Artwork by Maisie Mannering
The first time I stripped naked in a room full of strangers was in March of last year. I’d been living in Japan for just short of two months and I was travelling around Kyoto on my own. I didn’t actually mean to go to an onsen. I was on the bus, going from temple to temple in the hope that one of them might inspire something inside of me, when I saw an onsen come up on Google Maps. It’s worth mentioning here that I was lonely. I would later come to love Japan but at this point I wasn’t entirely sure why I’d come in the first place and I was never not thinking of home. Really I was depressed, but I was still in the early days when it was more of a constant and indistinguishable sadness. There I was on a bus in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, wishing that I wasn’t. I’m a prudish Brit at heart, so I wasn’t entirely sure the onsen was for me, but it popped up on my phone and I had a long stretch of day to fill. I guess there’s something about rock bottom that makes the scary stuff easier to do.
For those who are wondering, an onsen is a traditional Japanese bathhouse. You can get indoor ones and outdoor ones, and the water is fed directly from naturally occuring hot springs, which are abundant nationwide. There are a few rules at the onsen. No running, no phones, no getting in without showering first, no loud noises, no tattoos and absolutely no clothes.
I was given a towel, some linen pyjamas and a locker key. I walked into the women’s changing room, the butterflies flapping away. Inside were women of all ages. They were walking around, drying their hair and chatting with one another completely in the nude. Behind steamed-up sliding doors, more women walked in and out of the changing room, free of all self-consciousness. There was something kind of beautiful about it.
I found my locker. I constructed a fortress of sorts with my towel, and changed uncomfortably underneath it, careful not to flash any of the unassuming women around me. I spotted the only other gaijin in there, a middle-aged Eastern-European woman putting her clothes back on post-soak and I tentatively approached her with my towel wrapped tightly around me.
“Excuse me,” I said, and she turned around and looked at me. I told her it was my first time there and that I didn’t know what to do.
“You need to put your towel back in your locker,” she told me.
“So I just walk in naked, without the towel?”
I went back to the locker, I took a deep breath and I put the towel inside. I turned back around, visible to all who could see, though of course no one was actually looking. I walked past the helpful gaijin, both of us giving the other an awkward nod of camaraderie, and then I slid open the onsen doors and entered the bathhouse.
I don’t mean to be dramatic but I left a different woman. I hadn’t realised how terrified I’d been of my own nakedness until I’d dropped that towel and walked inside. Inside, the baths were made of stone. Some were hot and some were cold and to the left was a sauna full of women scrubbing each other’s backs with salt whilst staring at the in-built flatscreen TV on the wall. An old lady took me under her wing, scrubbed salt on my back and took me to get a glass of water when I looked like I might faint from the heat. After forty-five minutes I discovered the outdoor baths, where there were rock pools of warm water with makeshift bamboo roofs sheltering bathers from the rain. It was heaven. When the water got too hot, I stretched out on the rocks next to it. The rain was dripping down on me as people walked around. Sometimes they looked at me, sometimes they didn’t. It was then that something shifted in me; it was small and flickering but it felt a bit like happiness.
Being naked is scary, and although my aversion to nudity has previously extended to most situations, the hardest times of all have been in front of men. The scariest type of nudity was sex. I’m not well-versed in the male psyche. Really I have zero idea what runs through their brains mid-sex, but I do know what’s running through mine. I’m thinking about myself. I’m thinking about my body, how it looks from this angle. I’m thinking about whether he’s attracted to me, whether he’s enjoying it, or just pretending to. I’m thinking about my face, my body hair, the noises I’m making. I’m thinking about my vagina. And I’m thinking how annoying it is that I can’t stop thinking.
In her article, No, Patriarchy, I will Not Have a Threesome with You, Alicia Hammer compares the inner dialogue going on in her mind during sex to a pitch-forked man on her shoulder. “This devil-man, who I strongly believe was sent from Patriarchy HQ,” she writes, “was eagerly trying to influence and control not only what I did during sex, but how I thought of what I did during sex. I found myself self-consciously navigating between what I wanted to do and what [the] guy would possibly think of what I wanted to do.”
And she’s spot on. As women we never stop observing ourselves. You can call it vanity, insecurity or narcissism, though really it’s none of those things. John Berger hit the nail on the head when he said, “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping.”
Berger went on to say, “She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.”
I understand now what it was I felt that day at the onsen. It was the start of a liberation. It was the shedding of a self-consciousness that had followed me around for far too long. It was, for lack of a better phrase, the sweet taste of freedom. When I got back to Tokyo, coronavirus was really kicking off and I wasn’t able to take any trips to the hot springs for a while. That’s when I started going to the sento.
The sento is another kind of bathhouse, one that you’ll find in every neighbourhood of Tokyo. The sento is often a beautiful, old building with wooden interiors and a mural of Mount Fuji across the back wall. The layout is similar to the onsen though the water comes from the tap rather than naturally-occuring hot springs. It was how people bathed before they could afford their own bathing facilities. It’s still how many Japanese people bathe today.
A city as big as Tokyo can often lose touch with its sense of community but the sento revitalises this. The varying bath temperatures and pressure pumps, the calming noise of running water and the hushed chit-chat between locals is a form of meditation in itself. I’ve never felt as relaxed and simultaneously as far from home as when I am shivering with my knees to my chest, shoulder-to-shoulder in the 15ºC bath with six naked old ladies.
Last week was the first time I’d seen children in the sento. They were sisters and they couldn’t have been older than five. I don’t think they actually bathed. They ran around with towels on their heads, clutching rubber ducks and laughing at each other while their mother had some time to herself. They also unapologetically stared at the women around them and I thought how nice that was. That these two girls might grow up knowing how real women look rather than how every advert, film, TV show and magazine cover tells them they should. When you’re in the bathhouse, though you might not want to, you can’t help but take in your surroundings. I’ve never seen as much diversity in body shape as I have in the sento. It’s only now that I realise how much this has helped me.
I’ve been away from home for a while and now that I’m on the cusp of coming back, I’ve been trying to think of all the ways that I might be different. There are things I’m proud of myself for having done in the past year and a half, and there are things I no longer feel afraid of. One of them is nakedness. A couple of months ago, I was dating a rich finance boy who lived in Roppongi. In the 80s, Roppongi was this high-brow district of Tokyo with fancy nightclubs that charged extortionate entry fees. Then in the 90s, hostess bars and massage parlours popped up left, right and centre and Roppongi acquired a reputation for being a bit of a sleaze-town. More recently it’s been doing a U-turn of sorts and it’s become a kind of hybrid metropolis of sex and money. Young, rich twentysomethings are moving in, there are art galleries galore and now it’s a strange place where sleazy white guys and the next generation of wealthy salarymen merge but never meet.
The finance boy had a very nice apartment. The kind of apartment, politically-speaking, I don’t believe people in their early twenties should be capable of affording. And yet there I was prancing around it, basking in its luxury. I looked out of the floor-to-ceiling windows that made up the back wall, it was night and the lights of Tokyo were everywhere. There among the glittering skyscrapers and Tokyo Tower, huge, illuminated and red, was my reflection – stark naked – staring back at me.
It didn’t work out with the finance boy, but I never really needed it to. None of it was actually about him. While he was waiting in his bed, I was looking out of the window and I wasn’t thinking about whether my boobs were too small or if maybe I should have gotten a wax for this. For the first time ever, I wasn’t thinking about my body or the fact that it was visible in its naked entirety to this boy. I was thinking about Tokyo, how I was in it and how I was happy, and then I was thinking: This is fucking cool.
Article by Annabel White