The Onsen Experience: bathing naked at a public hot spring in Japan

Last August I had the opportunity to experience bathing naked at a public onsen in Japan. It was at a lovely hotel called Hana San Sui conveniently close to Aso-Kuju National Park. Sitting at 1030 meters, the cool weather even at the height of summer is a ravishing contrast to the heat of the iron-rich spring waters in the pools. It is the perfect destination to relax after hiking at nearby Tadewara Wetlands.

The hotel’s name is a witty play on words. Hana San Sui literally means the following: Flower 花 Mountain 山 Water 水 . However, the latter word 水 has the same pronounciation in Chinese as 酔 which means drunknenness or state of being mesmerized.  Thus, the hotel name evokes a state of being drunk on the beauty of nature, which is exactly the feeling I got while lounging in its hot waters right after hiking at Tadewara Wetlands.

Bathing there for me was such an eye-opening experience. Coming from a Christian and Muslim country, I think the Japanese’ lack of self-consciousness about nudity is quite admirable (in the olden days men and women even bathed naked together).

How does one bathe in the public hot spring? The main rule is to wash your body first and be completely clean before entering the pool. A shower area, where one scrubs one’s body also completely naked, is provided in each public bath or onsen.

I was initially uncomfortable as it seemed I was being too “intimate” with those strangers; in my culture the only people that see you naked is your lover/partner. However, p̶e̶r̶h̶a̶p̶s̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶s̶u̶r̶p̶r̶i̶s̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶a̶b̶s̶o̶l̶u̶t̶e̶l̶y̶ ̶n̶o̶b̶o̶d̶y̶,̶ ̶I quickly took to it like a duck takes to water. Only a few mature ladies were there and they left after 30 minutes. Being alone in the outdoors pool, with the steam gently rising from the waters and the sky above me, I was able to take pictures and then completely relax. To be honest, though, it didn’t feel any different from being in a hot spring in my swimsuit.

I think the good thing about this public onsen practice of bathing naked together is, once you overcome your shame and shyness, you start realizing that your body does NOT define you. Wrinkled, sexy, plain, fat, flawed- doesn’t matter. It’s just a body. Not everyone is genetically gifted, not everyone goes to the gym, everybody ages. No big deal. It is also the opposite of narcissism because you stop assuming that everyone cares so much about you that they’ll devote energy and time to stare at and judge you. It seems that contrary to what we are taught, there is nothing shameful and offensive about the human body. For people that have negative body image, I highly recommend the Japanese onsen.

Also, another epiphany, I realize that my discomfort about nudity doesn’t come from shame about the body I am given but rather from perceived or real sexual malice and threats from men.

 

 

The utterly charming “rotenburo” or outdoor onsen.

 

The indoor part of the onsen.

How to Go There:

Walk-in guests are welcome to avail of their hotel and onsen services until 7pm daily. 

The onsen fees are 500 yen per person. 

Directions in English can be found at the Hana San Sui hotel’s website. 

Address: 

260-1,Tano Kokonoe-machi Kusu-gun Oita
879-4911 Japan

 

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