The Unexpected Joy of Enforced Public Nudity
After a bad injury, when I booked my first ever sports massage, I was shocked at the level of intimacy. The experience was more intimate, in fact, than any romantic encounter I’d had up until that point in my life.
I’m British, you see, and we Brits tend to be a bit uptight. It’s actually so ingrained in my country’s dominant culture that even when we have sex, we are stand-offish, aloof and often weirdly formal and polite.
So, when I booked my plane ticket to Tokyo in the summer of 2019, when we were all still blissfully naïve to the concepts of ‘travel bans’ and ‘vaccine passports’, I knew I would certainly spot many cultural differences between Japan and the UK. I didn’t know that one of those main differences, however, would be full-frontal nudity.
Let me explain. You see, the first thing I did after booking my ticket, naturally, was to Google ‘Best things to do in Tokyo’. I couldn’t help noticing that one suggestion kept on re-appearing:
“You must try going to an onsen or a sentō!” the screen blared at me.
An onsen? A sentō? Confused, my Japanese being then (and admittedly still now) terrible, I typed the mysterious words into my search engine.
Wikipedia rewarded me with the descriptions: onsen are naturally occurring hot springs. Sentō are human-made versions of onsen. Both are used as public bathhouses.
Sounds perfect, I thought, until I noticed upon further inspection that the following search suggestion was ‘Can you wear clothes in an onsen?’
Unbeknownst to me, Japanese culture dictates that onsen-goers, as a rule, bathe nude. Not an unheard-of requirement for specific activities globally, but to a 20-year-old British girl, this seemed like a personal affront. Naked? In front of strangers? Fuck no.
As I imagine Global Hobo has a proportionally high Australian readership, I’ll explain. In Britain we are big fans of keeping our clothes on. In fact, the stiff upper lip, ‘lay-back-and-think-of-England’ culture we Brits so desperately cling to dictates that allowing a stranger to see you naked can only occur after first drinking enough pints to ensure the likelihood of you ever remembering such a horrifying undignified ordeal the morning after becomes slim to impossible. God save the Queen and all that. In short, we’re a bunch of wildly repressed adults who have a culturally normal hatred of our own bodies.
Upon arriving at my hostel in Kuramae, Tokyo, and meeting the bunch of gorgeous, confident and diverse women who were to be my roommates for the upcoming months, I became adamant: no way am I getting my pasty, milk-white scrawny English body out in front of these goddesses. No. My clothes we’re staying firmly on, thank you very much.
However, after expressing this feeling to either my boyfriend or my mum (January 2020 seems like a long time ago now – I can’t remember who it was), they were confident that if I didn’t fully explore all this new country had to offer, I’d later regret it.
So, with my new friends Abbey and Jada bravely leading the way, I tentatively lost my onsen virginity.
And it was… freeing.
Although I had thought that being in an essentially translucent swimming pool with a group of strangers would be daunting, once I got over the initial shock of seeing boobs every which way I looked, I found the whole experience transformative.
In fact, trips to the onsen and sentō became pretty much bi-weekly for me for the remainder of my time in Tokyo. The ritual of it all – how you wash yourself clean whilst sat on a stool with warm water from a tap and a bucket beforehand, the fact that you, by the nature of being immersed in water, have to go sans-phone – was refreshing. You didn’t know how much time had passed, and you simply didn’t care. It was just you, your body and the water.
As someone who feels like I never quite grew to fully embody womanhood physically (see: I often feel as though I have the body of a 12-year old pre-pubescent boy, or worse a scantily-clad skeleton), I was delighted to realise that everybody has body hang-ups. Even these girls who had seemed so outgoing to me at first later expressed that there were parts of their bodies that they weren’t entirely ready to fully embrace just yet. And this really helped me: not others’ insecurities, but rather knowing that body shyness is universal.
And frankly, the majority of onsen and sentō-goers are local older women who are beyond the point of caring about how they look. And in the bath for the first time, in a sea of baggy tits and perfectly imperfect bodies, I finally felt fine about the way I looked without clothes on.
You can look at all the glamourised, picture-perfect female bodies you want on Instagram, or in magazines, but at the end of the day, those photos are artwork: the most ‘ideal’ of the ideal body-types who are paid to pose and edited so that the photos are flattering. Normal human bodies are naturally lumpy, lopsided and flawed. But that doesn’t make us any less beautiful or valuable. Bodies, too, are essentially just superficial skin prisons that enclose the real us: it is our feelings, thoughts and actions that make us intrinsically unique.
So frankly, I think we Brits have a lot to learn culturally, and maybe practicing becoming relaxed with taking our clothes off more readily (within the parameters of the law) is a good a place, as any, to start. I believe we could all do with being a bit more naked!
Cover by Soyoung Han