What if I told you I spent the evening on the nude in a pool of other naked people? Then, what if I told you I brought my kids along? This is what you had in mind reading a blog by a traveling mommy. This is
exactly what I did. The Japanese are known for their modesty and discretion, but there is one custom that shakes the modesty of the rather immodest Americans: stripping down for a dip in the hot springs with other strangers in the nude. While showing skin in the U.S. is not unusual, bathing with naked strangers is out of the comfort zone of most Americans.
Most hot springs are gender-specific, so women a only with other women.
This is generally more comfortable for foreign visitors except for one major caveat. Often, our sole travel companion is of the opposition gender. Imagine separating from your partner/boyfriend/spouse and going it alone, naked and surrounded by naked strangers that don’t speak your language.
One of my first visits to the hot spring was even more nerve wracking. My Japanese boyfriend (who would become my husband years later) brought me to Japan for a family visit. My boyfriend’s mother was not pleased to see a white girl who was formerly clueless about Japanese culture. Well, guess who came with me alone to the hot spring? Next time you meet someone’s parents or hang out with your in-laws, remember it could ne more akward. You could be naked.
Despite the nudity, and occasional gawking at a white girl at the local hot sprong, a visit to onsen is a magical experience. The steam rises over the water’s surface, creating a therapeautic mist. The outdoor onsen are usually shrouded in boulder cascades, lush landscaping, and scenic mountain vistas. In order to adjust to the heat, enter the water slowly. Proceed deeper when your body is comfortable. Once you sit down and the water reaches your chest, your whole body will slowly release and relax. Although I have a mind that never stops churning, the onsen sedates me mentally and physically. Fifteen to twenty minutes will change one’s state. It is an automatic zen for the low price of 500 yen, or $5.
Yesterday I finally gathered the courage to go to the onsen with my two kids. At first, my three-year-old wanted to escape the heat. A couple minutes later, he adjusted and went exploring in the water. Unlike a pool, the whole hot spring is shallow and walkable. We all mellowed out a bit and then the hard part was getting him to leave. In the end, we all took a cool shower while seated on small stools. Once dressed and refreshed, we ate dinner at the inn’s restaurant and then drove home. We were all zen then.