Nude Bathing; or, Overcoming Prudery
When I was 21, I spent half a year in Europe: Prague most of the time, where I studied for a semester. I lived in a room in a private house. My friend B, the only other New Zealander from my university studying in Prague, was put in a dorm for want of any other accommodation. It wasn’t fancy, but it was very cheap.
She moved out after a week, found her own private room. Not because the dorm was located so far from the centre of the city, where our department of Charles University was. Not because it was in one of the city’s panelak buildings, communist-era monstrosities that give foreigners the creeps because they remind them of crime-ridden housing projects in the UK or USA (but that actually had a good community spirit and facilities). No, B moved out because the showers were communal and she’d been waking herself up early enough so that she wouldn’t meet anyone else there. Single-sex communal, of course, but terrifyingly public nonetheless.
“How do the Czech students live like that!?” we asked each other, wide-eyed and genuinely puzzled. The lucky ones came from Prague and didn’t have to live in dorms. The unlucky were from Ostrava or Brno or Plsn, and had no choice. I had a similar run-in in Copenhagen, when I travelled there after my studies in Prague were over. I should have expected that in Scandinavia hostels would have communal showers. Like B, I made sure to avoid rush hour. I was caught out once when some loud and proud Spanish girls swanned in. I found that I was especially dirty behind the shoulders, on the sides of each thigh.
I knew that I was being a prude, but I also knew that I wasn’t alone in this. I knew that my prudery was cultural. European women were comfortable being naked around each other. I found it odd. Sure, I was technically European–being from the UK originally–and New Zealand’s culture is heavily influenced by British culture. But there is a huge gulf between British attitudes towards nudity and continental European attitudes. I’ve since discovered that American attitudes towards public nakedness are generally pretty similar to Anglo/Antipodean attitudes, too.
I was caught out once when some loud and proud Spanish girls swanned in. I found that I was especially dirty behind the shoulders, on the sides of each thigh.
A few years later, in my mid-20s, I was living in Japan. Japan was where I let go of my inhibitions around nudity. Well, to an extent.
Japan has a rich tradition of onsen, hot water pools heated by natural geo-thermal springs, formalised nowadays with changing rooms and shower-heads. It would have been a crime against travel to leave Japan without entering an onsen, yet it took sixteen months to work up the courage to dive in (strictly figuratively only though, as one of the many taboos associated with partaking in an onsen is putting the head beneath the water). During a camping trip in Kyushu—in which I learnt that Japanese campsites are very basic, usually not even having flushing toilets—public bathing suddenly became all the more appealing. Hell, any kind of bathing became appealing after several days.
It wasn’t just the fear of public nudity that took me so long to get to an onsen. They are also bound up with a long list of taboos and rituals that foreigners are warned about, with the partial intention of discouraging them from partaking. But every rule comes down to one principle: no soap in the bathtub. Not as a bar. Not as shampoo. Not as suds left clinging to the body. Bodies must be washed and rinsed thoroughly before entering the tub. This golden rule has apparently been violated by enough non-Japanese to warrant ‘no foreigners allowed’ signs in some places.
In Japan, people are not generally very forthcoming in public. They like to keep to themselves, which usually suits my somewhat introverted personality just fine. But sometimes it can also feel very isolating, as though Japanese people are not interested in foreigners, or don’t want to communicate with them at all. Yet, when everyone’s naked in an onsen, it seems those barriers come down.
I remember my first awkward trip to a large complex in Mount Aso, a town in the middle of a giant volcanic caldera, that was quite busy. I washed before getting in and gingerly lowered into a round bath. A young Japanese woman with a baby smiled and started talking to me. That would normally never happen in Japan. I could comprehend quite a bit of Japanese by that time, but my spoken ability wasn’t good. Normally, my hesitancy to speak Japanese, and the woman’s lack of English, would have brought the conversation to an immediate halt. Not in an onsen.
It would be a crime against travel to leave Japan without entering an onsen, yet it took sixteen months for me to work up the courage to dive in.
I also made the trip to Kurokawa Onsen, a small town in the hills of central Kyushu that is almost entirely comprised of onsen, hotels and restaurants catering to onsen tourists. The concentration of bathing complexes is because a river runs through the steep mountain town, and hot springs bubble up all over the place. We were literally situated in the middle of a giant volcano. In Kurokawa Onsen you can buy a day pass that gets you into several of the bathing complexes throughout town. Some were inside a cave, others beside a river, others in old wooden buildings. Each had its own charm or quirk. By the end of the day, after trips to four or five different baths, I was glowing and sleepy (and the cleanest I’d been during the whole camping trip!)
I was travelling with my (male) partner, and the only problem with visiting onsen as a couple is that the baths are unofficially gender segregated, so we didn’t get to enjoy them together. There are men’s baths, women’s baths, and ‘mixed’ baths. ‘Mixed’ actually only means that men go in those baths. I was quite happy with that, I wouldn’t have wanted to bathe butt naked with strange men, but it was strange that we had to go our separate ways for an hour or so, arranging to meet up again when we’d had enough of that bath.
Several years later, at the age of 30, I went to Turkey alone. I jumped at the chance of visiting one of the old hammams is Istanbul. Like Japan, a trip to Turkey wouldn’t be complete without a Turkish bath. These certainly are gender segregated, and there are no grey areas or ‘mixed’ baths.
I can feel myself turning into my mother, who never seemed to be embarrassed about these kinds of things. I thank age for the change in heart.
I went to the Cemberlitas Hamami, right in the centre of Istanbul, next to the Grand Bazaar. I had been warned that it was very touristy, and it was, but what that meant was that it was relatively expensive to enter ($20 or so) and the ‘treatments’ they provided were perfunctory. I was OK with that, but I still got a quick, soapy head-to-toe scrub down by a young female attendant. The hammam dates back to 1584, and the architecture reflects that inside. You lie on a large stone slab in the centre of the circular room and look up at the sky-lights dotted across the domed ceiling like stars while waiting for your designated attendant to see to you. The steam was thick as a curtain, and provided some modesty. The place felt otherworldy. I laughed to myself, thinking back to my experiences in Europe a decade earlier.
I don’t know how I’d feel about communal saunas in Scandinavia. I still find that idea off-putting, but I know I’d probably give it a go if I travelled there. I can feel myself turning into my mother, who never seemed to be embarrassed about these kinds of things. She’d happily go topless at a beach, embarrassing us as kids, but I smile at the memory now. I thank age for the change in heart.
(This post originally appeared on Wilderness, Metropolis.)