This is a guest post by Heather Sinclair. She’s the grand prize winner of the Free Trip to San Francisco writing contest I hosted last year, and this is her winning essay.
I’m having a proper adventure when I’m outside my comfort zone, sometimes in a place I’ve never been to, usually doing something I’ve never done before, and probably making an ass of myself. That’s exactly what happened at the co-ed onsen.
One of the most recommended experiences while living in Japan is trying a Japanese hotspring, or “onsen.” The first time I went, it was an ‘adventure.’ I was full of questions before and during the experience. Was I supposed to use the communal shampoo, or bring my own? Was I supposed to wash my hair every time? Which pool do I choose first? How long do I stay in? What if someone talks to me? I spent the entire time feeling awkward and hoping I didn’t offend too many people. Also: I was completely naked. I had a hard time enjoying the onsen to say the least.
After going to the onsen for three months, I knew the drill and started to love hotsprings. My confidence (and enjoyment of soaking in hot water) had me yearning for more adventure. I was ready for the next step in onsen awkwardness: the co-ed onsen. My husband and I decided together that a co-ed onsen was worthy of a visit. We could experience both being nude in public and relaxing in hot water together.
The co-ed onsen we decided to visit was outside the town where we lived. This not only limited our potential embarrassment, but we could make it into a sight-seeing day trip, ending with a relaxing soak.
Armed with our notebook with English directions, and our onsen gear (shampoo, soap, towel) we set off for the day. Since the train is the best way to get around Japan, we had planned our route to the onsen starting at the train station. We knew we had made it to the right one when we saw the sign had a cartoon of happy people enjoying a steaming hotspring.
At the onsen gate, we bought our ticket and went our separate ways to the separate changerooms. I stripped down, stashed my stuff, and washed off, as usual. But before stepping out to the pool, I balked. Second thoughts flashed through my mind. Did I really want to do this? Was I really going to walk out into a place I’d never been before, full of strangers who don’t speak my language, men and women and me all stark naked? Was I going to prove something by going out there? Was I going to stare too much at everyone’s genitals? Were they going to stare at mine?
I took a deep breath and grabbed my towel. I was here because I wanted to be here. This was a challenge, and I could conquer it. I could bolt now and feel safe and comfortable, or I could step outside and accept the consequences. Be nervous. Be vulnerable. Be adventurous. Getting out there would answer all of my questions.
I thought about the worst case scenario. I was alone and couldn’t find my husband. I was the only girl in the pool. I was stared at like a piece of meat. Then I steeled my resolve, stepped outside to the pool, and noticed three things right away:
- The sunshine was very bright on my white naked skin.
- My husband I were the only foreign people at the onsen.
- None of the other women were naked!
That last one got my heart racing. I was relieved to see other women, but I was a bit panicked to see that they were wearing terrycloth dresses. I took a quick look around and saw that I was the only female over the age of seven wearing only my birthday suit. It was clear that everyone else had noticed too, especially the older Japanese men.
I had apparently missed some rule that said I was allowed to cover up in a co-ed onsen. I tried to make up for it by covering my front with my inadequately small towel, and I couldn’t even wrap it around my whole body. Naturally, I had brought the smallest towel I owned.
My towel cover-up strategy a bust, my best chance at saving my self esteem was to submerge my nakedness in the water. I plopped into the pool and was thwarted yet again by the onsen gods. It was hotter than the hottest pit in Hell. There was no way I could get in without scalding the meat off of my bones. This was the most awkward, uncomfortable, self-conscious, and exposed I had ever felt in my life. I had three choices: flee, endure scalding and submerge, or suck it up and try to enjoy the onsen.
Before deciding what to do, I thought about why I was there. I came to this onsen for the same reason I came to Japan. I wanted to experience something new. I wanted to do something I’d never done before. I wanted to feel uncomfortable. I wanted to feel brave. I wanted to feel like I had overcome my fear. I was after adventure, and I had found it.
Instead of running back to the changeroom and giving in to embarrassment and intimidation, I sat on the edge of the steaming hot pool, my white skin a shining beacon of foreignness, and practiced my Japanese with my new onsen friends (mostly men).
Does ‘adventure’ mean exposing myself to failure, embarrassment, and awkwardness, and surviving to tell the tale?
For me, absolutely.
Does that mean I’m going to be visiting the co-ed onsen again sometime soon?
Don’t count on it.
Heather loves traveling, cooking, and scuba diving. She currently works as an engineer and writes about her travels when she can find spare time between playing soccer, doing yoga, judging poetry slams, and P90X. You can follow Heather on Google+.