How getting naked with strangers in Japan taught me all about vulnerability
“You know what’s wrong with Americans?” My host mother in Japan asked me, lounging against the side of the pool, her towel a neat square on her head. She was relaxed, but her tone was pointed. It was about a week before I was to return home, and she had waited a good five months before inviting me to the onsen and laying the truth on me. “You don’t have naked talks.”
I have thought about this shortcoming on and off in the years following. It’s a bit too broad a sentence for all of us, but for me, who has only recently discovered the satisfaction of laying my soul bare while neck-deep in boiling water, I gotta say, she might be onto something.
Onsen are hot springs. They come in many fabulous shapes and sizes, from lush, coastal onsen hotels, swanky and glimmering on the edge of the ocean, to small tiled rooms no larger than a warm lap pool. Regardless of decor, they all offer the same relaxing experience. Scrubbing down before entering the pool is a satisfying ritual, and the hot water softens you so that by the time you have dried off, hours later, your skin has a glow often attributed to pregnant women and you can sit for hours, content and slightly glassy-eyed, with a bottle of cold milk.
Another thing about onsen — you are required to go naked. This is not optional. There are many signs in an equal number of languages reminding you of this as you inelegantly crouch to remove your underpants in the limbo of the dressing area. For those of us who have not grown up with casual nudity, this is a significant catch, because despite an ingrained panic whenever someone suggests sunbathing topless, I love onsen and I love, more than anything, the practice of going to onsen with my friends.
I have been onsen-ing with many different women, in all different kinds of onsen, with one vital thing in common: a sense of comfort and surprisingly deep conversation, no matter how little I knew about the other person beforehand. Onsen are built for hedonistic languor and meandering conversation. You gain an immediate level of intimacy that feels like you’ve level-jumped through the first tentative stages of friendship. It’s almost like, Well, we’ve seen each other naked now, and your good-natured, firmly eye-level gaze says, what else is left?
It took me a while to get used to gleefully flinging my bare body into a public place, even in a place where I was just another tree in the forest. Like many women, my relationship with my body has been and remains complicated; I was often struck with low-grade panic that this body, with its constant need for improvement and endless capability for embarrassment, would be with me for the rest of my life.
Lucky for me, then, that the onsen is full of so many different bodies that worrying about mine seems pointless, almost to the point of narcissism. Nobody really cares, beyond the sometimes familial identification of a prominent part — “got a mole back there,” a grandmotherly stranger once told me — so it’s easy to be gentle to yourself, to flop backwards, and to acknowledge that maybe, for however many hours you’re surrounded by other bodies, that whatever shape yours is, is fine.
Onsen visits go hand in hand with defining life moments, or rather, they become the perfect venue to address gnarly topics that could potentially sink an evening. “Let’s discuss my depression,” I’ve said to no one, ever, unprompted and/or sober. But soaking in a bath, I’ve gotten to talk frankly about issues that I might not have felt comfortable bringing up elsewhere, even with people I may not know that well. Maybe the heat addles your brain, but the situation certainly forces a private understanding, like that shared between people on a deserted island, or party attendees returning from Vegas. Being naked, for me, steamrolls over any other awkwardness I might usually feel during a social interaction or bonding moment. You have time, and an audience who is just as exposed as you are.
One mountaintop onsen I visited did not inform me that towels had to be bought before entering the bath. This meant that I and two other women, near-strangers before the bath, were left to ration out our dry clothing between each other while dripping wet and shivering. We had all just moved to Japan, and were about to fake-it-til-we-made-it through the next few months of our new lives; stripping down and then trading undershirts to dry with seemed like a witchy blood oath to each other. If you can do it, so can I.
Being vulnerable doesn’t have to mean getting naked with someone, until it does. I’m a nicer person when I feel a little helpless; I recognize it in my friends and companions and they recognize it in me, all of us trying to make each other comfortable and being, maybe, a version of our best selves. Doing something as luxurious as reclining in a milk and honey bath painted to look like a Mediterranean grotto makes you indulgent and giddy, which means, in turn, that you are inclined to treat yourself and others more lavishly.
Recently, about four of us were recovering from hangovers in a 24-hour onsen theme park, and spent almost a full day taking turns plunging into the spray of a rooftop waterfall, giddy as children. I think about the women in paintings, lounging about with goddesses and talking for all eternity. It looks blissful, all that time for naked talk.