Upon a tip from our Kanazawa housemate, Seigo, we stopped in Kaga-onsen, a station near to a hot spring area. All we knew was the name of the nearest JR station, and that the Lonely Planet said you could catch a bus to the Yamanaka Onsen. Very helpful, LP!
So we got off the train, locked our luggage up at the station, and wandered around until we found a sign for buses going in approximately the right direction and hoped for the best. The bus was pretty confusing to begin with, never having used a Japanese bus before and also not speaking the language, but we figured it out. Basically you take a ticket at the middle/back door when you get on, and when you get off the bus you pay based on how far you travelled, which is lit up on a board at the front. As it turns out the LP was useful for something - it listed the journey price as ¥410, and so watching the price board go up gave us confidence we were getting off in the right place.
The lady at the bus stop was also enormously helpful, and gave us a map to the onsen, which was a ten minute walk up the road. The town, once you hit the onsen, reminded me of a ski village crossed with the likes of Daylesford outside of Melbourne - lots of mid to high end gift shops and cafes.
As a side-note, something Japan does very well is manhole covers, and the Yamanaka Onsen village showed us our first situation-appropriate urban design feature/art:
But I digress. The important part is that WE GOT NAKED IN PUBLIC!!!
It was my first onsen. I've skinny dipped when camping, and also when I lived by the beach, and gotten my kit off in many a hot tub (in a purely non-sexual way, because hygiene), but all were under the cover of darkness or water. I'm a fairly practical person, and as the daughter of two nurses and having trained in biology myself I'm very down with human anatomy. But I don't have the greatest of body confidence to begin with, and knowing I wasn't going to blend in at all, in any way (not that I really do at home, but here I'm definitely not going to blend in!), was a bit nerve racking. Especially knowing that you have to actually scrub yourself pretty thoroughly before you get in, and I mean the whole personal shooting match rather than the cursory "splash, splash!" you might do at the local pool.
I mucked around a bit in the locker room until someone else started to undress, and I took that as my cue, and pretty much followed their lead. But not in a creepy way! So if you're curious, and hopefully I have this right - 1. Take your shoes off at your gender-appropriate onsen; 2. Pay; 3. Get any soap/towels/etc. you need from the vending machine; 4. Find an empty locker in the locker room (the key will still be in it); 5. Strip off, stow your kit, lock your locker and take the key which in this case was attached to a piece of elastic for putting around your wrist; 6. Walk through to the baths and wash yourself thoroughly with soap at the shower heads/hoses along the sides, being sure to wash down the little stool and the little tub before and after use; 7. Onsen time! Some people were pouring water on their feet before getting into the baths and some weren't so *shrugs* 8. get out and wash yourself again 9. Dry down as much as possible before leaving the wet area 10. Go back to your locker, get dressed and get out of there.
The verdict: despite my initial reservations, it was amazing. Being surrounded by women of all shapes and sizes was a very positive experience for me, especially realising that, despite what the media would have me believe, I am actually somewhere quite near the middle of the bell-shaped curve of body type/how much fat I'm carrying/how muscular (or not) I am.
And breasts! My goodness, they're all so different! I'm familiar with my own, my mother's, a couple of friends from changing at swimming pools etc., and pretty much anyone I've seen breastfeed, but when they're all lined up together, I was blown away by the diversity! I know I sound very sheltered right now, but if you think about it, women have less opportunity to look at them than men. So that was interesting.
I think at least in the portion of Australia that I've been exposed to, there isn't really an opportunity like that to see so many body types in one place. As a teenager or young woman at the pool or beach, I was mostly concerned with how I looked, if I was being judged by other girls for being overweight, or whether I was desirable to the opposite sex in my swimwear, and I always felt a bit funny about looking at other people's bodies and seeing what there is out there, because I don't like being stared at so why would anyone else? But when you're all naked, and it's about getting clean, it's somehow different. Not that there was any staring really going on, but it was different. And very positive. A younger me may not have felt so good about it but I guess I'll never know.
I've realised that this entire post is about being naked and body image rather than travel. I guess the long and the short of it is that if you ever have an opportunity to visit an onsen, you should definitely do it.
Also, if there are any men reading, G had a similarly positive experience, and noticed similar diversity.
Go forth and onsen!