Naked Feelings

onsen snow monkeys

Ten years ago, I lived on a ship (with a 300-strong crew representing about 50 countries) that was making its way through Japan. On the way into the country, the three Japanese crew members put on a series of skits as an “Intro to Japanese Culture” for those on their first visit. One of the skits had as its only prop: a tall cardboard box that acted as a bathroom stall, and one of the guys sat down on a normal chair/stand-in for a toilet, with his head sticking out the cardboard wall. Then he screamed and ran out of the “stall” while another guy was shooting a water pistol into the air towards the first guy. For those familiar with this scene, it’s the washlet (Japanese high-tech bidet toilet).

Some people (who came from advanced first world countries) were genuinely shocked that nearly all Japanese toilets have this function, even though I personally think that what’s really shocking is nearly all public toilet stalls in the US have a gigantic gap between the panels.

Surprisingly, not all people were as shocked about the onsen (Japanese hot spring) and bath culture. Some were really creeped out: the idea that one would, voluntarily (and look forward to) join a huge public bathtub and take a bath with complete strangers. I found it ironic that those washlets in public bathrooms often have a “running water” sound option to mask the peeing noise — to protect the urinator/defecator’s privacy — while onsens and public bath etiquette dictates full nudity. Not so much as a loincloth to protect the bathers’ privacy!

There was one Japanese guy who expressed a longing desire to go to onsen. “It’s been two years [since I joined the ship],” he started. Only showering was available, no bathtubs, and there was a rule that we were supposed to take 3-minute showers for water conservation. “I’m so cold… from the showers… I want a nice, long, hot bath.” Only a Japanese guy would admit this to a girl he’d only just met. But he did think I was Japanese, so maybe it was totally appropriate.

Not surprisingly, the ones most excited about the onsens (other than the Japanese crew members) were the Finns. They are, after all, the originators of the sauna as we know it. At the end of one of our work shifts, a Finnish girl in charge of announcements asked over the PA:

“Does anyone want to go to the public bath??”
(silence)
“Anyone??”
(silence)
“Anyone…?” (voice trailing off)

*               *               *

Every afternoon at 15:00 was “tea time” in the dining room. The bakers got up every morning before 04:00 to bake the bread for breakfast, but they also baked a fresh batch in the afternoon. Most people took breaks — I pretty much always did. One day at the tea time gathering, someone said, “Those Finns are really obsessed with the public baths here.” It started a whole conversation as people pitched in which Finn said what:

“Elina asks a lot at end-of-shift if anyone wants to go to public bath.”
“Oh I was there for that.”
“Mikko and Luukas were asking Takeshi if he could take them.”
“Otto was trying to convince some guys in the engine room to go.”
“Did the South Africans say yes?”
“Well he started to talk about feelings.”
“He what?”
“Otto said he likes to go to sauna and talk about his feelings.”
“How did the Brits take it?”
“However it was that he interpreted their facial expressions, or lack of, he said when you’re fully naked there’s nothing really left to talk about except your feelings.”

And we all busted out in laughter.

Years later, as I came to know more about Japanese culture, what Otto said was actually a thing. As in, it was such a real thing that there’s actually a Japanese term for it — hadaka no otsukiai (literally, “naked relationship”). Far more innocent and significant than it sounds, what it really means is something more like “an honest and trustworthy way of relating”. In other words, to have a hadaka no otsukiai with someone essentially means that person is someone with whom one could soak in onsen, together, trustingly.

But talking about feelings — that’s just messed up.

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