Every woman is a nymph: Insecurities at the Japanese onsen

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Imagine Artemis, goddess of the hunt and chastity, bathing in the water of a forest spring, accompanied by a group of nymphs. She lies back and the warmth of the water kneads away the tension in her strong back and shoulders. Around her, the sounds of water splash and drip as other women bathe themselves and their children. A magnificent tree arches over the bath, a cool breeze drifts by, and a single golden leaf drops into the peaceful water.

Two months ago, I went to my first Japanese onsen. It was an inexpensive one in Yonago, with a utilitarian locker room and the same musty light of a high school gymnasium. As I tried to covertly observe how the other woman handled their bathes, I felt less like Artemis and more like a large naked foreigner in the midst of a YMCA full of Japanese nymphs.

In the myth, Artemis’s bath is interrupted by an intruding hunter. Her relaxed body seizes up, tense muscles protecting…what? In her case, her honor and her body. After all, she was the goddess of chastity. In my case, the intruder was a thought, and the only thing I needed protection from was myself. As I lay back in the water, I worried that I had messed up the pre-bath ritual. I imagined that the other women avoided the bath that I chose. Did they think I was dirty? The experience of applying relaxing remedies to my body while my mind got all tangled up in its insecurities was enlightening: Where do my insecurities live? I learned a bit about that at the onsen.

I am interested in my body. I feel a steady appreciation for it as a vehicle. My satisfaction fluctuates when it comes to my appearance, and that attention borders on unjustified worry when it is internal health that I’m thinking about. My brain is often sending messages downwards: “Thanks!” “Yuck!” “Oh well.” “What’s wrong?” In Japan, as I returned to onsen after onsen, getting used to the experience of relaxing, naked and different, with a bunch of uninterested women, I became sensitive to how those messages feel, physically, in my layers of my skin and in my organs. In turn, I started to notice how my brain responds to the feelings my body communicates. If left unexamined, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings breed each other.

At the fancier onsen that I visited, I sometimes found myself alone. On those occasions, I was able to go through the ritual of cleaning my body at the faucets to the side without worrying about being watched. In the steamy room, I would walk to the bath with nothing but a small towel folded on top of my head and, goddesslike, descend into the water. The sound of water running off a rock into the pool, the sight of steam rising to the wooden ceiling, and the shadow of Japanese maple in the garden outside created a wonderfully calm atmosphere. My muscles release tension reluctantly though, and in the hot mineral water I had to tell them, with a thought, to let everything melt away. It took many minutes before I could lie back, truly at ease.

Then, I would hear the slide of the door and another woman would walk into the room. My heartbeat quickened. My skin tightened. My stomach might give a little flip and my hair follicles a little twist. These are the feelings of my body getting ready to defend. All because a small naked grandmother had started bathing in my vicinity! There had hardly been time for a thought to form around the insecurity. It existed as a purely physical response, until my mind started rationalizing the feeling. She must be annoyed to see me here. Perhaps Artemis overreacted when she turned the intruding hunter into a stag. I certainly overreact to the presence of another person, something I was not aware of until I had practiced reducing myself to an inert puddle at the Japanese onsen.

We visited many onsen during our twenty days in Japan, and eventually I became accustomed to the ritual, even talking to the other women in the bath. The last onsen we visited was in Kyoto. It was a large one offering many services, so many that I became overwhelmed by the many rooms and towels and urns of salt. Two women noticed my confusion and came over to help me understand the sauna, and later, when I was cooling down in a shower, they rushed over to tell me, “It’s time to have your back scrubbed!” They led me to the bathing faucets where an attendant waited. I sat naked on a stool while the woman vigerously scrubbed my back with sugar, my two new friends looking on as they waited their turns. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t worry about doing it wrong. In the onsen, every woman is a nymph, and every thought is a hunter. It’s best just to let those thoughts go away, unnoticed, as you slide into the bliss of the bath.

Getting ready to walk in our wooden sandals to the onsen in Yamanouichi.

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