I love onsens and I wanted to go to a particular one in Tokyo. I thought I would go alone, but when my friend Nadine said she wanted to come along, I was so stoked. As much as I pride myself on solo adventures, sometimes experiencing a new thing with someone else can be just as exciting.
She was nervous the night before when I first told her about the onsen.
“You bathe naked!” I said enthusiastically.
She flushed. “Oh God, I don’t know how I feel about that…”
“Nah, just embrace it!” I encouraged. “We’re all women, we’ve all got the same parts.”
I imagined the onsens would be akin it to going to the swimming pool when you were little, the old ladies going hard drying their vages in the classic Bart Simpson way, in full display of everyone, not giving a flying fuck.
When we got to the onsen and were getting changed into our yukatas (a more relaxed version of a kimono), we knew we would have to be naked when we were bathing, but should we be naked underneath our yukata beforehand?
I pulled out my togs and Nadine groaned.
“I didn’t bring my togs,” she said.
“If you go naked underneath, I’ll go naked too,” I compromised.
“I only have my undies and bra.”
“Just wear that,” I said, “and I’ll wear my togs.”
There was no signage as to how to wear the yukata so we did some educated guesswork, looking at the little strings attached inside the yukata and then tied the belt around our waist.
It felt like reverting back to a childhood state, letting your naked feet pitter-patter along the fake wooden linoleum floor. After finding the entrance to the onsen, we went into the changing rooms. We were given a big yellow towel which we were to keep with our yukata in a small locker, and a smaller yellow hand towel. Quickly, we stripped naked, unrolling the hand towel and placing it on our chests. It was just large enough to cover our breasts, torso and vulva, down to our upper thighs.
Nadine was nervous, she had said, about several things. Her own body issues came into it, but she also didn’t know how we would be treated as obvious foreigners, the clear Caucasian and not-Asians that we, as a Kiwi and an Aussie, are.
Just like those ladies at our local swimming pool changing rooms, the women in the onsen did not even look at us twice. I, on the other hand, was looking everywhere but trying not to stare. I had never seen so many naked women in one place, unabashedly walking in the freedom of their own skin. Women of different ages, their bodies at different stages of gravitational pull. Most were pre-pregnancy, the permanent body-changing state, like myself and Nadine. Some were post, one pregnant, some young children were aimlessly wondering around and even a baby totting about. It was hard to pick which mother or grandmother the older kids were with, but no one seemed anxious for their safety, so I stopped worrying. They were free here, as free as their mothers. Here they could be their full selves, one with their bodies as the sodium chloride waters licking over their skin. The signage specified this water was good for many things, including gynaecological health.
I was having the best time, prancing from bath to bath, sometimes with, sometimes without the towel, enjoying the fact that our naked bodies were not being sexualised and absolutely normalised by this environment free from the male gaze. Nadine was warming up to the idea, quite literally, but still wore her towel over her body.
We strolled past a massage parlour inside the onsen, a small room with plastic-covered beds where (clothed) women were scrubbing down their clients, whom only wore blue panty shorts.
Enticed by the idea of a body scrub, known only to the Asian region of the world, Nadine walked in and asked for one without hesitating. I was more tentative, believing it would hurt. Yet watching the women being scrubbed, seeing the small grey rolls of dead skin coming off their body and leaving the fresh pink skin was oddly satisfying. I was swayed and signed up for one too.
The ladies were thorough, travelling as near to my anus and vagina as possible without touching it. I could feel my body inadvertently seizing up every time they got tantalisingly close to the forbidden fruit. They scrubbed my legs, back, butt cheeks each separately, torso, and even breasts, delicately rubbing their scrub mitts over them like a baker prepares their famous sourdough.
Nadine finished earlier than me, and I heard her say “I’ll see you in the bath, Emilie!”
“Yup!” I half-heartedly called back, the volume grating against the utter internal relaxation I was feeling.
When I came out, I saw Nadine splayed out in one of the baths like a female Jesus, her head resting gently on the side, a content smile on her face.
I slipped into the water, smiling at her utter glow. “How’s it going, Nadine?”
“I feel so fucking good,” she said. “My skin feels amazing and I don’t even care about the towel anymore! I don’t even know where it is.”
I laughed, her confidence and comfort in her freshly pink skin flowing into me in the form of pure joy.
Cover by Rodolfo Sanches Carvalho