It was only when I stepped foot on Japanese soil that I learnt of the wonders of onsen; natural hot spring baths where Japanese ablutioners congregate naked to relax or socialise. There are thousands of onsen in Japan coming in a variety of types; mixed gender, separated male and female, sento (indoor baths supplied by ordinary heated water) and the ultimate-most-bestest kind – rotenburo (outdoor, geothermally-heated baths).
Anyone who knows me may be privy to the fact that I appreciate my baths…on a ‘koalas appreciate eucalyptus’ kind of level…
In fact, one of the biggest cons to being on the road for so long (way up there with missing friends and family!) is the distinct lack of bathing options in hostels. Well, at least ones you’d be happy to dip your bum in.
So, imagine my glee when I stumble upon Maguse Onsen, a rotenburo with a view to die for high in the mountains of northern Nagano, while working in Nozawa Onsen ski resort 25 minutes down the road?
One quiet and very sunny Monday morning I grab my towel (not much else is required, of course) and make my way through the valley to Maguse.
Paying a modest 500 yen, I enter the changing room, smiling on the inside that I’m the only one there, and locate myself a locker. A cleaner emerges from the toilet who utters what I hope is “have a good bath” in Japanese, bows at me and scurries out of the changing room. I quickly start to undress, keen to make the most of the solitude and rush outside towel in hand.
The view instantly grabs me.
But, keen not to be caught lurking in the buff, I eyeball the array of white bowls lined up to fill with onsen water, slosh one over me and step in to the bath.
And, an amazing contrast to the cold mountain air the rest of naked-me is currently submerged in. I pick the best spot in the pool with an almighty view of the snowy valley below and ease myself down.
Submerged in the oyu (hot water), a cool alpine breeze sweeping over my naked shoulders and the midday sun beaming down on my face, I gaze at the view down the valley to ski fields and the Japanese Alps in the distance.
In that moment I decide that baths don’t get better than this. Miss Bath-Lover had just discovered the ultimate in bathing.
I bask in this wonderfulness for half an hour, pulling myself out of the water and sitting on the rocks in the cool air when the heat becomes a little too unbearable.
My peace is suddenly disturbed – I thought this was too good to be true.
Behind the sound of the bath’s running water I hear a bus reversing and hissing to a stop. I brace myself as I hear the chatter of Japanese women slide open the onsen changing room door. I tentatively turn around and spot a group of older ladies peer out the window at me. I now know how zoo-based penguins feel, but manage to refrain from flapping my arms at my side.
I’ve been to a few onsen in Japan and feel relatively confident of the etiquette, but it doesn’t stop me feeling panicked every time I hear someone in case I’m not supposed to be naked in that particular one.
It’s never good to assume, right?
I can’t think of anything worse than to be caught somewhere inappropriately naked!
Nakedness in public is so unusual in the UK, so it feels very unnatural to be sat sans-bikini in a communal pool, let alone one that’s outside.
Bracing myself for potential bikini-clad ladies and poised to make a smash and grab for my towel, naked women spill out of the changing room one by one. My eyes fixated on the view and with a smile on my face (to appear friendly, of course), I feel the water around me displace as the ladies move themselves around the pool.
More and more naked bodies file out of the changing room, repeating “hotto, hotto” as each lowers themselves into the oyu.
Slowly silence between the women descends and some congregate in a line on my side of the pool. Slightly too close for comfort and with our breasts half submerged and simultaneously bobbing in the hot water, we drink in the fabulous view together in steamy awe.
For ten minutes we float together in mutual admiration of the magnificent panorama before us, sharing something epic in total naked beauty.
I quietly wonder to myself whether the experience touches anyone like it has me or whether this is quite standard for Japanese women in beautiful Japan?
But as an onsen-deprived Brit, I know this is special.
When in Japan, the only advice I give you is to search a rotenburo out, take all of your clothes off and relish in your nakedness amongst nature.