If I was already blushing like a sakura when I untied my yukata, I am sure my face was as red as a freshly sliced tuna sashimi when I turned around and faced the breasts of a stranger. They were round with a narrow valley between them and belonged to a woman who shared a ride with me to our inn in Kiso Valley, a woman who saw my brown nipples as sure as I saw her pink ones, glistening after her soak in the onsen. She quickly grabbed her towel in the basket next to mine and I darted to the bathing area, my face warmer than the steam emanating from the hot spring bath.
I was relieved to find the bathing area empty. I knew that one can only enter an onsen in her birthday suit, yet I was definitely not ready to see a stranger in the nude. I sat on a small wooden stool and quickly showered, soaping my skin and hoping it would wash away my discomfort too.
Thoroughly cleansed of dirt and soap suds, I stepped into the shallow pool and lowered myself until my earlobes touched the hot spring mineral water. The encounter a few minutes ago came to mind again. The woman looked small the first time I saw her in the van, tucked into her puffy black jacket and leggings, but she seemed larger when we bumped into one another in the changing area. I would see her again in an hour, at dinner. She would most probably be wearing a yukata, the way I would too, and I wondered whether she would look bigger or smaller to me then.
I heard footsteps and bursts of Japanese from the changing area. More than one woman for sure. I practically jumped out of the bath and sprinted for the door to the rotemburo – open air bath. I shivered in the five degrees mountain air while trying to walk as fast as I could in the slippery stone path. I was trembling, my pores all open, when I got to the stone pool overlooking a valley. I didn’t bother splashing myself with the water first, as advised to adjust your skin to changing temperatures, and plunged myself immediately.
Aaah. The hot, gurgling water soothed my prickly skin. I listened for footsteps and chatter, and when they didn’t come, I started relaxing into the bath.
Onsen is a strange business, isn’t it? It is where people coexist in their most vulnerable state. Although we were born naked, it seems unnatural for us to be among strangers who are all in the nude. I would see the woman again in the dining hall, that night for dinner and the next day for breakfast. I could not un-see what I saw, especially because I had been keeping my glasses on, and I most likely would avoid looking at her in the eye.
I rested my head on the edge of the bath and floated my body up. I was surrounded by cedar and pine trees, their green scent slowly making its presence known. A lone sakura tree stood among them, its nearly white petals already blossoming. I could feel the moss on the bottom of the stone bath, hear the rhythm the streaming water, and saw a dragonfly flying nearby. I could feel my skin softening. It loved being in nature.
I understand the allure of onsen and rotemburo, but the moment was a pleasure precisely because it was mine and only mine. The Japanese do not seem to mind having this as a communal experience, they even have a term for the bonding that happens while soaking in an onsen: hadaka no tsukiai. If I was already this uncomfortable seeing and being seen naked by a stranger, I could not imagine how I would feel doing this with my family or friends.
My heart started beating faster when I rose from the rotemburo, knowing that I would be seeing more naked strangers soon. I covered my breasts as I ran up, shivering along the way and trembling so much I plunged again into the indoor bath, splashing three other women who were already bathing. I quickly offered sumimasen all around, and to my relief, they smiled back at me.
The pool was large enough for a two stroke swim across its length, so there was space for the four of us. The pool was also clear enough that there was no place to hide. I pulled my knees to my breasts and kept my gaze above water. At that moment, two more women came in. A lady in her fifties and a girl in her teens, both in my line of sight.
This time I did not immediately look away. The lady pointed at the showers and then to the pool, as if it was the girl’s first experience in an onsen. The girl helped the lady scrub her back, the lady washed her hair. The girl has round cheeks, as if some of her baby fat is too stubborn to go, her skin looked soft and young. The lady’s skin had a yellow tinge and scattered sun spots, her breasts sagging and her arms and thighs all wrinkly. They looked like a pair of grandmother and granddaughter, if not mother and daughter, and their faces looked relaxed as if seeing each other naked is as common as having breakfast together.
I looked around me. The three women were chattering in Japanese, all looking like they were in their forties. One had curly hair, another dyed hers brown, the other one donned a pixie cut. One woman had nipples pointing sideways, her friend’s right breast was bigger than her left one, and the third woman had breasts smaller than her stomach. All looked relaxed, like seeing your friends unclothed is no different than seeing their face without make-up.
I let my knees fall from my breasts, the left one slightly bigger than the right one, both of them smaller than the breasts of any of the women in the onsen. It started to feel more natural, seeing other women’s naked bodies. I grew to understand why. No one in the onsen was self-conscious because they embrace their bodies as bodies. The female bodies are too often romanticized as work of art or guardian of morality or symbol of liberation. Women have been conditioned to treat our bodies as objects of desire, so we reveal or conceal to attract or distract, to demonstrate empowerment or to keep ourselves safe. In the onsen, I saw that bodies are freed to be simply flesh and bone and fat, in different forms to fit different people, who might find that they are not that different after all, once the yukata came off.
When I rose from the onsen, I did not cover my breasts or hurried my steps. I walked as slow I could, my arms falling on my sides, feeling the water drop from all the parts of my body that I had been keeping secret: the protruding collarbone I usually cover with boat-neck and halter tops, the soft lump of fat in my belly that I hide in clothes that are loose in the middle, the owl inked to the small of my back that I very carefully choose when to reveal. I took my time drying my body with a towel instead of hurrying to cover myself in my yukata. I smiled to my fellow bathers as they came out to the changing area, still naked, while I was cooling off drinking glasses of cold spring water.
Later that evening, I saw the woman who made me blush like a tuna sashimi in the dining hall. My cheeks were red then too, but that was because of umeshu, the plum wine I had as an aperitif. I looked at her in the eye and smiled.
This story was first published by The Murmur House under the title ‘The Sakura Days: Onsen’.