Kinosaki, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan
I sat across my sister, wearing nothing but the locker key wrapped around my ankle, as naked locals engaged in their daily bathing and chatter.
This is, of course, normal in Japan. The country has more than 2,300 hot springs (onsen) and locals enjoy public bathing au naturale – the way it has always been.
Enter Two Mexican Girls: my Sister and I.
I booked the perfect vacation. A ryokan stay at a small Japanese town full of medicinal hot springs and traditional food. Maybe I’m an old geezer at heart, but when I considered it I thought it was nothing short of paradise.
The night before leaving to Japan my sister and I sat in her little flat in Seoul deciding what to pack.
Now, I’m not completely Japanese illiterate. I’ve watched enough anime and manga to know it’s customary to enjoy the hot springs naked. But surely no one is going to mind the tourists hopping in in their swimsuits… right? I’ve never seen a family member naked, at least not since my baby brother was 3. Reaching for my one-piece I told my sister my plan to pull the tourist-card and sneak swimsuits in.
“No. They’re going to make us get naked,” she said.
“Should we bathe in towels then?”
“No, you don’t understand. They’ll make us get naked.”
“Hold on, who’s going to make us get naked?”
“It’s happened to me in Korea. They won’t let you get past the locker room if you’ve got anything left on. They won’t let you in with anything more than a hand towel so small you’ll have to choose between covering your boobs or your crotch.”
It’s not that I’ve never been nude in public. I lived in Hungary for 3 years and Hungarian changing rooms broke through my wall of conservative upbringing. When everyone else is undressing without giving a damn it’s difficult to keep pretending they’re out to see your private parts.
It wasn’t about being nude in public. It was about being nude in public with my sister.
She’s kind and sensitive and she’s my best friend. She also throws the BEST tantrums. I laughed at the idea of her, alone in a foreign country, trying desperately to hide both top and bottom with a tiny towel and probably succeeding at neither.
The vacation was prepaid. It could still be nothing short of paradise, I guess.
“Then we’ll just have to do it,” I told her. I was keeping it cool. If I kept cool and she kept cool then wasn’t it all cool?
The Way It’s Done
There is beauty in the almost ritualistic etiquette of Japanese public onsen. Beyond the obvious respect-other bathing rules such as “no making loud noises” and “no splashing” and “no flaunting your stuff,” there are onsen rules set around protecting the integrity of the spring water.
Onsen time is healing time. It is relaxing time.
It is a place to melt your troubles away, where you cleanse and where everyone is equal.
To preserve this atmosphere and the pristine state of the precious healing waters, any person wishing to bathe must first rinse his or herself thoroughly (most of the time in public sight of everyone with buckets and shower heads provided). Swim suits and towels are not to come in contact with the spring water lest they dirty it. Indeed no items of clothing are allowed inside the bath area save for a small hand towel.
You must enter the bath area in the buff and must leave the hand towel by the washing station or rest it over your head. I noticed people being particularly attentive no corner of the towel accidentally touched the water.
My original suggestion to discreetly bathe with a towel wrapped around us was definitely, completely out of the question.
- Kinosaki: Onsen Town, home to 7 famous public baths.
- Our Plan: sample as many onsen as we can in one day.
- **Side plan: maybe hopefully manage to avoid seeing each other naked
Ready. Get set. Go!
Ok… sadly I can’t show you the hot springs we visited because unfortunately (but rightly) no cameras are allowed inside the bath houses. (I did manage to sneak a phone photo when Kou no Yu bath was empty)
We were able to test-drive the Japanese onsen experience with a trial version at our guest house hotel the night before. Apparently (conveniently) the Ryokan reservation included a private onsen bathing room you could book for an hour per day.
After dinner we threw on our yukata (Japanese robe – provided by the guest house) and headed for our private onsen. With no people to judge our towel use, we modestly covered our fronts with a hand towel but parted with it to shower. We sat on little stools parallel to each other as we threw bucketfuls of water over our heads. We washed with our backs hunched forward, covering what we could.
We looked at each other. I laughed. She laughed. We were naked in Kinosaki. And we were going to be fine.
If you’ve been reading this far thinking: what’s the big deal about seeing someone naked? You are right. There is nothing wrong with it. But Mexicans, not unlike some American families, are not very open about nudity. Nudity aversion is embedded into family values and embraced as a society. It is a cultural difference perhaps difficult to understand from a European or Japanese standpoint, but I know readers from conservative families in The Americas will know what I’m talking about.
Winning the Race
We walked the whole town, sporting our yukatas and clanking our wooden sandals through the streets. We visited every single onsen that was open. Surely we must have hit a cleanliness record, for we rinsed and washed a total of 6 times that day (without counting double washing as it’s customary to first rinse, then bathe, then wash, then bathe again). If not a prize for our hygienic state, we did get a lovely pair of chopsticks from our Ryokan for having visited all the hot springs (score! we didn’t even know there was a competition…!)
Really, when it comes down to it…
I Saw My Sister Naked and I’m OK.
We made a point to sit on opposite ends of the washing stations and of talking with our backs against each other and covering our breasts with our knees in the water. As much as we tried to nonchalantly avoid seeing each other, the truth is, I saw my sister naked. And I’m OK.
I also saw heartwarming scenes that will stay with me forever, reminding me how beautifully a community that embraces the human body can exist and interact.
A mom and her sister, kneeling in front of each other. Her son is two years old. He is playing with a washing bucket and he is the cutest little thing as he does it. I realize all the buckets are in use and there are no available buckets to rinse with about 5 seconds before his mother realizes too. Her sister and she both apologize and hand me the bucket the baby boy had made a toy out of. I try to tell them it’s OK, but my Japanese falls miserably short from such eloquence so instead I mumble agrigato gosaimasu’s and looking at the adorable baby (who by now has found an entertaining crack in the floor) I say “kawaii.”
Kawaii means “cute” in Japanese. Both mother and sister beam at me. The old women, soaking in the onsen water, beam at me. The scene resumes and the chatter gets picked back up.
It is a summer afternoon and the tourists are waiting for the sun down to visit the hot springs. These are the town folk; they are catching up and gossiping and going by their daily banter. In the changing room the boy is running around and the older women are nodding approvingly. They praise the mom or the boy and she replies graciously, modestly covering her grin while nothing else is covered.
Since then I’ve been wondering – what type of teachings would I want to pass on to my children regarding nudity? It’s a complicated topic, and there is much to consider.
In the meantime I can say nothing changed between my sister and I. I’m proud of us. We just went with it and never really let it get awkward. There are newer touristic onsen in Japan that offer guests the choice to dress up. But baring it all in the name of culture offers a deeper, more insightful experience. It’s comfortable too. Honestly who wants to fuss around with wet swimsuits when you can throw on a yukata and be on your way to the next onsen?