The word “modest” does not describe a modesty towel very well. I’m standing in a small dressing room with a few old ladies, grasping this flimsy and slightly sheer material, and marveling at the dimensions that barely match the size of a hand towel. I quickly take off my yukata, stuff it into a cubby, and drape the small cloth over the front of my body. I hold it lengthwise, barely covering my torso and pelvic area and leaving my butt for all to see, before entering the onsen. Onsen are hot springs heated by volcanic activity. The milky, bluish colored water bubbles to the earth’s crust, providing relaxation and health benefits enjoyed since ancient times. The hot water, rich in minerals, is said to aid circulation, ease joint pain, improve sleep, and give a glowing complexion. As a part of my global seminar this summer, I was looking forward to visiting an onsen, but I became instantly anxious when I found out that bathing suits are not allowed.
It is the middle of July in the small city of Nachikatsuura in southern Japan, and I am staying in a spa hotel built into the side of a mountain jutting out into the Pacific. Hotel Urashima has a capacity of at least three thousand guests, and a network of tunnels, corridors, and elevators connecting the buildings of the compound. It’s the largest hotel I’ve ever been to, and also the wackiest. Hotel guests are encouraged to wear yukata, or simple summer kimonos, and flip-flops when walking around the complex. Hawaiian music plays constantly in the damp halls and the hotel staff wears Hawaiian shirts. These employees frequently smash cockroaches in front of guests without hesitation. The hotel is only accessible by ferries, which are shaped like whales and turtles, and the rooms are stocked with sweets and crackers that taste like fish food. Colored trails lead the way to various baths, many of these trails lined with arcade games and karaoke rooms. There are a lot of babies, and a lot of old people.
I found the open nudity of the baths incongruous, since Japanese fashion even today is modest and discourages wearing short shorts or even baring shoulders. Luckily my first night at the onsen was subdued. With very few women in the baths, I could adjust to a form of culture shock I wasn’t expecting. I was fairly certain the last person to see me naked in a bath was my mother when I was a small child. Now it was going to be two other acquaintances in my seminar. Modesty towels draped in front of us, we walked together out of the dressing room into the bathing area. The onsen are divided by gender, and this particular one is in a high-ceilinged cave that opens out into a cliff over the ocean. I’m caught off guard by the strong smell of sulfur and choke a little bit deep in my throat. It’s imperative to be clean before stepping into the baths, so we sit at a line of washbasins near the ground. We folded the towels and wrapped them around our heads, and then we rubbed our bodies with soap and rinsed them off. I don’t think I’ve bathed with other girls since summer camp, and even that was while wearing bathing suits. I’m polite and try not to look at their bodies, but I still see them out of the corner of my eye as we speak.
Modesty towels are not supposed to touch the water in the baths, so we kept them folded on our heads before stepping in. I wonder why the hotel gives these to us in the first place since we spend so little time wearing them and since they become soaked in the onsen’s high humidity. I poke a foot in the shallow pool next to the mouth of the cave. A cool breeze flows in but the water is much hotter than I expected- onsens often measure around 110 degrees Fahrenheit. I hold my breath and slowly lower my body. In a sitting position, the water reaches to just under my collarbones, and I relax a little because the cloudy water hides my body. Even though I know there’s nothing wrong with my body, I’m self-conscious because I’m not used to such self-exposure. The two other girls and I chat and listen to the tide in the distance, but we leave after a half an hour because the water is too hot, the steam makes breathing difficult, and the heat causes dehydration.
I’m still eager to return the next evening. This time I would be alone to explore all of the baths, seeking comfort in that those who see me naked won’t who I am nor will see me ever again. Essentially, I intend to use anonymity to hide my nudity. The weekend is now in full swing, so the hotel is near capacity and hundreds, maybe over a thousand women are in the onsen tonight. Walking into the dressing room, I receive a lot of surprised looks, as I am the only Westerner. This time, several old women, young women, and their children accompany me. Everyone is naked, few are using modesty towels, and there are mirrors everywhere. This onsen is also in a cave, and has a larger network of interconnecting baths. A greenish light pervades the room and the water is not cloudy but instead pitch-navy. The steam settles into a haze above the pools, and I hear the ocean crashing more violently outside. It feels like a dream sequence. I wade through the water, searing my legs as I try to find a good spot to sit by myself and meditate. I fold my modesty towel on top of my head and sit holding my knees to my chest.
Across from me is a woman in her twenties wearing fake eyelashes and full makeup despite the heady, humid air. Judging by her breasts and curves she is a new mother. She sits against the wall that divides the women’s side from the men’s. Suddenly I hear a “Mama!” from the other side of the wall, and she smiles and calls out “Hai!” She’s speaking to her toddler son in the bath with his father. They banter back and forth for a little bit and I can’t help but smile. After this exchange I walk to another part of the bath and realize how many women are watching me. I’m assuming it is because I’m a random Westerner in a sea of short, black-haired, stick-thin, middle-aged women. I secretly feel they are looking at me because my body type is different from theirs and perhaps a point of curiosity- it is not short, black-haired, or stick thin. I don’t mind. I begin to observe their bodies as they look at mine. They are old and have concave bottoms, sagging breasts, and wrinkly tummies. Though most people cringe at this image, it is completely natural. This is what happens when women age. Their eyes and the mirrors everywhere in the onsen help me to understand the female body, my body, a little bit better.
I go to a different onsen, this one on top of the mountain with a large window and panoramic view of the bay. This onsen is more similar to a shallow swimming pool, and by now I have gotten used to the Japanese women looking at me. In this environment, nudity is not vulnerable. In the baths, there is no room for self-consciousness. Despite countless body types, in Western society we never get to see them all. Very rarely do we find complete, full-on views of naked women who aren’t models. There is no frame of reference of what everyone actually looks like, thus it’s easier to be more critical of one’s own body. The elderly women I see may have lost their sex appeal, but they have not lost their comfort and confidence in their bodies. What reassures them is that they are not alone in aging.
The next morning I rise at 5 am with another girl in my seminar. It’s my birthday. We go to the baths one last time to watch the sunrise from the cave. The light that fills the cavern is no longer green but white, and the water in the baths is cooler. Despite the early hour, the onsen is crowded with elderly women who surround me at the washbasins. This time, I’m comfortable washing myself among them. Pink skin, flushed cheeks, smiles. I feel no qualms looking at their bodies and I don’t mind when they look at mine. The women mind their own business, washing their hair and brushing their teeth, tending to grandchildren. All ages of women in close proximity with absolutely no barriers. This phenomenon is called hadaka no tsukiai- an intimate, naked association unique to East Asian bathing culture. We see everything of one another. I’m reminded of paintings from the 19th century depicting Turkish baths and harems full of naked women. Except this isn’t sexy- it’s real, and it’s a quietly pleasurable, heightened sense of femininity far away from men.
I dip into one last bath, small and Jacuzzi-like, close to the mouth of the cavern. The ocean is a frothy turquoise and laps up against dark cliffs shaped like puzzle pieces. It sounds like the tide is crashing inside the cave. I sit alone for a moment before a group of ladies join me. I listen to them babble quietly a while before one turns to me and asks a few questions- my name, where I’m from, where I go to school, how old I am, what I’m doing in Japan. I answer and she compliments me on my Japanese, but I don’t know how to tell her that we learn how to answer those questions in the first few weeks of 101. The old woman isn’t looking at my body- she’s looking at my face, and I’m looking at hers. I can’t foresee the next time I will be around another group of naked women, if ever. My friend and I leave for a breakfast of rice and eggs, and I bid goodbye to my happy, naked, elderly friends.