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Naked in Nippon

Would you indulge in this classic Japanese experience?

By Ashley GomezPublished 3 years ago 4 min read
Naked in Nippon
Photo by Kristaps Grundsteins on Unsplash

My heart started racing as I nervously tugged at the hem of my blouse. I was acutely aware of the person in the other room. I knew I couldn't stall for long if I wanted to act cool.

Okay, shirt off. The air was cool against my newly bare skin. My fingers tentatively braced the waist line of my jeans next. Taking a deep breath, I unbuttoned and slid them down my legs. “Be still, my heart,” I think to myself. In just a moment, I would be fully exposed. A slow burn began to rise in my cheeks and so too did a sense of vulnerability. I carefully folded and stored my clothing, focusing on regaining control of my emotions. This was my idea after all. I chose to be here.

Despite being embarrassed with every inch of my body on display, I stood tall, steeling myself for an uncomfortable entrance. "Be cool," I repeated to myself. I had already come this far, so to squander this opportunity by acting shy would ruin the experience. I finally stepped into the next room and felt a flood of pleasantly warm air rush around me. The woman there didn't acknowledging me. Let's get started.

I’m of course describing my first time at a public bath in Japan. What did you think this was about? Perv.

By Michelle Tresemer on Unsplash

It had always been a dream for me to visit Japan. After years of wondering when I would ever have the opportunity, I suddenly decided towards the end of 2018 to take the plunge. No one would ever be available or willing to take a month off work to accompany me, so I would just have to go by myself. After a few months of planning and budgeting, I was off. I had with me a decade’s worth of self-researched knowledge of Japanese society and culture and an open mind to guide me. Both of which I relied heavily on for this first night when I decided to use the public bath.

Truly, visiting an onsen (i.e. hot spring) or a sento (I.e. public bathhouse) is a must-have experience if you ever visit this beautiful country. Believe me – I know this may be a very challenging thing to do for most Westerners. Public nudity is usually limited to children, adult entertainment, and the occasional adrenaline junky. Nevertheless, I insist. It is a classic Japanese experience dating back to the sixth century. Though, bathhouses became more popular in the Edo period from 1603 to 1868, during which private baths were rare. Despite my insecurities, I resolved to experience it at least once while I was in Japan. I just didn’t think I’d have the opportunity so soon after landing.

My original plan was to stay with someone I met via Couchsurfing. However, an hour before I boarded my flight, he told me that his employer asked him to extend his business trip by a day. He apologized profusely that he wouldn’t be able to host me that first night, but assured me that there were affordable options nearby where I could stay. Shortly after plopping my ass down to browse online listings, I found a capsule hotel in the middle of the bustling tourist district of Asakusa. I was delighted to learn that it would only cost me $18.

Fast forward 20 hours or so, and I arrived at the hotel wide eyed and bushy tailed. It was only 6:00 pm but I had already been awake for nearly 24 hours (I can’t sleep a wink on planes, apparently). I needed to wind down. What better way than to soak in a hot bath?

Picking up where I left off in my story, upon entering, I immediately noted the tell-tale signs of a typical Japanese wash room. For example, there were small tiles from the floor to the ceiling, sealing out all water. You might imagine a public shower at your local pool. Along two adjacent walls were bathing stations consisting of an anti-fog mirror, small stool, a plastic bucket, faucet, and flexible shower wand. Then, in the opposite corner was the tub. Using a sento is straight-forward enough: You sit and wash yourself at one of the stations before rinsing off and settling into the clean bath water. With a little research, you can learn the proper etiquette of using a public bathhouse in Japan. Here's an article I like:

How did I feel bathing myself in someone else's presence? Funnily enough, once I was out in the open, it was easier to relax. The anticipation of undressing and entering naked was the most difficult part to overcome. Oh, and so was the compulsion to start a friendly conversation with the other girl thanks to the Midwest in me. Something about the intimate setting and Japanese practice of being mindful of those around you told me to zip it and wash my tiddies in peace.

She soaked while I finished washing and when she was ready to leave, I was ready to enter the bath. The balmy water felt refreshing as I submerged myself to my shoulders. With the room to myself, I let my eyes wander. There was another door in here that looked like it would lead to a water heater or something. I turned my attention to the bath water. Other people sat in this water today. I can see how that might be off-putting for some, but for me, it was fulfilling.

I was in Japan. I made it. My dream had become reality. I basked in this realization, unwinding from a long day of travel, in a Japanese sento.

After that night, I would enjoy sento in Japan 3 more times. I can’t wait to enjoy them again someday!


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