Bathing in Japan

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On the days leading up to my sister’s and my trip to Japan, I heard countless suggestions of all the things we had to do and see. The one that came up the most was bathing in a Japanese hot springs, or Onsen. It sounded wonderful, but being naked around a lot of people is not my strong point. In fact, I hate it. Even in locker rooms growing up, I got very anxious. So at first I was excited about going to an Onsen, ready to challenge myself. Then I was nervous. And then I wanted to avoid it at all costs. But my sister wouldn’t let me back out. So we found ourselves on a 40-minute train ride outside of Kyoto to bathe in the Onsen in Kurama.

When we first arrived, the old man at the gate kindly helped us out with the towel machine, understanding that this clearly was our first time. We grabbed towels and headed to the women’s side. The steps were: take off your clothes, clean yourself in the open showers, and then jump in! Stress. An old Japanese woman was walking around (naked), and upon seeing our nervous glances at the public showers, she directed us with a kind smile to the inside showers that provided a little more privacy. After we (very quickly) washed, we sped walked to the bath and immersed ourselves in the hot water.

The air above my shoulders was cold but the water was hot and soothing. After sitting for a few minutes, my apprehension subsided enough for me to notice what was around me. Right in front of me was a breathtaking view of the mountains. Beside me, women gathered in clumps around the pool, chatting. They would come in and out of the water, as the heat could get quite intense.

As I sat and thought, I realized this was quite natural for them, and they found absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. Maybe it’s a Western thing, an American thing, or just a me thing but I realized I’ve grown up being embarrassed of being naked. It’s not a question of body image or of modesty, because in this situation, neither applied in my mind. I was actually embarrassed for no logical reason.

Illustrations by my sister, Lauren Monaco.

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