Monday, December 29, 2008

Naked Revelations

I did it. I visited a hot spring, where I had to be butt-naked in front of a lot of strangers and even worse, my aunt and mother. And it really was a healing experience.

Honestly, I hadn’t been looking forward to it at all, because of the nudity thing. I’m really self-conscious about my skin – I’ve had a skin condition called eczema since I was a toddler, and it’s left really awful scars, discolouration and some unsightly rashes all over me. My face was free of it during my childhood, but then I hit puberty and it moved north, much to my chagrin. Now that I’m older, it can heal when I’m perfectly comfortable, stress-free and happy, but as soon as any kind of stress (or even just hormonal changes) hits me, it basically explodes and takes a long time to get better. Combine that with the fact that my aunt, like many other caring adults in my life, likes to scrutinize my skin every time she sees me to see how I’m doing – no, I wasn’t looking forward to it at all.

But hey, I don’t come to Japan all the time, and I knew that I’d regret it if I deprived myself of a new experience just because of my hang-ups, so I decided to just bite the bullet and go.

We took an hour-long train ride to the mountainous region of Hakone, where a bunch of hot spring resorts are. The one we went to is quite well-known, and it has a very good reputation among both foreigners and locals. We took a bus up the mountain to the site (best 100¥ spent - I wasn’t about to subject myself to that steep hike!), and we arrived at this picturesque series of very traditional-looking buildings. It cost about 1000¥ to enter, and I think you can stay all day if you want to, which is what some people do. The men’s and women’s areas are separate, so we said goodbye to my uncle, and went on our merry way. There are three series of lockers that you can use: one for your shoes, right at the entrance, one for your coats, right before the entrance to the change rooms, and one in the change rooms, for your clothes.

My aunt walked us in after the second set of lockers, where a wave of humidity hit me, and suddenly, naked women were everywhere, just casually sauntering around. I was told to strip down to my birthday suit, and I was thisclose to chickening out, but I got naked, and tried to cover myself as best I could with the teensy towel I brought – towels, like everything else in Japan, are especially small here, and the ones the resort gives out are the size of hand towels, so I opted to use my own. We went to the shower room to shower, because it’s a courtesy to get clean before using the springs. There are a bunch of little stools set up in front of mirrors and showerheads, with free shampoo, conditioner and soaps in shelves – all the showers I’ve used here happen to have mirrors, for some reason - isn't that weird?

After scrubbing down, you’re free to use any of the five or six pools. There’s one in the shower room that is piping hot – I lasted about one minute in there. Then outside, there’s a nice, milky-coloured one that’s just the right temperature, two really, really warm ones, a hot one that’s in a grotto, and a freezing cold one. Each pool had a plaque by it that explained what it's good for and what kinds of minerals are in the water. I tried all of them except one, because it was really full, and I liked the milky one the best, because the temperature was really comfortable. The bathhouses were beautiful, and I really would have loved to take a picture outside, if I didn’t have to worry about being mistaken for a pervert.

I didn’t get completely comfortable with my public nudity, but I definitely felt better throughout my visit. I didn’t like being naked with all these people (particularly the two I knew!) but no one batted an eye. Everyone was just as naked as everyone else, and they were bodies of real women, so it was no big deal. No one really stared at my skin, except my aunt, but she was obviously making a valiant attempt not to. But then she later took me to her Brand Name Dermatologist, and my skin's been a lot better since, so I'll let it slide.

And I came to realize that my skin isn’t as bad as I think. My other imperfections aren’t as bad as I think. Being surrounded by women with real bodies showed me that people really do come in all shapes and sizes and real people don’t look anything like celebrities or porn stars. And apart from my imperfections, I have some great features that a lot of people would love to have. So really, being naked wasn’t that big of a deal, and more importantly, my imperfections are pretty insignifant, too. I just am how I am. The beautiful thing was, I think I came to term with years’ worth of insecurities that day, and that in itself was priceless.

After soaking in the hot springs, some people opt to take a nap on the straw mat-covered rest area, which is open to everyone, while others visit the restaurant. Sitting in a hot spring accelerates heart beats, so it has a similar effect on the body as a workout would – some get tired, and some get hungry. We had some really tasty pork shabu and the best udon I’ve had here at the restaurant, then we took a break in the rest area while we waited for the next bus to come take us back down the mountain.

It was such a novel adventure, which is why I think that hot springs are a definite must-do in Japan. My visit really helped me to put things into perspective, and that made it a truly healing experience.

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