I'm not the kind of person who usually enjoys taking my clothes off in front of strangers. But then we experienced the local onsens (hot spring thermal baths) in Japan and it quickly became a normal part of every day life.
There is a routine and an etiquette in the baths. It takes a while to get used to but once you know the rules it's a much more comfortable and pleasurable experience. What's allowed and what's strictly not allowed is important when everyone is nudski.
The first bit is easy. Taking your shoes off at the door and placing them in wee shoe lockers. Wearing socks and slippers inside is respectful and we are used to this already from shops, hotels and restaurants all over Japan. Michael once did it the wrong way around and accidentally wore his inside slippers outside. The owner of the hostel quickly helped him see the errors of his ways by shouting out the window 'no manners, you no manners'.
After the shoesies are locked away safely, you get a ticket from the Mr man at the front or from the machines which are much more complicated. You can also rent towels. After that, it's men and women in separate sections and Mike and I get a nice break from each other for a while.
The rules are as follows:
a) You must be naked to enter the baths b.) You must have a small towel with you for the bathing area, which you carry around with you. Your big towel for drying goes in the lockers until you come out. c.) Your small towel can be placed on your head and to cover your body whilst wandering around. It must not be dunked and dipped in the baths themselves. No No no. Big no. d.) You must have a good wash before entering the baths. e.) You should have another good wash before you leave. All soap, shampoo, showers, creams and hair dryers are provided.
We have honestly never been so clean as we have been in Japan. The baths are so relaxing (watch out not to sit on the very strong jets!) and usually set in lovely gardens with immaculate facilities. There are two or three pools each of different temperatures and each with different features. Many have waterfalls and jacuzzi pools at the least. It's easy to lose yourself in thought or mindlessness and realise an hour and a half is up and you've accidentally turned into a prune.
What I really love though is that for local Japanese people, it is a way of life. Families often come together and we've seen generations within one family taking a dip together. You see friends catching up and having a quiet natter and you see a lot of people just taking some 'me' time and enjoying the quiet and tranquility.
As well as different ages, you of course see bodies of all shapes and sizes. Children start going to the onsen from a young age and are exposed to nudskiness early on. Some are young, some old, some fat, some skinny. One woman sits with her towel on her head protecting her hair. She is frail and her skin is drooping gently away from her defined cheek bones. She is elegant and I can tell she was beautiful. She still is. Another heavily pregnant lady and her small daughter walk by. They settle next to another older lady who has had to have one breast removed because of cancer. Two best friends sit up with their feet dangling into one of the outside pools, catching up and gossiping about their husbands who they've left at home.
They are all people, with life experiences, family, hobbies and traits. It's all neatly packed into these bodies which we don't choose but must learn to love and look after. We need to change the idea of what the perfect body looks like and having a bathing ritual like in Japan helps people see that real people with real bodies, are not just the ones on the front of magazines.