Naked and Afraid: Transcending the Comfort Zone in Japan
Alone, naked and undeniably trapped is how I found myself spending my first night in Japan on my own. I had never imagined I’d be dipping into matters of deeply-rooted self consciousness so quickly – yet there I was, trapped in a communal shower block without a towel.
Several ill-fated previous occurrences of the day all seemingly lead up to that moment, including an excruciating flight delay, some questionable plane food sending my gut into disarray and a run in with the taxi driver. It’s understandable that I was keen for a hot shower to wind down. Then I’d set up roost amongst my freshly ironed sheets and call it a night. That’d be the end of it, right?
Hastily gathering my toiletries, I made a beeline for the showers. Down the hall, up the stairs and to the right. A fogged up glass door automatically slid open as I approached, releasing a thick, perfumed cloud of mist into the hallway. An elderly woman in front of me slipped off her shoes and I followed suit, setting my own in a little shelf beside hers. After following her a little further in, she halted, set down her bag, and stripped down to nothing. She even gave a curt nod in my direction as she sauntered round the corner, leaving nought but a neat pile of clothing behind; leaving me lost for words.
Following that confrontation of the full frontal, I had to wonder if this was common practice for a communal bathroom. In hindsight, a quick Google search would have told me that this was indeed the case. Curiosity dictated that I check out the next room, though self-consciousness opted that I stay fully dressed.
Sure enough, as I peeked around the corner of the peeling salmon wall, the rest of the room was occupied by numerous (naked) middle-aged and elderly ladies. To my left stood a large bath, lined by a gaggle of women chatting casually across the shared water. To my right lay a row of open showers for hosing off before the bath, and beyond those, a line of largely unoccupied shower cubicles. Never had I thought to prepare for public nudity – this wasn’t a bathhouse, after all. Eyes seemed to follow me as I darted towards the empty stalls – evidently, being fully clothed just drew more attention to me.
After quickly locking the first cubicle’s door behind me, I instantly began to feel a little more comfortable. The murky, secluded stall sustained a much-needed sense of security behind that little lock. In the confines of my private cube, I finally undressed, allowing the previous stresses of the day to wash away. The rusty shower head provided a warm, inviting embrace from the stark winter air enveloping the streets of Tokyo. I shut my eyes, completely content in that one moment. And then that moment ended.
Just as I shut off the faucet to step out of the shower, a cool shudder went down my spine – and not just because of the affront of chilly air. Where was my towel? My eyes darted between my pile of clothes and collection of toiletries in dismay. Where did I put my towel? And then it hit me – I’d left it in the first room, accompanying my shoes. The puddle forming under my dripping body enveloped the gritty, auburn tiles, growing as the time passed. I had a decision to make, and I wasn’t gonna like it.
With a short moment of hesitation, I swiftly opened the door – my only sanctuary for physical modesty – and bolted for the corner. Big mistake. In only a couple of steps, I managed to smack straight into a poor, unsuspecting woman. Myself being a woman of quite small stature, the nature of the collision was, embarrassingly, face-to-boob. Stunned and utterly mortified, I quickly offered my apologies, whilst still attempting to conceal myself. By now, everyone was looking. Yep, I deserved that. I gathered my towel and headed back to the confines of my cubicle, face flushed with embarrassment.
I never did try the bath. As the days passed, I continued to veer right instead of left, towel in hand, still frightened of the unknown. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to let go of my preconceived sense of self-consciousness, no doubt imposed by a judgemental western attitude. Whilst I had no intention to end up in any scenario involving public nudity, the experience certainly showed me the value of comfort in nudity as opposed to the western mentality of privacy and embarrassment. Though it will definitely take time and courage, perhaps one day I will let go of the towel.
Cover by Skyler King