I was raised in the U.S in a relatively conservative town near the Mexican border and went to a Baptist school for several years. While I never became a religious person, my views on certain topics like sexuality and politics were definitely influenced by my education during those early years.
Not surprisingly, I was taught that nudity was bad. It was explained to me that a woman that I’ve never met (Eve) decided to eat from a forbidden fruit tree and subsequently got us kicked out of the vegetarian wonderland where we used to roam freely.
When Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, they realized they were naked and immediately understood that it was sinful.
“Shit, we need to put on some clothes.”
At first they used large fig leaves to cover their hoo-has and doo-dahs. Then they killed some bears and used their warm hide to protect against the harsh winters.
Then eventually Louis Vuitton and Prada and Nike were invented.
Something didn’t feel right about this story. Understandably people wore clothes to protect themselves from the harmful environment, but I didn’t get how being naked was any worse than seeking out material goods, covering ourselves with labels and ‘brands’ that we had ourselves created.
Of course I was able to largely ignore thinking about it until my first visit to Japan about 10 years ago. During that short stint studying abroad, my host family naturally invited me to the onsen (hotsprings) to experience what I can only describe as a national pastime. That first onsen changed my life forever.
Americans are usually surprised when they dip into their first hotspring, and I was no exception. It takes a certain level of courage to open those sliding doors, only half-knowing what’s on the other side. When you do open the doors, you’re confronted with naked men submerged in steamy tubs of various shapes and sizes. Tubs with little waterfalls above your head, jets for your back, cold baths, scalding baths, baths that smell like eggs from their high sulfuric content, mineral baths, bubbly baths and sometimes even colored or flavored baths.
People soak in the baths, some with eyes closed and others wide open, but all visibly in a deep state of relaxation. Sometimes there are kids running around, splashing water on each other. Forests of pubic hair are unabashedly exposed like 70’s style afros, except they serve less as a fashion statement and more of a reminder of Japanese conformity.
Every onsen always seems to have a cleaning lady, usually my grandma’s age, who is walking around (clothed) picking up towels, scrubbing floors and doing the housekeeping, so to speak. Having someone of the opposite sex inconspicuously walking around seemed bizarre, to say the least. I remembered that onsens in Japan were mostly mixed sex up until WWII. Men, women and children alike would all bathe together in communal baths. Still, it was weird.
When I first saw all of this, I just took it all in, trying to register what I was seeing. Then I descended into a state of utter horror. I felt violated.
I have to get out of here.
Or at least cover myself with a towel. Luckily, you get a little face towel to carry around with you (but make sure not to drop it in the onsen). My towel was pink.
But then something very peculiar happened.
As I stood there, naked, frozen and speechless, after about one minute that feeling of discomfort and shame quickly passed. It disappeared almost as quickly as it came, just like that.
And guess what? In 10 years, that feeling hasn’t returned since.
In that moment I realized that the way I see the world depends largely on the context and environment that I am in. This “d’oh!” moment hit me over the head like a bag of bricks. Conceptually it’s easy to grasp and it’s something I’ve known for a long time, but actually experiencing it was a whole different story. What I deemed acceptable or even “moral” was a lot more malleable than I had previously assumed.
The nudity in onsen’s was not as glaring as it seemed because everyone was doing it, and since everyone was in on it, it really wasn’t a big deal.
This story probably seems strange to Japanese people because they grew up in the culture. But for me, it was a real paradigm shift, and one I’m glad I had. Now onsen’s are just part of life.