Monday, 28 January 2013

The naked truth about onsens

There's pretty much only two types of people in this world: those who you want to see naked in an onsen, and those who you do not.

I contemplated this new ranking system as I was floating around in an onsen today and a group of elderly Japanese gents filed in.

Let's just say that it's quite a shock to see the ageing process in ALL it's glory.   Sort of a "Whoomp!  There is is!" kind of moment.

For those unfamiliar with Japanese onsens, they are traditional bath houses which often draw on hot volcanic springs.  While some Australian towns have a pub on every corner, in some Japanese towns they have an onsen on every corner.

Even though all Japanese homes have their own bathrooms, there's something nice about the fact that these onsens still exist as they have for hundreds of years.  And they're not just used by tourists or weary skiers, but by locals who see it as their equivalent to dropping in to the pub for a pint with friends on their way home from work.

After entering an onsen and your gender-specific area, you strip off and put your belongings into a neat little basket.   Before you actually get into the hot pools themselves, you have to wash yourself.   Sometimes these wash areas are quite plush with hand-held showers, plastic stools and an array of soaps, shampoos etc at your disposal.   Other times you are pretty much just bucketing water over yourself.

Once clean, it's time to relax by plunging into the shallow pool.  Some onsens have several pools, including ones outside where you can sit while it is snowing around you.

As onsens draw on natural spring water, there's no pungent chlorine smell.  But sometimes the water is so hot that I can only stand putting my whole body in for a minute at the most.   Clearly the ageing process delivers bravery, and perhaps a substantial loss of feeling, as some of the old Japanese gents happily bob around for a long time like ancient icebergs.

It certainly helps that I know absolutely no-one in these onsens.  It's just me, old Japanese gents and awkward-looking Australian guys who seem worried that this might constitute some sort of homosexual act.

It surprises me how comfortable I am sitting around naked with a bunch of complete strangers in another country.  

When I was little, even going bare chested in some public situations was not something I would entertain.

Back in the early '80s, our pre-school class was selected to perform a Hawaiian-inspired hula dance at the school's fancy dress ball.  (This made perfect sense because when people visit Warwick I'm sure Hawaii immediately pops into their mind.)

The boys were meant to go shirtless wearing just the hula skirts they had made in class using strips of newspaper.  The girls had the luxury of wearing tank tops as well.  As you can tell, the school prided itself on cultural accuracy, not to mention child protection.

But when the big night came, I was so opposed to taking my shirt off in public that I refused.   The performance went on; my top half looking like a trucker in a tank top, and the bottom half quasi-Hawaiian.

How times have changed.  Now I'm paying yen to get naked.

Back in the onsen, I feel like I'm taking part in a Japanese remake of the film Cocoon.   It would be an R-rated film given the significant amount of nudity.  Not pretty nudity or sexy nudity, just nudity.

And so apart from feeling pampered and refreshed by the whole experience, I'm also being given a bird's eye view of the havoc ageing and gravity play on the body.

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