I, like most American women (I think), am not exactly fond of getting buck naked in a changing room with other women and then proceeding to bathe with those same women in a shared bath. I’m not sure if growing up in the states is to blame for this, but I have a feeling if I grew up in Japan or anywhere in Europe, I’d feel a lot differently about the situation.
It was during our most recent ski trip to Zao Onsen that I finally sucked it up and stripped down with other women present. For anyone who may be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute, I thought you already wrote about this?”, I did. I’ve actually been in two other onsens since arriving here in Japan, but it wasn’t until this trip to Zao that I actually encountered anyone else in the onsen. After all, I did purposefully wait until much later at night when the likelihood of me encountering another woman was slim. Anyway, back to my story… The first evening that we were up in Zao a woman I knew from past ski trips asked if I wanted to join her in the onsen. At first, I was VERY tempted to say, “no thanks”, but this was getting ridiculous. I mean, how long was I going to put this off for?!? It’s difficult to deny myself a bath after working up a sweat on the mountain, and considering the public baths are your only option when staying at these places, I knew I had to face my fears. “Sure”, I said and headed to my room to change into my Yukata (robe). Feeling a tad nervous, but excited that I was actually going through with this, we walked down to the onsen at our hotel. I told her how this was a first for me, bathing in an onsen with other people present. She laughed, I’m pretty sure she thought I was a little crazy. We disrobed, showered and slowly (it was hotter than Lucifer’s bath) submerged ourselves into the sulfur bath. If you can get over the nasty smell, MAN does that feel good! Especially after a day of skiing! Plus, my skin was loving that sulfur water, it felt amazing afterwards and it was so glossy! I need a sulfur springs bath at home!
The next evening I watched the sun slowly disappear behind the mountains as snow crunched under my feet and lightly fell on my head. A tiny path connected our hotel with the outdoor onsen up on the hill. Sounds of running streams of sulfur water filled the air as I walked through the maze of closely constructed houses that make up this quaint ski town. I, once again, had one of those, I-can’t-believe-I-live-in-Japan moments. I’ve been living here for a year now and I’m glad to report that the novelty of it all still has yet to wear off. I hid my alcoholic beverage in my jacket as I handed the woman working behind the desk my ticket (PS: Men can bring in alcoholic beverages, but women can’t… Ehh… I don’t think so!). The ladies and I then headed into the changing room, undressed, showered and walked outside to the onsen. WOW, onsen heaven!! An organically shaped bath with a rock fountain in the center, behind it, a snow-covered hill leading into the dense woods, perfectly spotted with trees and strategically placed lighting, all faintly visible through the steam rising from the water… It’s was everything I expected and more! This bath was much easier to get into compared to the one back at our hotel and also much more esthetically pleasing, well worth the 400¥ (or whatever it was)! The ladies and I chatted as we sipped our beverages and soaked in the beauty of it all. Actually, this sounds a little too magical… let me add some reality for you. It was a beautiful and relaxing place, except for the fact that the guys (ruiners of all things relaxing) were hootin’ and hollerin’ over on their side, which was only divided by a bamboo wall, as they posed for nude pictures together… Men… “Can’t live with ’em — can’t live without ’em.” All in all, it was an amazing experience and I still can’t tell you why I’ve been so afraid to be naked in front of other women. However, I CAN tell you that I am glad that I didn’t wait any longer to conquer my fears, because those baths are AMAZING and really, when it comes down to it, we’re all human and we all pretty much look the same. What’s that saying, “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”? Yeah, well, that’s going to by my new mantra.