During the coking class yesterday the topic of onsens (Japanese baths) came up. The Austrailian pair were thinking of going, but couldn’t believe that “swimmers” (Aussie for “swimsuit” apparently) weren’t allowed. Jason and I, seasoned nudists that we are, tried to assure them that it wasn’t a big deal. Everybody’s naked and nobody cares, so you stop caring too.
“But we don’t want to see each other naked!” they protested.
That I get. I tried to imagine what it would be like to go to an onsen with Rachel or Mom or one of my friends. It would be awkward. Even Mari, our Japanese hostess, admitted that when she travels with her husband’s family, she feels very awkwad about doing an onsen with his mother and grandmother.
“But there is a special relationship that comes when you are naked together,” she said. “Even companies will sometimes take trips to onsen together to build relationships.”
We all chuckled over our collective appalled reaction to the thought of striping naked with our colleagues. “It is awkward, yes,” Mari said, “but you are closer afterwards.” In fact, the Japanese even have a term for it: “hadaka no tsukiai” – “naked relationship” or “naked communication.”
Back when Jason and I decided to visit a co-ed Japanese bath, I thought quite a bit about what it would be like to be naked with Jason (not like that, Grandma): On one hand, he’s a friend. A male friend. A male friend who is hyper-aware and critical of physical appearances. On the other hand, he’s made it abundantly clear that he is not the least bit attracted to me.
By the time I arrived in Seattle, I was surprised to discover that I wasn’t nervous about it at all. Perhaps it’s because I had nothing to lose, perhaps it’s because I had two months to psych myself up for it. Probably a combination of the two, plus a dose of longing for something I couldn’t describe until Mari told us about that phrase – naked communication. I wanted to see what that’s like.
Jason, I believe, felt nothing but relief when we decided to act on our concierge’s recommendation and go to the other onsen. I felt disappointed – the kind that comes when you spend a long time working up the courage to do something only to have the need to do it never arise.
I’m glad we switched, though. The onsen the concierge sent us to was lovely – part of a hotel in the mountain resort town of Hakone. The entire hotel was so very Japanese, and the people we saw, while definitely tourists, were Japanese tourists.
Upon arrival we were given radio-key wristbands, similar to the ones in Korea, and small packets containing kimonos and towels. We boarded “The Gold Elevators” and, after noting how much this felt like a trip to the temple, picked a meeting time and went our seperate ways – Jason to the men’s floor, and I to the women’s.
I found my locker in the women’s floor, stowed my stuff, and stipped bare. Thanks either to my residue courage or my pro-level international bathing experience, what little trepidation I felt came from not knowing the exact procedure rather than joining all of the little old Japanese woman around me in their nakedness.
From the locker rooms I found a large room with standing showers for rinsing off, many sitting showers for proper bathing, a mist sauna, a dry sauna, and three pools of different temperatures. I claimed a sitting shower, taking my place on the little stool in front of the mirror and faucet and flipping over the wooden bowl that would serve as my sink. They had four kinds of soap in front of me, and after a bit of sleuthing I figured out which one was shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and face wash and made use of them all.
Once clean, I headed outside. Yup, outside. The “panoramic spa” was a variety of rooftop pools that looked out and over the surrounding mountains and forests. I tried them all – the mineral pool, the stone pools, the “stretch pools” with jet streams, and spent some time with my elbows propped up on the low wall in the hot spring pool that overlooks the hotel’s gardens I could see people exploring thegrounds below and knew that if they looked up at just the right angle, they could see me. There wasn’t anything to see, my interesting bits were all below the water level, but still, naked shoulders!
After a half-hour and with plenty of time unti I needed to meet Jason, I decided I wanted to get a massage. I donned my kimono and padded barefoot back to the elevators.
When I arrived on the third floor, lo! There was Jason pondering the massage options. We went up to the informational counter and requested two massages. The clerk showed us the options (shiatzu, thai, chinese, foot, or oil). We both requested oil, but only on masseuse was available for that so Jason switched to Shiatzu and we were led off in different directions again.
A young woman led me into one of a series of small rooms with sliding paper doors. Inside was a massage table with a display of towels and flowers on top. She cleared the table, indicated that I should remove my kimono, and handed me what looked like a roll of candy.
I had no idea what that was for since all of her instructions had been in Japanese. She insisted I take it, I insisted on offering my confused tourist look, and finally she said, “paper shorts.”
Oh. I had a guess for what that means, and once she stepped out of the room I unwrapped it. Yup – a disposable pair of panties, like the ones I saw advertised in vending machines upstairs in the women’s locker room. As you might imagine, one size fits all in Japan does not apply so well to me. I grimmaced at what I must look like, but reminded myself that this is the land of the sumo wrestlers so thongs can’t be that uncommon a sight.
The masseuse knocked and came back in, had me lay down on the table, covered me with warm towels, and delivered a lovely hour-long oil massage. I mostly focused on my goal of not coughing during the massage. Towards the end she massaged my head using pressure points. Some of the points hurt when she dug her fingers in. At other times I would, and I can’t think of another way to describe this, go away for a while – almost like I fell asleep or blacked out but not quite either of those. I would suddenly come back when she moved her hands to another part of my head, then go away again when she pressed another point. It was quite surreal.
At the end she gave me time to put back on the kimono, then presented mewith a cup of herbal tea in a heart-shaped mug. I rejoined Jason in front of the elevators, and we returned to our separate floors for the last half-hour of our self-allotted time.
I used the time to repeat my cycle in the pools, encouraging the hot mineral water to open up my skin and absorb that oil. There were only a handful of other women there, all Japanese, and I felt the virtue (and possibly the vice) of being so obviously foreign by their totally disregarding my presence.
I toweled off, dressed, and sat down among women in various stages of dress at one of the many vanities. They had saniitized hairbrushes for our use (as well as disposable toothbrushes, razors, and shower caps), so I blew dry my hair and explored the products set out at each station – face water, face milk, hard hair, and hair water.
Hair water made my hair look terrible, but it was time to go so rather than trying to fix it, I threw on a headband and headed downstairs to meet Jason. We paid our fees (2300 yen for admission, 8000 yen for the massage, or about $108 total), pausing to explore the gardens out back before collecting our shoes and walking back to the train station.
Below is the story in photographs, except for the interesting bits. Unlike the spa in Seoul, photos were strictly prohibited here. In fact, it may have been the choice of resorts (I suspect we went from super-touristy to high-end), but the entire experience at Taseien Onsen was much more elegant than the experience in Korea.
We started with breakfast at the hotel. I did not have the crableg miso or any of the rice from the giant cooker, but I did photograph them.
Jason on the bullet train.
Getting tickets. This station had super-helpful staff in orange “interpreter” shirts who jumped in to direct lost tourists.
Some of the shops at the station.
Alas, we did not ride the “Limited Express Romancecar”
We did ride this train, though. It took a subway, a bullet train, a regular train, and a bus to get to the resort.
The Hakone train station
Hakone soon turns from this:
We followed the river that runs through the town
We also passed this place:
Jason in front of our destination:
Right inside the door is the place to remove your shoes:
and these lockers to store them in:
The wristband. You can see how the locker key swing out from the radiokey band:
The “Gold Elevators”:
Decorations. The green curtain leads to the restrooms, and you can see a little tanuki statue among the rocks:
Another rock/garden display near the elevators:
The provided shoes to wear to go to the garden:
(I went straight for the men’s sizes)
Ducks and koi fish:
Sacred waterfall #1:
We looked at these stairs. We did not climb them because we were, as Jason put it, “too zen”.
Selfie (with bad spa hair on the left)
We spotted a friend near the gift shop (Rachel, avert your eyes and scroll down!):
We bought some dessert at this shop:
I’m pretty sure it was a yellow potato wrapped in red bean paste wrapped in a mild cookie-dough-type of shell.
We got lunch here: