I am naked in a room full of strangers.
I glance around the room, careful not to let my gaze linger for too long in any one place. I spot several open showers at the far end of the room, and I carefully walk over and perch on one of the stools. I set down my white washcloth, not sure if I am supposed to use it to clean myself now or save it for some other part of this ritual. I grip the faucet handle and turn it on, pointing the shower head at my feet until steam rises up from the floor. I feel like there are eyes on my back; I want to look at the women already bathing, to see if they are watching me. Am I doing something wrong? Should I just leave now before I commit a major faux pas? Does my body look strange?
I spray my head and let the water run down my body, watching rivulets slide across stretch marks and over legs laced with spider veins. I use my other hand to lift my chin-length hair; when it’s soaked through, I turn off the water and place the shower head back in its cradle. I pump some shampoo into my palm, and massage it slowly onto my scalp. When I would normally stop shampooing, I keep going a little longer, remembering warnings I’d received about the level of cleanliness expected before entering the hot springs.
When we found out we would be moving to Japan, we asked our friends, another Air Force couple who had lived there for several years, what advice they had. They told us about the best burger joint near Mt. Fuji, gave us the scoop on which Japanese furniture to buy, and encouraged us to visit the onsen. Onsen are natural hot springs formed by geothermal activity. Bathers are completely naked. “When you go, just make sure you clean yourself well enough before you get in the water,” my friend said. “If you’re not sure, watch one of the Japanese women and shower for at least as long as she does.”
My friend’s advice suddenly feels much more difficult as I realize I have to watch a naked stranger in order to follow it. I don’t want to be inappropriate, but a little guidance would be nice. I glance back toward the locker room where several women are showering and decide I’ll finish after they do. With one of my peeks, I see them scrubbing with their washcloths. I focus on this fact and tell myself not to notice their bodies, not to compare shapes or see similar scars of time, stress, and motherhood. Instead, I pick up my washcloth and squirt orange soap from a soap dispenser into the center. My eyes and thoughts creep only across my own body. Starting with my face, I wash myself from top to bottom, going over each familiar part a second time when I see that the women are also still cleaning.
I rinse for several minutes, praying that every bit of shampoo and soap is swirling down the drain and will not betray me when I enter the water. When I asked a couple local friends and trusty Auntie Google for onsen advice, wash thoroughly was at the top of the list, but so was being sure not to contaminate the water with soap residue. I was supposed to set my little washcloth off to the side or balance it on my head while I soaked so that it would also remain out of the soothing mineral water.
The water at my feet is clear as it runs down the drain. The other ladies still haven’t finished, but I am confident in my cleanliness. It’s time. I stand up and wring out the washcloth. I carry it slightly in front of me as I start to walk toward the water. I am normally a person who smiles and nods or says hello to strangers. Now when I pass someone, I glance down at the tile or shift my gaze up toward the ceiling without a greeting.
When I prepared for this visit to the hot springs, I worried about how it would feel to be naked in front of so many people, to offer my body up to their eyes and possible judgements. Now, standing here alone, I realize no one cares that I’m naked –except for me. Everyone else is naked too. Not only that, but being here, nude, is necessary for the experience. There are no bathing suits or other clothes allowed in the water. This is a normal part of the customs and culture of Japan. Trying to cover my nether regions with a small washcloth seems futile and laughable. I move my hands to my sides and step down into the first pool.
In the three years since becoming a mother, I’d been steeped in a culture that says women’s bodies are supposed to “bounce back” after having children. A culture that says I should hide my stretch marks and tuck in my poochy belly. The same culture that says I should shave hair that isn’t where it “should” be (even though I’m an adult mammal, hello). A culture that blames women’s bodies for the sins of men. This is the culture that idolizes thin and fit and strong and demonizes and dehumanizes soft and round and scarred. So to be here, stripped down, nude, is a declaration: Here I am. Just me. All of me. I am fearfully and wonderfully made. This is my body, and it is good.
The water is thought to have therapeutic benefits, and I am an instant believer. I make my way across the pool and sit in a corner, giving the other bathers as much space as possible. I close my eyes and rest my head back against the cool edge of the onsen. Any embarrassment or awkwardness I felt slides beneath the surface. I’ve lived in Japan for two years, and this is my first time experiencing the onsen. As I make my way around the complex, eventually heading to the main pool outside, I vow to visit again before we move back to the United States in a year.
I came here to experience the lauded waters, waters heated by volcanic activity below the surface that rise up through cracks and emerge as natural hot springs. After an evening of soaking in these mineral-rich waters, I feel relaxed; certainly there has to be some truth to their therapeutic nature. But I also wonder if the peace I feel stems at all from the simple act of showing up. I came alone to a place where I could not read the signs explaining the rules and procedures. I stripped off my clothes and walked into a room of people I’d never met, and stood there in all of my nakedness. And rather than give in to the shame and embarrassment, I decided to be present and enjoy the experience. I could have allowed myself to shrink back, but instead I chose to rise up like the very waters to which I had come.
This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “Bold”.
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