I stood, bare and exposed before everyone in the room.
My heart beat fast and I could do nothing to hide my gaikokujin body from the curious eyes that ran over me. I simply had to embrace my nakedness.
There was no analogy running through my mind — there was no terrible secret or weakness being exposed and leaving me feeling momentarily vulnerable.
No, I was actually stark naked and about to experience my first onsen.
Gabriel and I heard about onsens before, but only in passing. I knew they were natural hot springs converted into public bath houses and were very popular among Japanese people. But I had no idea if they were segregated by gender, or what was considered to be proper etiquette, once you were inside.
And I didn’t have the luxury to think much on it beforehand, or do any research. All I knew was that one moment, we had been camping. Then, in one blink of an eye, I was standing (as described), bare and exposed before 20 Japanese and two South Africans.
Nearly 24 hours prior to the onsen, we joined our newly acquired South African friends, Meg and Chris Mulder, on a camping trip. Although the weather was dreary, we decided to follow through with our plans.
Packed into Meg and Chris’s Subaru, we headed an hour south of Sapporo to Nibutani, near the town of Biratori. “Nibutani” is the word for “village” in the Ainu’s native tongue. There, we would watch a boat launch and traditional ceremony. Although we’ve enjoyed exploring Sapporo, we were excited to finally see a more rural part of Hokkaido.
Luckily, the rain held off for a good portion of the afternoon and early evening as we arrived and made camp. Gabriel and I set up our preferred method of camping — two Eno hammocks with accompanying bug nets and rain flaps.
A true gentlemen, he stacked my hammock on top of his in case bears came for us in the middle of the night. I figured if bears did come, the 10 feet that separated me from the ground would only delay my inevitable fate and designate me as the dessert after a nice main course of Gabriel Goulash.
There are signs all over Sapporo to beware of bears. Many stores also carry “bear bells” to attach to your clothing, so that bears will hear your approach and not be startled into an attack.
Whether there are actually bears or not on the island, is yet to be determined.
Meg and Chris’s four year old, Lily, ran off and made new friends with some other children who were camping. Meg broke out the food and Chris dubbed himself the “Braai Master.”
And for the next few hours, we enjoyed grilled veggies, bruschetta, fish, pork, shrimp, corn, hot peppers and sweet potatoes. We could barely lift ourselves into our hammocks by the time the enjoyable evening came to a close.
Around 1:30 am, the rain started. And it continued for the next 12 hours.
Writers sometimes face a certain temptation to describe rain in a romantic light. Evidence of this can be found in scenes from novels and movies such as Pride and Prejudice, The Notebook, and The Sound of Music.
But when it is 8:00 am in real life and your full bladder has been tortured for several hours by the sound of water pounding on a tarp above your head, it is difficult to paint anything in a positive, let alone, a romantic light.
Gabriel heard my squirming above his head and jumped out of his hammock, running out into the rain to grab an umbrella for me. Returning, he picked me up out of my hammock (or rather, caught me as I clumsily fell out) and set my feet on the ground. He proceeded to point me in the direction of the toilet facilities.
In that moment, I couldn’t imagine anything he could have done that would have been more romantic.
Frowzy bed hair plastered to my face, I waddled off. Although the facilities were clean and well maintained (much more so than the majority of public bathrooms in the States), the toilet rooms consisted of traditional Japanese squatting posts. To me, they resemble urinals that are built flat into the ground.
I had attempted to use one of these “squatty potties” when we first arrived at the campsite. The result was disastrous. Meg asked me which way I had faced the toilet?
“Just like I normally would — outwards, with my back towards the flusher.”
“Well, that’s the problem. You need to face towards the flusher. It doesn’t feel natural, but it produces better results.”
I didn’t see how the direction I faced would solve the fact that I felt I was going to pee all over my pants, but I made a mental note to follow her advice next time I went to the loo.
As I squatted down, pants around my ankles, I still worried about my technique. I didn’t have a change of clothes, if things really went awry. But I also didn’t have time to worry for long, because the floodgates opened and the sound of a roaring waterfall echoed off the tiny stall’s walls.
After sleeping all night outside, I found the squatting position much more difficult than it had been the day before. With no bars to hold onto and my pants tangled around my ankles, my arms flailed wildly every few seconds as I fought to maintain balance and avoid splashing down into the toilet hole.
I felt as though I was peeing all over myself and constantly found my eyes looking down to verify that yes, I was making it into the hole. Miraculously, nothing disastrous occurred, and my pants made it out, accident free.
By the time I made it back to the campsite, it was clear that the rain was not going to stop anytime soon. The five of us huddled under a tarp together and tried to make a plan for packing the car.
Chris loaded the first (and most important) item, carefully in place: Lily. After that, it didn’t take long before we gave up on being organized and started shoving things haphazardly in every door of the Subaru.
It would only be fair to add that the husbands did the majority of moving items to the car, with the intention of keeping Meg and I as dry as possible. Unfortunately, all four of us were still 100% soaked by the time we buckled our seat belts.
Lily was the only one who remained somewhat unscathed. She found this to be quite amusing.
As we drove out of the campsite, Chris started talking about how wonderful the onsen was going to be. It was the first we had heard about plans to go to one.
“The experience isn’t for everyone. But if you’re going to live in Japan, you have to try it once.”
I tried to make eye contact with Gabriel to see if he was as nervous as I was. Unfortunately, I do not possess telepathic skills and he did not feel my eyes burning into the back of his head from the rear seat.
Besides not knowing what to expect of the upcoming “experience,” I was skeptical of enjoying the onsen, due to our current circumstance. We were already soaking wet. Why would I want to go take off my wet clothes and get wet again, dry off, and then surely be rained on and wet once more?
But Lily was chattering away about how excited she was. I decided I couldn’t let a 4 year old show me up.
We paid for admittance and ¥200 more for a “towel” that was sized somewhere between a washcloth and a hand towel. They are called “modesty towels,” though I’d argue they don’t promote much modesty.
I quickly realized I was only going to be able to cover one of the two body parts I would like to have kept hidden.
The baths were segregated by gender, so Meg, Lily and I headed to the women’s bath while Gabriel and Chris split off for the men’s. After stripping down to our skin, we placed our clothes in a locker room.
I tried to stay one step behind Meg and Lily, so I could copy them. I didn’t want to breach some major law of onsen etiquette.
As we walked into the baths, Lily asked my why I had a jewel in my belly? Unsure of how to respond, I told her it was because I thought it was pretty.
Her question planted a new worry in my mind: was jewelry acceptable in the onsen? I heard that many facilities banned tattoos. Would others be staring at my stomach? I thought the onsen was supposed to be relaxing? So why was there so much stress involved?
Steam from the hot springs clouded my vision as I opened the door to the baths. When it cleared, I noticed handheld shower heads and bath nozzles lining one wall.
I sat down on an empty stool and looked into the mirror. My naked reflection stared back at me, along with four little girls who snuck up behind me and were staring at my backside.
To my right, an older woman stared unabashedly, too.
At first, I thought perhaps I was imagining her stare. But when I accidentally squirted body wash to lather in my hair, she held out her hand to stop me and pointed to a bottle of shampoo instead.
Her actions solidified my suspicion of her gaze.
After cleaning and rinsing, I entered the bath. It was a decent size pool, naturally heated to the temperature of a hot tub. Water spilled down rocks into the pool, creating a peaceful atmosphere.
My cold, achy limbs soaked up the heat. As I sank into the water and let it clothe my body from prying eyes, I felt my muscles slowly relax.
Moving deeper into the pool, I let my mind relax too. A few minutes passed. Although I still felt the stares of a few young girls, I realized it was not so terrible to be naked with nothing to hide. I floated over to the rocks where a small waterfall cascaded into the pool. I stared into the churning water at the waterfall’s base, falling into a deeper state of relaxation as I waited for Meg and Lily to finish washing.
We met back up with the guys an hour later and proceeded to the Ainu festival. Contrary to my prediction, I did not feel like a prune after being rained on, thrown into an onsen, then returned to the wet outdoors. I felt restored.
Alone in our apartment that evening, I finally had the chance to ask Gabriel how he felt about the onsen.
“So, how was it over on the guy’s side?”
“It was great. In fact, I’ve scoped out some onsens close by for us to try out sometime.”
“Yea. We have another holiday coming up soon — would be the perfect time.”
“Maybe we can skip being rained on this time?”
“Sure, I’ll see what I can do.”
Like this post? It's an exert adapted from my book, No Ginger, set to publish in 2017. For more details, send us an email — we'd love to hear from you!