Narusawa, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan
January 31, 2017
“When in Japan, get nekkid as the Japanese do” was my mantra. It was time to get the hang of letting it all hang out in full view of friends and strangers alike. In the (un)dressing room, I was still bundled up in winter wear, less for warmth than for self-consciousness. My Japanese friends Taka and Koji, comfortable in their own (bare) skin, approached to inquire what was taking me so long. I peeled off my gloves and sweater ten…ta…tive…ly as in an awkward striptease. I stopped short at my skivvies. Then I uttered a sheepish admission, “I’m shy,” before doing a 180 and unwittingly mooning them! I caught their impish grin and, just like that, I was cured of any qualms about public nudity.
Taka had plotted our day trip. He predicted I would be worse for wear after my first snow experience and ski lesson at Fujiten Snow Park and decided my first onsen experience would rejuvenate me. Yamanashi Prefecture, located at the foot of Mt. Fuji, lent a perfect venue as a wellspring of geothermal water. A winding country road flanked by snow embankment led us to an imposing Japanese-style manor in the woods.
It was Yuyari Onsen, a hot spring bathhouse of over 12 different types of onsen. Late in the afternoon, the tall flight of steps was still and empty. Only lighted lanterns indicated the facility was not closed. Upon entering the sliding door, we dispatched our footwear to the shoe lockers nearby. Each locker had a key inserted into the keyhole, which we presented to the receptionist at no cost. She switched our shoe locker key with another one for clothes and towels. It was this key that we strapped on our wrists while in the onsen.
My friends filled me in with onsen rules, also posted on the corridor wall leading to the (un)dressing room:
- No taking of photos, selfies, videos. Thank goodness.
- Ditching your delicates and getting buck naked. Certainly no swimwear either. Modesty and politeness here meant stripping down, not covering up.
- Showering before soaking in the pools. But not in a crude gym shower room. Each showerhead was provided with a chair and a wooden bucket. We were seated while soaping, scrubbing, shampooing, and showering. Trust the Japanese to bring a good measure of delicacy even in performing mundane tasks. There was no lack in bathing products and implements.
- Oh, didn’t we say STRIP? No towel wraps in the baths. Except for a towelette we put on top of our heads while we soaked.
- No swimming, of course. Some baths were large enough to look like pools, but they certainly were not.
- Curiously, tattoos were strictly prohibited. I guessed it was a not-so-subtle way to keep Yakuza members and their culture of violence from penetrating the hallowed pools where the Japanese felt at peace in their naked vulnerability.
Yuyari was a mansion with many rooms, albeit composed entirely of bathing areas – the onsen itself. The genders were separated, each occupying two levels.
The upper floor baths:
Indoor Bath: Our first, and I mistakenly thought our only, stop. I dipped my toes to acclimate to the warmth. As soon as we soaked from the neck down, I thawed from the winter chill outside. My blood rushed, my muscles unhinged, my skin breathed. My head, though, was disconcertingly cold. Oh, so that was the small towel for – to warm my exposed top.
Panorama Bath: Yuyari’s signature onsen – an outdoor bath with a commanding view of Mt. Fuji. Night had fallen though; we only had stars for a view. I was flabbergasted when my bro squad announced it was time to soak outside. An open air bath in winter? Just NO. Before I could drop my jaw, my teeth were chattering from the seconds-long wet and naked trot in sub-freezing temperature.
I took to the hot spring like a flopping fish. It was the most welcoming 42 degrees I had experienced. Steam was rising from the pool enough to warm the lower half of my face. My forehead, though, was stung by freezing dew. Hence, the handy face towel.
Just as I was feeling cozy, we were off to the next bath downstairs. It dawned on me just then: My hosts wanted me to try ALL the various baths! I hopped out again, cupping my crotch with my hands. To protect it from the cold.
The lower floor baths:
Cavern Bath: There was a serious dungeon vibe in this bath, not recommended for the claustrophobic. Crouching through a small irregular opening, we stepped into the pool in semi-darkness. Trapped steam heated even the exposed parts of our bodies.
Steam Bath: This was a more straightforward arrangement: a dim and misty sauna with benches. The steam was overpowering to my taste, although it killed the cold most effectively.
Carbonate Bath: Hydrogen carbonate bubbled up in this bath. I giggled as bubbles flowed over my legs and felt them go up my bare bum. They were said to be detoxifying. It was a tonic for a tired and toxic ski student.
Aroma Bath: The floral smell easily made this my favorite bath. Steam and a subtle scent of lavender emanated from the pool. It was the most relaxing onsen drawing on the combined power of hot spring and aromatherapy. I emerged from the pool feeling and smelling fresh like a basket of flowers.
Sacred Outdoor Bath: Our onsen finale, perhaps the largest pool in the bathhouse. We were mostly a threesome in the previous baths. This time we shared it with men of different ages, from small boys splashing in the water to old men in Zen mode.
In a little over an hour, we were back at the changing room outfitted to cater to our every grooming need – from moisturizers to hair dryers.
By then, I had completely gotten the hang of this “naked communion” with my Japanese students-turned-friends. Other than their explanations of the various baths, words were unnecessary as we lay bare in one another’s company. We communed in shared silence. We had taken off our individual clothing to be covered by the shared water and warmth of the onsen. We stripped ourselves and bonded as bros.
For more information, click this guide in English: Yuyari Onsen.