Naked among strangers: communal bathing in Japan

Would you believe my first foray into communal bathing was in Kings Cross more than twenty five years ago when the virtues of having a scrub and hot tub were touted, and the Korean Bath House was the go.

Having ticked that box, it wasn’t until I started skiing in Japan that I’ve found the hot spring waters of an onsen are the perfect apres ski tonic. Furthermore, floundering in an ensuite as pokey as a caravan’s shower recess, is not particularly comfortable.

By way of preparation, I strip off in my room, don a yukata (a kimono style gown) and slippers, and head down a maze of corridors to the women’s onsen. Upon entering, shoes are parked in a row and the yukata, stored in a basket in the next room.

Standing naked in my 1.76cm frame I feel very exposed with a tiny facewasher size towel to cover my parts. In the washroom I collect a stool the size usually reserved for kindy kids and squat in front of a mirror among a row of petite Japanese women. Even though I try to extend the time and emulate their scrubbing, cleaning and preening, my ablutions are over well before theirs.

Cleansed, I tie the towel around my head and submerge my body in the closest pool and progressively move to hotter tubs. I reach a stage when I feel light headed and venture outdoors where the temperature is well below zero but the onsen cooler.

The path is icy and while my eyes adjust to the low light I reach out to the first rock and move crab-like until I’m cocooned in warm water. A light wind blows snow from the trees and it swirls around my head.

Refreshed and exhilarated I continue this practice daily for nine days and with each visit, I become more at ease in my skin, naked among strangers.

In stark contrast, extending the trip to Kyushu in the very south of Japan I sample a Sunamushi Onsen, a warm, sand bath heated by natural hot volcanic springs and this is definitely a first.

Ibusuki, a ghost-like town in winter swarms with people at the sunamushi on this day. Neil and I are issued with the regulation yukata, flipflops and a long thin towel and separate into same-sex change rooms before heading to the beach. I walk briskly to keep warm while Neil struggles with his ‘one size fits all’ footwear.

Under a long canvas there’s a flurry of activity as staff shovel the dark warm sand to scallop a silhouette that resembles our body size. The attendant motions me to wrap the yukata firmly around my body and winds the towel around my head and eyes as I recline into the depression.

Two men shovel 20-30 kilograms of heavy dank sand over my body and I’m feeling somewhat mummified.  The towel is taken back from my face and a man points to the giant clock above, holds up ten fingers, nods and says in broken English ‘Ten minutes only.’

‘This feels weird…’ I mutter to Neil and as my head is pinioned by sand, I look out of the corner of my eyes to see him wearing his spectacles. I find this amusing but with the weight on my chest I can only utter a chuckle.

Wanting to make the most of the so-called therapeutic benefits, I close my eyes and try to visualise something miraculous happening to the lurgy that I’ve had for six days.

Neil’s the one to signify that ‘time’s up.’ I shake off the sand and walk to the change rooms and contemplate whether I feel anything but warm. The yukata is thrown in a basket, there’s a massive ladle and a tub of water to toss over my body to remove excess sand, a quick shower and a hot communal onsen to follow.

With communal bathing I’ve relegated a sunamushi to the quirky and exotic typical of Japan, whereas the joys and benefits of an onsen are immeasurable.

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