Naked in Japan

For years, I’ve had a recurring dream where I attend some sort of social gathering, naked.  I go into the event rationally thinking through the whole thing and convincing myself that it’s totally cool and normal. And it isn’t until I’m there that I realize being the only non-clothed person in a room is awkward and everyone is starting at your junk. Well, that dream became a reality in Japan. Before arriving in the country, everyone excitedly suggested I try a certain dish, visit a certain area of town, or get naked in a pool with a bunch of older Japanese women (aka: the famous Japanese baths). Essentially, everyone disrobes, hangs out in a really hot tub and doesn’t make the other people feel uncomfortable about it. As I’ve heard, the beauty is in the ritual — it’s a very traditional and important experience and no one cares that you aren’t wearing anything.  In fact, the only way you would feel awkward would be in you WERE wearing something, because you would be the only one. This is what I’ve been told. Now this wouldn’t be my first choice of activity as I typically try to be clothed when not in an REM state. But after weeks of peer pressure and brainwashing, I was considering giving it a try.

I had almost gone the entire way through Japan without even heard the word “bath” until we arrived at our second to last hotel, in Wakayama (a seaside town south of Osaka). At check in, the front desk clerk pointed out certain important aspects of the hotel:  the vending machines dispensing ramen, the vending machines dispensing ice cream, the regular pop and water vending machines, and then the Japanese baths. I was excited and anxious — This was a way for me to conquer my fear of being nude in front of big groups of people from foreign countries. Daniel took the plunge early on and came back with stories of relaxation and acceptance. Plus, I had heard all the tales of encouragement from friends (“you wont feel uncomfortable at all”,  “everyone else will be naked”, “you will feel so free”, “the Japanese are very accepting people”) — Even my most modest friends had done it. I decided this was something I could do.

So after a long day of filming, I went back to my room and prepared myself. I removed the dirty clothing from the day and put on the long oversized and totally Japan-looking robe which fit around me at least twice. Around my waist, I wrapped the blue and white striped fabric the hotel had provided. I slipped my feet into the plastic and wooden clogs, and noisily headed downstairs to the lobby. Despite the draft, I felt confident as I strode past the same front desk receptionist, nodding in courageous acknowledgement of what we both knew was about to happen: I was going to get naked with a bunch of his countrymen (women), and we were both cool with it. I placed my hand on the door of the women’s bath, took a deep breath and reminded myself: “hey, this is totally normal…everyone’s gonna be naked, this is not a big deal. No one is going to stare at you“. And then I pressed it open to find 20 super hot teenage Japanese girls (fully clothed, doing each other’s hair and previously chatting loudly about something) abruptly stop talking and stare at me.  Every single one of them.  I was the only one in a robe, I was the only non Japanese, and I was obviously the only person who was planning to “drop trou”. It was like junior high gym class all over again (obviously, except for the naked part… that would be weird).

Panicking (and trying to fit in), I rambled through all the Japanese I knew (Im pretty sure I said “no meat please” and counted to four) and then I did what most people do in these situations: tried to pull at the door for a couple minutes before realizing you had to push. No one spoke, no one smiled. They just stared. Out of all the baths in the country, somehow I found the one inhabited by the clique of super bitchy, popular girls. My first public naked experience in Japan was already going horribly wrong.

Now when a normal person walks into the Japanese baths, I’m told they go through the locker room first (this is where I was standing). It is here that you’re supposed to disrobe and then proudly strut in all your glory through those glass doors into the actual baths (which is full of people who just finished their walk of non-shame). Trying to stay with the theme of “most embarrassing day of my life”, I slipped on the way through the door and stumbled into the baths. There, from my own personal nightmare, I was propelled into a zen palace — steam pulsated from the walls and beautiful tiled floors that housed 2-3 large tubs filled with water overflowing at the brim. Full length glass windows opened themselves up to reveal outdoor baths dotted with asian vines and grass at the base just peeking through from the outdoor gates. Im pretty sure someone released a flock of doves. I was completely alone and taken by the peace and calm of my surroundings.  I dropped my robe and stepped in — quickly submerging myself in the hot water. I counted 5 minutes, which I thought was a good amount of time to say that I had successfully conquered the baths (while also not too much time that it would allow for all those girls to come in). Then I sat in the water for another minute panicking about how to make it back to my robe without anyone seeing me. Somehow I put my robe back on and walked back into the locker room. The girls (still sitting there), once again stopped talking and stared at me as I did my best not to run across the room to the waiting exit door. I stepped into the hallway feeling proud that I’d tackled such an awkward situation, but deflated that it had gone so sour. As I walked back to my room in that slightly damp oversized robe,  I made a mental note to one day try those baths again.