When I was in middle school my school organized a trip to a ryokan, a sort of Japanese bed and breakfast, at a place near Mt. Fuji. It was my first year living in Japan, and while I was excited to stay in tatami mat rooms and enjoy a nice, homemade teishoku meal, there was one thing about this trip that I was dreading: the onsen.
The ryokan had no individual showers to the rooms, and we were instead directed to go to a nearby onsen to bathe. Onsens are public baths, a popular leisure activity in Japan, and serve as a place to socialize, relax, and de-stress. I was used to onsen culture with my family or complete strangers, but going with my classmates was a new level of discomfort. Even if we were all girls and in theory it’s all the same, it felt awkward because they were my classmates. I saw them almost everyday, and we all sort of knew each other, but with many of them I would never talk outside of class.
This wasn’t going to be fun.
I didn’t want to cause a scene though, and so hurdling my own embarrassment, I decided to go with the flow, knowing that it would only be one night.
Sticking to our usual friend cliques, in groups we slowly trudged up the hill to get to the onsen. While we were full of chatter going up the stairs, once we arrived at the entrance, the level of conversation had noticeably dropped. We filed into the changing room, and as a group of young middle schoolers, we were all a bit self-conscious, careful to avoid eye contact with everyone and anyone. Uneasily, we each entered the bathing area, all of us probably hoping to just quickly shower and get out.
But once I entered the onsen, my breath was taken away. The onsen was absolutely beautiful, with black rock flooring and walls, and large mirrors and bamboo buckets to match every shower. It looked modest but felt luxurious, as I left reality and slipped into another dimension. I took my time showering, almost forgetting how uncomfortable I felt minutes earlier, and instead focused on just cleansing my body and taking care of my skin.
The girls who moments ago were declaring that they were going to just get in and get out, were now sitting and relaxing together in the bath. I slipped in too, allowing the steam to hit my face, and soaked in the mineral hot spring water. Slowly, others would also join, and we began to spark conversations with one another.
“Wasn’t that math test so hard? I can’t believe how you always seem to do so well in that class.”
“That hike this morning was so difficult! I definitely deserve this.”
“Are you guys dating now? Because he definitely has a crush on you!”
The social groups and boundaries we’ve created amongst ourselves seemed to melt away. We all began chatting with each other, briefly forgetting that outside these walls, many of us barely talked with each other. There was a moment of complete comfort and openness, as we began to gossip, share, and laugh with each other about the struggles and joys of being a middle schooler. The girls who seemed so different and far from my own friend group, they suddenly felt close and relatable.
It was a small slip, but for a moment, I wished we could stay one more night.
A Rare Space for Comfort in the Modern World
In a society that is increasingly digital and constantly pressing for my attention, the onsen has become a precious space which encourages me to stay in the moment, socialize, reflect, and relax. In particular, I find three characteristics of the onsen to be especially central in creating a space for ease and comfort, where the rules of the modern world don’t necessarily apply.
A place removed from technology
- While onsens weren’t specially designed to be technology-free detox zones, for the modern person, onsens provide a haven and a place for meditative quiet or comfort among friends. Instead of preoccupying our minds with taking photos, scrolling through social media, or replying to work emails, we are forced to simply focus on our current surroundings, and pass the time alone with our thoughts or with friends.
A place of no judgement
- There is something oddly refreshing about being naked, because everyone is in a similar place of vulnerability. While it may seem unnerving and make people self-conscious at first, first-time onsen goers will soon realize that no one cares what your body looks like. No makeup, no clothes, and no one to impress. Old people, young children, parents, and teenagers — with so many different bodies and people at different stages in their lives, you soon realize that no one is comparing themselves to you, and you have no reason to compare yourselves to them.
- I feel as though in the United States in particular, the human body has become hyper-sexualized and can be a deep source of shame and guilt for many individuals. While I can’t argue that Japan is free of this sort of judgement, as many parts of Japanese culture have become widely westernized, the onsen still preserves a space where the human body is loved and cared for.
A place of respect and consideration
- At the onsen, one of Japan’s most valued beliefs take prominence, which is to be considerate of others. This belief, to be aware of your own actions against the comfort of others, is even more highlighted at the onsen, because the bathhouse is a place to relax, and the only way to preserve such an atmosphere is for everyone to take responsibility in maintaining it.
- While there are some common sense rules like no yelling, there is some other etiquette that go beyond what may be expected in a typical public space. Respect for others and the space takes form in things like making sure to shower and cleanse your body before entering the baths. People with long hair will also be sure to tie it up, so their hair doesn’t up in the bath water, making it unpleasant for others. The rules are a sign of respect and responsibility, and while it’s not heavily reinforced, the comfort of the space is maintained because everyone is considerate of their own behavior.
The onsen for me is really one of my favorite parts of Japan, and a great part of its culture. While it felt foreign to me at first, I’ve grown to understand the preciousness of the atmosphere it creates. It’s a rare space for quiet relaxing, no judgement, and an escape from technology and the societal pressures of life — because sometimes, we all need a small break from reality.
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