One custom that should not be missed from your agenda while in Japan is to experience an Onsen. This a traditional spa where you leave your modesty at the door to broil your naked self in the ‘Ow! Ow! Ow! It’s-so-hot-it-hurts-water’ for a long, indulgent soak.
It has been practiced for thousands of years. Stumbled upon by ancient hunters, hot springs became popular when Buddhism arrived in 552 AD. It was believed that by immersing one’s body in to the ‘divine’ bubbling waters, the bather would be purified of all sins. The health benefits of bathing in an Onsen stemmed from 1709 when a doctor (Goto Konzan) discovered the medical effectiveness of curing chronic diseases such as rheumatism and hypertension, as well as treatment for external injuries, post-operative recovery and rehabilitation.
My research of Onsens didn’t stretch very far prior to visiting Japan. Thus my western ignorance assumed that an Onsen was the Japanese word for a jacuzzi; a big tub of bubbly happiness.My apartment lacked the luxury of a bath so the thought of soaking in a tub while watching the sunset over Mount Fuji was an added bonus.
‘You realise you have to be naked!’ my sister prompted as she watched me put on my swimmers I laughed dismissively. Come on, surely not! The thought of lying completely stark naked in a tub full of perfect strangers seemed like a shocking idea! The image of seeing saggy tits and womens’ bits, made me want to retch. Plus, no-one needed to see me in the buff either.
I didn’t want to relinquish another Onsen experience. Having experienced our own private Onsen (in our bathers) on Day One at the Mount Fuji View Hotel, I was hooked. I already imagined these magical minerals renewing the thousands of aging cells in my 41 year old body. I was living my own real life ‘Cocoon’ movie.
‘No-one is going to see you ever again!’ my sister reminded me. This was true. And even if they did, they wouldn’t recognize me in my ‘Yeti’ winter attire. It was Boxing Day in Mount Fuji and ‘someone’ had turned down the temperature. This was more nerve wracking than traveling Vietnam on my own! I wandered in and out of the lift and back in to our room on several occasions until I cursed myself for being a chicken. Besides, it was past 10pm… Hopefully I would have the bath to myself.
Once certain I had entered the ‘Female Only’ spa, there were clear instructions printed in large text at the dressing area, words to the effect of ‘Get rid of your inhibitions and prepare to bare ALL!’ Well, what the heck… What happens in Japan, stays in Japan.I stripped off, placed my Yukata robe (cotton kimono) and swimsuit in to a basket and covered my modesty with my incy-wincy wash cloth before racing towards the glass door of the wet area.
Nope, I was not alone! A stark naked woman was cleansing herself on a low plastic stool; she was so absorbed in scrubbing herself that she didn’t even glance up as I scarpered to the stall furthest away from her. To make matters worse, two elevations were clad in mirror so you had the extra embarrassment of seeing yourself nude on your squats.
The area was essentially a big, open shower room with floor to ceiling white tiles, brightly lit to aid you in to washing every nook and cranny. Each shower hose was fixed at low level next to a mirror, a low plastic stool placed in front to demarcate each individual washing zone. In one corner was a large 5m x 5m steaming hot pool and on the other was a glass door which led to the large landscaped hot spring outside.
Two more women entered the space and sat two stools away from me. They chatted away to each other like they were on a mid-morning coffee meet-up, hosing themselves down at the space between their legs the whole time. Unfamiliar with the rituals, I half watched them out of the corner of my eye and half looked away fearing I might look like a pervert. Was I washing myself thoroughly enough? Did I have to shampoo my hair too? Should I tie my hair up? Had I rinsed off enough? And what was the purpose of the plastic bowl? So many etiquettes! My fingertips were getting wrinkly. It was time to brave it…
The indoor pool was already occupied by the first lady and not quite ready to share my nakedness, I placed the small towel over my parts and ventured to the unoccupied pool outside. As soon as I pushed the door open, the gush of icy cold air plunged me in to momentary shock. Holy ____ ! The thermometer confirmed it was -10 degrees Celsius outside. I almost dived head first in to the steaming hot pool that was looking so welcoming right now…1. to hide my bits and 2. to avoid freezing my naked arse off! But….. realizing I was under the watchful eye of my female counterparts, I did as instructed and glided in to the pool as slowly and demurely as I possibly could.
The experience was unforgettable. Here I was at Mount Fuji, a destination I’ve always dreamed of visiting, lying in a natural spring under a never ending spread of twinkling stars. My modesty was no longer an issue. I was an Onsen addict and bathed to my hearts (naked) content , every day during my 3 day stay at Fuji-San.