Elusive and enigmatic, the Japanese konyoku onsen, or nude mixed-bathing hot springs, is forbidding enough of access as to retain a quasi-mythical status—somewhere between the zebra and the unicorn—not only for foreigners but for Japanese as well. Information about naked onsens is spotty even in the Internet age and often requires word-of-mouth or a personal guide. I presume the literature in Japanese is more extensive, yet it’s still an esoteric topic for most natives. Places that are said to allow mixed-sex bathing turn out not to when you arrive, while rumors swirl of countless onsens which allow it yet don’t advertise the fact; there are even onsens that let guests set the bathing rules during their stay. You may succeed in getting to one only to discover you are the sole patron, and then what’s the point? If you’re traveling without Japanese help, you need to master the complicated travel routes and times, as most hot springs are located in rustic or mountainous retreats. If you have to stay the night in the onsen’s ryokan (tatami inn—there may not be other accommodation nearby), you need to establish beforehand whether there are any vacancies. All this makes konyoku onsen hunting one of the more challenging of travel experiences, more akin to trekking in the Third World than in one of the world’s most developed countries.
If most Japanese themselves don’t know much about this famous institution except by hearsay, it’s because to acquire even a working knowledge, much less expertise on the subject, means a prohibitive outlay of time and expense. Imagine you’re a Japanese male travel writer or novelist, the sort who might develop an obsession with mixed onsen. There is in fact a lineage of Japanese literati onsen fanatics the Nobelist Yasunari Kawabata for one. (I’m not suggesting Japanese female writers can’t be equally interested—I wish more were—only that for reasons which will become clear later on, it’s less likely.) You have come up with the idea of visiting as many mixed onsens as possible over a year and write a book about it. As a native, you’ll have a far easier time arranging your itinerary than a foreigner would, yet it still requires considerable ingenuity of planning.
Imagine you’re a Japanese male travel writer or novelist, the sort who might develop an obsession with konyoku onsen, not to mention that there already is a storied lineage of Japanese literati onsen fanatics.
There are hundreds of onsens in Japan, with an unknown number offering mixed bathing. Your goal is to visit two daily, a day visit to one and a night visit to another in the same vicinity (many hot springs are clumped together in onsen villages), or 730 in total. As onsens all have their own quirky business hours and may be closed on certain days of the week (or in the winter season if the mountain roads become impassable), offer mixed bathing only on specified days or at certain times of the day, and so forth, much research is needed to work out the intricate scheduling before setting out. Onsen inns charge anywhere from 8,000-15,000 yen ($100-$200) per night per person, so you probably can’t afford to take anyone along with you, as your total accommodation will already amount to USD $50,000 for you alone (if we assume an average nightly fee of 10,000). A hearty dinner and breakfast is normally covered by the inn, but you still have to pay for lunch and the entrance fee for the day-visit spas. Transportation expenses, often involving a combination of rail and bus lines, can also quickly add up. I could guess having to shell out $60,000 for the entire excursion. How many people have that kind of time and money to spare?
Of course, the intrepid traveler on a budget, starting in northern Japan in the spring and working his way down to the warmer parts in the winter, by mountain bike and personal tent, making use of all available campgrounds, cooking by campfire wherever possible, might considerably cut down on expenses. However, he would miss out on the total onsen “experience,” which is to sample each inn’s cuisine and cozy atmosphere and perhaps any resident hostesses offering their services for the night (as they did in legendary times past at least). Regardless of financial means, the virtue of such a fantasy onsen adventure would be invaluable insider knowledge of the most scenic and, if fortunate, crowded hot springs.
After getting a few obligatory sightseeing spots in the country out of the way, my Chinese girlfriend, Chen, and I set out on the fly with the modest luxury of three days to spare and the goal of sampling five or six onsens. We ended up bumbling our way from one error to the next, and it is only because the trip wasn’t an unqualified disaster that I can justify writing it up at all.
We set off for the Kashiwaya Onsen at Bessho onsen village, a lovely mountain town in Nagano Prefecture, requiring a couple hours on the bullet train from Tokyo and transfer to a more leisurely train to Bessho. Thrown off, however, by the town map, which confusingly listed some hot springs in Japanese characters and others in Romanized script, we ended up at the wrong onsen without realizing it, finding ourselves in sex-segregated indoor baths after emerging from our separate changing rooms. I could have sworn the website indicated the existence of outdoor baths, at least one of which was mixed. I made what use of the tiny pool I could, which was scarcely able to accommodate three other males present and myself. On our way out, I asked the lady at the entrance about it. She pointed to the establishment next door.
It indeed appeared to be much nicer and more substantial, with a large elegant lobby. But before paying and wasting another entrance fee, I pulled out my laptop with the onsen’s website and accompanying pictures of the mixed outdoor pool to get the desk attendant’s confirmation. We were at the right onsen, he said, but sorry to say none of the pools was mixed-sex. It was evident from his ready response he knew we had come for this, but his lack of English barred an explanation for the discrepancy, and my Japanese was no longer good enough (after a twenty-year absence) to pursue one.
Taking no more chances on this village, we headed straight for the northern tip of Honshu, Aomori Prefecture. It boasted two famous dedicated mixed-sex hot springs, each within one or two hours of Aomori City: the huge indoor Sukayu Onsen and the Aoni or “Lamp” Onsen, which rejected electrical lighting for traditional oil lamps. Since it was already late afternoon, we opted to go back to Tokyo and return to the region the next morning, to do one in the daytime and the other in the evening. What we should have done, it turned out, was head straight up north to find a hotel in Aomori. For by the time we got to Aomori City by noon the next day, the last bus of the day had already left for the Sukayu Onsen and the last train had left for the Aoni Onsen. Our one consolation was that we had purchased a Japan Rail Pass for unlimited riding and some nice sightseeing as we ricocheted back and forth around northern Honshu.
We headed back south, transferring at Morioka to Tazawako in Akita Prefecture. At the information center in Tazawako station, an attentive woman helped us book a room at the Magoroku Onsen in Nyuto or “Nipple” Onsen village (after the shape of a nearby mountain) for $300. She also worked out for us how to get to the Tsurunoyu Onsen the next day for an afternoon visit, when we guessed the most famous of the area’s mixed onsens to be at its most crowded. Dashing out of the station in the cold, the lady even saw us off to make sure we were on the right bus. It’s almost worth a trip to Japan alone to witness Japanese politeness in action. The bus had tire chains and after much climbing along snowy mountain roads, dropped us at a remote stop where we were picked up by a car to take us to the onsen nearby. We were shown to our room, soon nice and toasty from the kerosene heater, whose smell conjured up my old days living in a tatami house in the Wakayama countryside.
In the dining room we were joined by a dozen or so men in groups and, disconcertingly, no women. After dinner we changed into yukata, the obligatory robes supplied in Japanese inns, and rubber boots provided in the entrance, and stepped through the snow into the changing cubicles of the mixed indoor pool. The pool opened onto two outdoor pools, one that was much too hot and the other just tolerable enough to stay submerged for a minutes before having to get out and patter back naked to the cooler indoor bath, careful not to slip on the wet rocks and wind up in the snow. The subzero temperature outside was not a problem once in the water. The scene was idyllic. The only thing missing were other guests. We were alone. The other fellows were apparently saving their bathing for later in the evening, possibly because a hot bath was not considered healthful directly following a meal. Still, I would have thought they’d hasten up a bit to try to catch a peek of Chen. If not, I guessed this onsen to be too small to attract mixed-bathing enthusiasts, and those who came here did so for the sake of some male-bonding thing and not out of expectation of female visitors. After an hour, we quit and returned to our room, and hoped for better luck the next day at the Tsurunoyu Onsen.
To get to which we boarded the same bus, which dropped us off at a visitor’s center with a diorama display of the area’s volcanoes, before being picked up by a shuttle operated by the onsen. It was still morning and the arriving bus disgorged a large group of patrons who had spent the night, half of whom were female. Upon arriving, we discovered that the “six mixed outdoor baths” promised on the website turned out to be only one; there was one other outdoor bath for women and several segregated indoor baths.
The layout of the mixed outdoor bath was interesting and requires some expounding, as its theatrical features bore more than passing resemblance to the traditional Japanese dramatic stage. While not terribly large, it was big enough to accommodate perhaps fifty or more bathers under crowded conditions. To access the pool, visitors walked along a path at the water’s edge, which conveniently allowed them to take in whatever crowd was in the water before deciding to take the plunge. At the end of the path was a changing-room hut. The male changing room openly disgorged the men, holding a hand towel over their privates as they dipped into the water in full view of visitors along the path. The female changing room fed the women into the pool from around the side, enabling them to enter already submerged in the water through an arbor-like structure. This structure uncannily resembled the gallery entrance to the stage known as the hashigakari or “bridgeway” in the Noh theater.
At first glance, Kabuki rather than Noh might come to mind when confronted with the layout of this bath, since any woman emerging into the pool, if crowded, would be surrounded by bathers on all sides as she made her way to the stage, much like the catwalk-like bridge in the Kabuki theater known as the hanamichi or “flower path” cutting directly across the auditorium to the stage, with the audience arrayed on both sides for a close-up view of the performer proceeding along it. The gallery entrance in the Noh theater, on the other hand, joins the stage along the side of the auditorium, at greater remove from the audience (figures 1 and 2).
But despite the Kabuki hanamichi’s historical derivation from the earlier Noh hashigakari, their respective purposes are different. The Kabuki walkway is extra-dramatic: it serves to spotlight the entrance of the most popular actor in a Kabuki play, suspending the action for a few moments so that the actor can strut and preen to his applauding fans (who originally tossed flowers—hence “flower path”), before alighting the stage proper and resuming the action. I don’t think many female visitors making their entrance in a mixed- bathing onsen are up to such a challenge. The main character entering in a Noh play, by contrast, seems to do so reluctantly, slowly making his way along the gallery by drawn-out increments, stopping at points as if to get his bearing, keeping his gaze straight ahead under the anonymous Noh mask, effectively obscuring himself until his forward trajectory on the main stage brings him before the audience. You can’t “see” him, even as his mask is a highly expressive vehicle of emotions in its subtle movements.
As ever, we got off to a bumbling start. There were laundry trays in the changing room for holding one’s clothes and articles, and a coin locker outside to keep valuables, which I didn’t notice until I had removed my clothes; nor did I have change for the locker. My belongings were probably not in danger but I didn’t want to take chances with my passport and wallet. I got my clothes back on to run over to the main office for some change. Chen had already entered the water and saw me dash across the entrance path.
“Where the hell are you going!” she yelled in a panic at being left alone with two other men in the pool.
She retreated to the female hut and collected her valuables in her locker while she figured out what I was up to. We later discovered we didn’t have to use the changing booth at all. Some male patrons who had booked rooms at the onsen were scampering back and forth from the indoor to the outdoor pool stark naked with their laundry tray in their arms, while other male arrivals simply stepped off the entrance path and onto the stage to disrobe directly, placing their tray on the stage bench in full view, obviating the need for the coin locker.
Now finally immersed in the pool, we were soon joined by more males and one other middle-aged female, who kept herself submerged up to the neck, her white hand towel draped over head, hiding her face like a Noh mask. It appeared she had second thoughts, as she never made it out of the hashigakari but retreated after a few minutes and was gone, not to return. I wondered if I had only imagined her, so fleeting was her performance (figures 3, 4).
The pool was comfortably hot, not quite hot enough in fact, but this enabled people to stay in it without having to expose themselves when taking cooling-off breaks. We lingered for an hour, during which time the number of males grew to about thirty, with some twenty in the pool by the time we left, others having recycled out earlier. Also over this interval, eight women in three separate groups appeared along the entrance path, or audience viewing area rather, before disappearing into the changing hut. Great, the bath was about to experience greater sexual equality. Alas, each of these groups suddenly reappeared back on the path and beat a hasty retreat, also having second thoughts.
I found it odd and unfortunate. I mean, why make a show of arriving at all unless resolved to go through with it? Even Chen had her limits. However discreet and polite the glances of the men in the pool, she surely disappointed them by keeping her breasts out of sight under the milky water (I certainly didn’t have a problem with her displaying them and she knew that). Of course, it’s bad form to stare or gawk in mixed-bathing onsens. Nevertheless, the prospect of the opposite sex’s nakedness is, let’s face it, the only reason why anyone ever ventures to these places. They wouldn’t otherwise exist and sex-segregated baths would be sufficient for everyone’s purposes. And your fellow male bathers are indeed protesting their disappointment when they give up after twenty minutes and leave (probably more out of feeling depressed than impatient). The stark truth is that the men do very much want to see your body. You can see theirs too. Isn’t that fair enough? Well, Chen did compromise a bit later on, draping her wet hand towel around her neck so that the ends just covered her nipples as she sat up out of the water.
After giving the matter some thought I came up with three likely and not necessarily mutually exclusive theories to explain the reluctance of our would-be female participants.
1) They never had any intention of joining in but merely wanted to satisfy with their own eyes their mildly scandalized curiosity as to what the mixed-bathing pool looked like, before fleeing to the safety of the women-only pools. But since it’s rude to gawk, they made as if to join in by making it as far as the changing hut, pausing for a few seconds inside it, and then retreating—all calculated to give those of us in the pool the sympathetic impression that they had spontaneously gotten cold feet.
2) They really did get cold feet. They had honestly wanted to give it a try but really didn’t know how they’d react until they were actually there. Once they saw that the pool looked a bit smaller and more claustrophobic than they had imagined, they freaked. I guess we have to give them credit for making an honest go at it at all and wish them better luck next time.
3) They had decided beforehand they would join in, but only on condition that there were enough fellow sisters present in the pool upon their arrival to make them feel safe and welcome. When they discovered only a single woman present who was outnumbered by a score of men—Nope, sorry guys.
This presents an interesting paradox. There will never be enough women in these pools to satisfy everyone’s expectations. I call this the Mixed Bathing Law, formulated after I took another peek at the pool once we’d gotten dressed and had some lunch as we waited for the shuttle bus to take us back. Most of the male bathers had departed and only two remained, just as when we had entered the pool, with of course no women present. The law works like this. When a female bather appears, male bathers quickly materialize out of nowhere. Their number can be expected to increase exponentially with the addition of each new female. Now, if you’re a potential female bather, would you rather share the pool with no other women and a mere two or three men, or with two or three other women and fifty or sixty men? The best time to get into the pool is precisely when there are no other women present; you need to take advantage of this brief window of opportunity before it quickly fills up on account of your presence, and god forbid, another woman or two, and the number of males skyrockets.
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