There are onsens (hot spring pool) in most hotels in Japan, even at the no-star hostel at Mount Fuji where I stayed two years ago. The usage of onsen is different in different country. In Korea and Taiwan, we were told to use a swimsuit and a swimming cap. In Japan, the procedure is to scrub yourself clean at the shower facility around the pool, sitting down at all times, before entering the pool. One enters the pool totally naked. You may not bring your hand/face towel provided into the pool. Those are for scrubbing and cleaning only. Anyway, the towel is not large enough to preserve any modesty. A friend once joked, the only way to use it if you are shy is to cover your face so no one can recognise you.
On this trip, I saw my first onsen in Route Inn Hotel in Hakodate.
The onsen was more like a pool with shower facilities around. Outside the wet zone, there are lockers to put your clothes. My friends failed in vain to persuade me to join them in the onsen. Instead, I was at the onsen because there was a washing machine and dryer next to the lockers.
At around midnight, when I thought most people were already in bed, I went to the onsen to collect my laundry from the dryer. I was 10 mintues too early. I sat next to the lockers and read my book. In came this Japanese woman in her birthday suit. She fidgeted with the dial lock but it refused to open. I tried to avert my eyes but we were very aware of each other – me fully dressed and she naked. It was a long ten minutes for both of us. She just couldn’t get that locker open. Desperate, she went to the house phone to ask for help. I collected my laundry and quickly exited.
I told my friends the next day. They were smart enough to try the dial lock before putting their clothes in.
At Noboribetsu Grand Hotel, I was told the onsen had many different pools for different illnesses. My friends, dressed in their yukata finest, again persuaded me to join them, assuring me that nudity becomes natural after a few minutes. I declined.
At Lake Akan Tsuruga, they tried again and I relented. I didn’t fancy bathing in the small shower cubicle in the hotel room with a public dressing area.
The onsen was huge in this hotel, and I chose the most remote locker. Then I crept to the most remote corner of the showers to clean. After that, with the hand towel provided, I covered my front and went into the hot pool (about 45 deg C). My friends came and sat around me, chiding me for my shyness. To think, the single ladies were more comfortable with their nudity than me, a married woman who had given birth three times. Even the mother-daughter team in my group were comfortable enough to chat in the nude.
At Lake Shikotsu Tsuruga, I agreed to join them again. After all, it was our last two nights there. The locker area was smaller here and I again chose the inner most cubicle. At the shower, my friend cheekily crept up next to me to use the next shower booth, much to my annoyance and her amusement. We went out to the garden onsen. The cold air at least brought some relief to the hot water. We only left because a three-generation family brought their grandsons into the pool. The elder boy looks to be about five and even though the grandmother and mother were comfortable naked around him, I was not.
So, what is worse than being naked and not able to open your locker in the onsen?
My friend’s mother had misplaced her spectacles in the onsen and couldn’t recall where she had left it. My three friends ran around the huge onsen naked, looking at every nook and corner trying to recover the spectacles. It was a funny sight, and no, I did not help them.
It’s true, after a while, we stopped seeing the nudity in that person. My friend related the story of how a Taiwanese tour guide came up to chat with them in the onsen. She was totally comfortable in her nudity although my friends were all dressed. There, she lamented to my friends how her guests all had private onsens in their suites while she had to make use of the public one. My friends, fully dressed, were instead made more aware of her nudity this time!