The Art of Onsen

I haven’t updated this blog for a while, mainly due to the fact that we’re travelling, but courtesy of a slight knee tweak skiing yesterday, I’m having a rest day so that I can ski my socks off on our last day, tomorrow. It snowed last night, and I’m sitting in the lobby of the hotel, intermittently looking out the window at a fabulous snowy landscape.

Our hotel has an onsen. Japan is the home of the onsen. For foreign visitors, the onsen can be both a joy and confronting at the same time. You see, an onsen is a bath for soaking in, after you’re clean, in company with others, naked.

When I was a small child in Western Australia, pool and beach changing rooms used to be full of naked women and children. You’d have your swim, shower to get the sand out of the places it shouldn’t be, and then all get dressed together. No-one worried about it – I certainly didn’t – and no-one seemed to spend time looking around at all the different body shapes and sizes or critiquing them. It was just the place that you got changed, just like everyone else.

Here at our hotel, I’ve enjoyed the onsen every day. However, I have been struck by one thing quite significantly. In the female onsen, there are women from about thirty up. There appear to be almost no younger women or girls enjoying the experience.

I was chatting to another woman after we’d dried off, and were trying out all the skin creams, body lotions, hairdryers and sterilised brushes supplied by the hotel onsen, and she commented that try as she had, she was unable to get her teen daughter to join her in the onsen. On asking around, others said precisely the same thing. Even bathing mother/daughter alone is considered too much.

It is somewhat intimidating to strip off and scrub, then bathe with other people, wearing only your skin, however, once you’re past the first effort it’s just fine – and the water is lovely.

So what’s going on? Why are younger women and girls too intimidated to even give it a go? If you keep reading, you’ll hear quite a lot of supposes and completely unsubstantiated thoughts next.

In Australia, it’s common to see girls and women wearing very little, particularly in summer. Quite often what they do wear is tight, sometimes revealing, and figure hugging. Swimwear is often relatively minimal. Frequently, boobs and butts hang out of things. It’s the current fashion to show your assets. If you watch TV, women often wear revealing garments to events – lately it seems to be a contest as to who can show the most skin while still wearing clothing.

If you can wear clothing that leaves almost nothing to the imagination in public, then what’s the trouble with bathing naked with other women in a very controlled setting?

I suspect that it’s body image. Women and girls are constantly subjected to, and subjecting themselves to, body image critique. Instead of celebrating our bodies for the functional miracles that they are, we’re constantly being fed images of how they ‘should’ look. At every turn, women’s bodies are critiqued, poked at, commented on and taken apart in the public arena.

When a female prime minister wears something different, the media goes into a frenzy. When the male one does the same thing, there’s no mention. Famously, in Australia, our first female PM was critiqued by icon feminist, Germaine Greer, for the size of her bottom and her fashion choices.


In my opinion, there’s a direct link between body image shaming and being ashamed of nudity in a same sex change room or onsen.

Girls are told “If you wear this, you can enhance this feature, but reduced that flaw.” Not always in so many words, but certainly in many images. Add to that the obesity crisis that we see so much about in the media, plus the fitspo images thrown at us from all directions, and you have girls who believe they aren’t normal and couldn’t possibly bare all that to the critical world.

If we only looked at the media, we’d believe that the only normal way to be female is to have flawless, tanned, skin, a perfectly toned figure, (which somehow still has big boobs and a very curvy bottom), gleaming white, perfectly straight teeth, and nothing that wobbles or jiggles.

Of course in the onsen, we do see each other, but believe me, we’re not critiquing or deliberately looking, because we’re too busy enjoying the feel of a wonderfully clean body relaxing in the hot water. Where I’m staying, there’s an outdoor portion, which looks out onto a snowy garden – totally mesmerising.

So how do we rid our younger generation of feeling ashamed of themselves? I really don’t know, but I suspect it involves reducing the amount of public critique of women. And thus the public control of them.

A very small example for you. In my practice as a physiotherapist, I see a lot of sprained ankles. One day, after I’d taped up a nastily sprained ankle and given the woman her exercises, I cautioned her to avoid heels for a while. She said “But I don’t think my boss would like that. He likes us to look smart, and that means heels.”

I looked back at her, and asked her if he had the same requirements for the men she worked with. She looked at me as if I was mad, and said, “But they’re men.”

I said, “And? Isn’t that what equality’s about? You have an injured ankle. High heels are inappropriate. Until your boss makes the men wear heels to look smart, I think you’ll be fine.” I suspect that she still thinks I’m mad, however I hope that I’ve planted a seed there about workplace equality.

Baby steps. It’s a complex world.




2 thoughts on “The Art of Onsen

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