Tag Archives: onsen

Research Tales: The Mixed Bath

It wasn’t the first time I had gotten naked with a new coworker, just hours after meeting. Last summer I met the photographer for my upcoming travel guidebook, Ken Shimizu (http://kenshimizuphoto.com), to split costs on a research trip up to Tohoku, the region north of Tokyo that had been devastated by the tsunami and nuclear disaster just a year before. We met outside Sendai, Tohoku’s big central city and rented a car for the trip. By evening we had finished up with Sendai, passed through the village of Tono and arrived at the hot spring resort of Nyuto, a spot I was really interested in adding to the new book, and which Ken thought ideal for photos.

Yours truly, center. Photo credit Ken Shimizu.

Yours truly, center. Photo credit Ken Shimizu.

First off: the name. Nyuto’s Chinese characters are “milk” and “head”, which, when combined, mean “nipple”. The original meaning here referred to the milky-white opaque waters, but Tsurunoyu Onsen, where we stayed, has a second nipplesque theme—its mixed bath. Hot spring bathing in Japan is in the nude, but it is nearly always sex-segregated. Not so here—think broad daylight skinny dipping with total strangers of both sexes. The only saving grace is the opaque water, but it is of little help when you have to get out of the bath and your towel is 5 paces away in the changing room.

So Ken and I arrived late, after most of the guests had eaten, and were assigned a room together. There was as moment of hesitation because we had only known each other for 8 hours at that point, but we finally agreed to share a room as it was the best way to keep trip expenses down. We ate dinner around a sunken hearth, filling our bowls from a hearty mountain potato stew bubbling in the pot that hung over the hearth and talked about our research plans for the next few days. We skirted the topic that was on my mind, and likely his too: would the mixed bath be heaven or hell? Would it be full of buxom young women, their skins as milky white as the waters, or would it be all geriatrics, groaning quietly as the heat soothed their joints?

We went to our tiny 6-mat room and saw to the all important plugging in of the various devices we carried, then got changed into our bathrobes and went to the bath. As we headed toward the men’s bath we passed a group of women in the same bathrobes.

“Oh, headed to the bath again?” said one of the women, likely in her 50s.

“No, we actually arrived late, so we are getting in for the first time just now,” replied Ken.

“Oh really? We were just in the mixed bath. Too bad!” This flirtation elicited a round of schoolgirl like giggling from her companions, who were anything but school girls. To this day I can’t quite tell if she meant “too bad for you” or “too bad for us.” I like to think it was the latter, or perhaps she meant “what a shame we couldn’t all see each other naked!” That’s a generous way of reading her expression, in any case. To this ambiguous flirtation Ken only managed a “Yeeeessss” that was about as uncertain as the whole conversation. I had understood the whole exchange but was tongue-tied.

I checked out the men’s bath by myself while Ken shot some photos around the grounds, then we met up at the mixed bath, perhaps for moral support or shared anticipation. Seven years prior I had just arrived in Japan and met my new colleagues at the school where I would work for the next 2 years. The following day we took a road trip together to get to know each other better and visited a hot spring in the evening, where I had my first Japanese hot spring experience and also saw my coworker Richard, whom I had known for just over 24 hours, buck naked. Even after countless hot spring experiences, getting to know someone in the nude was something that was hard for me to adjust to.

So Ken and I got naked and hit the bath. A handful of men were lounging about in the steamy waters but no women were in sight. The men had this practiced slouch that seemed to mean, “I’m cool and not a creep ladies! Come in so we may spy upon each other.” What would have merely been the posture of a relaxed man in a bath now seemed like a manufactured display, the peacock at rest. A sign posted at the entrance to the bath had read, “Don’t stare; don’t show off”; I thought these guys were failing the second rule, but there were no ladies in attendance yet.

I had a good soak and was starting to overheat, but there was still no sign that this was even a mixed bath. Ken got out to process some photos on his laptop but I decided to stay in the bath a bit longer. Finally, a collection of high voices, laughter and the flash of white towels tying up hair at the periphery of my vision put all of my senses on edge. This mixed bathing area was designed in such a way that the women could enter the water behind a screen, then wade into the main area submerged up to their necks, completely modest (errr, relatively modest anyway). So it was: a group of four women waded through their entrance and took up position along one side of the pool.

And I couldn’t see a damn thing. My glasses would get damaged by the hot mineral water, so I had left them with my robe. I sat and squinted through the dark and the steam rising off the water. Were they young? If young, were they beautiful? We were there on a weekday—the likelihood of a young woman was quite low as they’d either be busy with work or university classes. If I were to go closer they might freak out and flee, perhaps with good reason. Or maybe I’d get close enough to see and then I’d be the one running off. Chickenshit, I sat on my rock tried to pretend that I wasn’t peering at them, casual as hell. The other men there seemed to be in the same position. No one stirred, and while I considered doing a dramatic “emerge from the bath right next to them in all of my snowy-skin glory” manoeuvre, I sat tight until they had eventually had enough and slipped back into the women’s section.

The next morning I posed for Ken in a series of embarrassing semi-nudes as the bath was all but empty much of the time and he needed a model. Eventually some people arrived and Ken scurried about asking naked people for photographic releases, his least favorite task. I found myself silently praising the complete opacity of the waters as I fell into a conversation with an elderly couple, the wrinkled visage of a grandmother floating upon the white waters the complete extent of my real, confirmed experience. So despite the total lack of orgiastic bathing and the near complete lack of nubile maidens, I enjoyed myself. I’ve been to the bath a lot in Japan and I am pretty comfortable in my own skin, but this way my first time to skinny dip around women and that excitement has stuck with me.