stare and be stared at, clean themselves silly, and then soak in the hottest water on the planet with 100 of their fellow countrymen (women) while staring or being stared at.
My first trip to an onsen was with three colleagues. My second, with one. My third, with two friends, and my last, most recent, as a necessary trip alone.
Onsens are known for their healing power and are often visited by whole families at a time. At the door, mother and daughter will enter together, sending father and son the other way. Often, small boys are allowed to enter with their mothers (and from personal experience, up to the age of 6 or 7, I'd say), and girls with their fathers (so I hear), making it not uncommon (yet a bit creepy) for you to dress and undress within the company of small children.
It is a cardinal rule to be squeaky clean before entering the sauna pools, so a scrub down at the communal sinks is a must. Women enter with baskets of shampoos, lotions, creams, towels, and soaps, and scrub themselves silly for minutes and minutes. It is fairly often (and quite comforting-bordering-cute) to see mothers scrubbing daughters and visa versa, or to see the elderly being scrubbed by their own children/grandchildren.
I used to find onsens quite uncomfortable, embarrassing, and so completely out of my conceptual ability, certainly nothing resembling what I was used to in the privacy of my own bath in America. Now, though, I am more comfortable in my skin, and do not mind the occasional revelry found with 100 naked women. But, I've decided that, although I am now more willing to go, I prefer it as a functional trip on my own accords. In fact, on my most recent trip alone, I went for the shower only, out of necessity of wanting to be clean and finding no other place to do so. Because it was completely anonymous, I was able to walk around as I pleased, had nobody to have to talk to, and finally found it to be completely comfortable, and practical.
Onsen, I finally think you and I are going to get along just fine.