Getting Naked North of Tokyo

This post originally appeared on my personal portfolio blog – JohnHimpe.com – in January of 2014.  It has been edited for posting here – because you can never edit enough!

I’ve had some pretty awesome hot water experiences over the years.

As a teenager on a family trip to Banff, I discovered how amazing it was to soak up the heat in an outdoor hot tub after a day of lumbering down the mountain.

Like a scene out of "Survivor" - Hot Springs Cove is a Canadian treasure on Vancouver Island.In my twenties, I took a boat excursion to Hot Springs Cove near Tofino, BC.   It was easily the best $100 I had spent on the trip.  The smell of sulphur from the water tingled my nose as the heat screamed from the waterfall as I rounded the corner to the natural hot spring after about a 20 minute hike through rainforest.  The cove was nestled in to a rocky corner and as you followed the water from the falls, you’d eventually end up in the ocean.  The experience was incredibly relaxing.

So in preparation for my first Japanese adventure, the topic of the Japanese public bath came up.

When talking about public baths, you’ll find they go by a variety of names.  Sento is the name for the small neighbourhood bathhouses which are scattered throughout the country.  Super Sento is a name given to a more commercial bathhouse venture – complete special spas, restaurants, and personal services.  If the water comes from a natural underground hot spring, you can call the bath an Onsen.  Outdoor baths are also usually given this name.  Onsen which have lodging or other overnight accommodations attached to them are known as a Ryokan.

For the sake of simplicity in this story, I’ll just refer to everything as a public bath – since, at the heart of it, that’s what this story is about.

So, the research began to try and figure out which public bath we’d want to check out while I was visiting.  That’s when I realized something I had long forgotten about public baths from my first ever conversation with Chris about them.  Unlike a trip to a tropical all-inclusive… unlike hot tub night in your buddy’s backyard (unless things get too drunk)… unlike a dip in the pool while on a business trip… you enjoy a Japanese public bath completely naked.  In the buff.  The same way you came in to this world.  Wearing… nothing… at… all.

Sorry, Tobias. "Never nudes" need not apply.

It’s funny the reaction I’ve had to this from many friends I’ve told about the experience after coming back from Japan.  It usually starts with “whaaaaat,” followed by “come again,” maybe a little “ummm….” and often finished up with a whole lot of “nope… never.”

Now, don’t mistake me for a card-carrying member of a naturist club  (where do they put their cards, anyway) – but I don’t have a huge problem with being buck naked at a Japanese bath house.

Why not?

Well, a big part of it is the whole idea of “when in Rome.”  Much in the same way I did with food during my trip, I approached the idea of going to the public baths with the attitude that I wouldn’t want to be a  “baka gaijin.”  If people who live in Japan are comfortable with the public bath being a place to be naked, why should I question it?

Also, nearly seven years of going to the gym has helped desensitize me to seeing dudes nude in a locker room setting (that’s a whole other blog post filled with funny stories, like the one gym-bro who thought nothing of holding his junky Blackberry just inches from his junk while he was texting a buddy while in the buff.  But, I digress.  Back to the baths.)

So where did I end going to enjoy my first Japanese bath experience?  It would be when we were visiting our friend Yuki and her family in Sakura-shi – a journey roughly 50 minutes north of Tokyo on the Tohoku Shinkansen line.

Around the dinner table at Yuki's home.
Around the dinner table at Yuki’s home.

After dinner, Yuki, her friend Will, Chris and I piled in to Yuki’s car – each of us holding a plastic shopping bag containing a bath towel and a facecloth.

Through the dark of night, we careened down the road before ending up at a bath house seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  It is most definitely not in any guidebook (just my kind of place!)

When you walk in the lobby of Matsushimaonsen-Otomenoyu, it feels like you’ve arrived at the neighbourhood swimming pool.  It is warm, friendly and cozy.

A bit of a fuzzy view in to the lobby at the onsen. To the left are lockers where you leave your shoes.
A bit of a fuzzy view in to the lobby at the onsen. To the left are lockers where you leave your shoes.

A quick transaction with the people at the front desk, and we had our keys to the change rooms and we were off to get naked.

It’s important to note that tubs at this public bath (and at most around the country) are separated for men and women, so there’s no gender mixing once you leave the front desk.

The change room was incredibly clean and warm.  Warmer than pretty much any other change room I’ve ever been in.  After stripping down to nothing, I grabbed my washcloth (also known as a ‘modesty towel’) and followed Chris and Will to the bathing area.  I had no idea what to expect, and was more than a little surprised when we rounded the corner.

In one part of the room is a large bath tub – about triple the size of any large hotel hot tub you’ve ever seen.  (According to the bath house’s website, it’s made of molten steel.)

Bordering the room are a number of showers.  They’re not stalls so much as they are ‘stations.’  A mirror is mounted low on the wall and above it is a handheld shower head.  A basket of cleaning products sits on a ledge below the mirror containing shampoo and liquid soap.  There’s also a bucket about the size you’d use to build a sandcastle – it is used to rinse yourself and to wash those hard-to-reach places.  And – the part I really wasn’t expecting – a short stubby stool (think a kiddie’s plastic stepping stool) to sit on while you clean yourself.

I walked up to an available shower station and went to sit on the stubby stool – only to fall flat on my butt.  (Squats… need to do more squats.)  Nobody noticed my full Bambi move, so I regained my composure and saddled up to get squeaky clean.

Cleaning yourself before entering the tub is way more involved than the simple spritz-yourself-in-a-crappy-shower-before-entering-the-waterpark you’re used to when going to a North American waterpark.  You need to be clean when you enter a Japanese tub.  In fact, there’s a fine if you’re not and you contaminate the water.  This means scrubbing ev-er-y-where.  While sitting on a low-rise, kiddies stepping stool.  Have you ever tried to throughly wash your body with your knees up to your neck and your centre of gravity way below where it normally should be?  It’s an adventure.

After about ten minutes of washing, re-washing, and washing again, I rinsed off and proceeded to enter the tub.  And man – was it warm!  In fact, the bath house’s website says the water stays around 40 degrees celsius (or about 104 fahrenheit.)

You could easily tell the mineral content was pretty high in the water as it took a bit of will power to keep from floating around the tub.  Even so, it was very relaxing.  Probably the most relaxing hot tub experience I’ve ever had.

Letting everything hang out in the tub wasn’t all that awkward.  The water was cloudy from the minerals to a certain extent, so not much below your waist is terribly visible.  (Your ‘modesty’ washcloth, by the way, does not go in the public tub – but rather on the ledge of the tub.  Or – if you want to do-as-the-locals-do – it’s folded up in to a square and placed on top of your head.  I opted to wear the towel for fear of it falling off the ledge and getting my germs in the tub.)

After about 40 minutes of soaking and chatting, we decided it was time to go.  I was sad to leave, but also relieved a bit as you definitely feel the heat after a while.

While some people prefer not to wash the minerals off their bodies, we decided to take a quick rinse before heading back to the change room.  It’s perfectly acceptable as we saw a whole bunch of other locals do it before leaving.

One of the nice things about the change room is that not only is it incredibly warm, but they provide a lot of the supplies you’d want or need after a good bath.  There is hair gel, blow dryers, and other toiletries that you are free to be used by anyone.  It’s handy.  

Getting naked with a bunch of strangers to enjoy a bath might sound terrifying to a lot of people… but it’s a great example of how putting aside North American conventions can give way to a unique experience worthy of sharing with friends – if only to see their reactions as you tell the story.

(As a footnote : the folks over at Japan-Guide – awesome site, by the way –  have a pretty good visual explanation of what an indoor public bath looks like.  Check it out – it’ll give you even more of an idea of how things look.)

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