Friday, 5 April 2013

Japan: Onsen

I want these built in England. I want a law passed that everyone goes to one every month. I have solved the problem of quite a number of issues in the UK...

Onsen are traditional Japanese baths heated by naturally occurring hot springs due to the volcanic activity of the country. There are thousands of onsen all over Japan. They can be outside or inside, and are usually located as part of a ryokan, traditional Japanese hotel, as the Japanese like to travel away from their busy lives and relax in an onsen somewhere new.

These are similar to the reasons guide books list onsen as places visitors to Japan should go - the relaxing atmosphere, the experience of Japanese culture, and other similar reasons. At first, this was why I wanted to try an onsen. On a trip funded by the university, it would be a waste not to make use of all amenities, and it's a long-standing feature of Japanese culture, of which I feel compelled to try as many as possible.

However, these reasons were not sufficient to keep me from being nervous. With shaking fingers a friend and I slipped out of our clothes and into our yukata, cotton kimono, in separate rooms. We told each other that we had to go "Now! Or we'll never do it!" and made our way downstairs to the onsen. First you pass into the ladies' section; the majority of onsen are single-sex in Japan. There's a changing room, although there's not much actual 'changing' to do, only shrugging out of your yukata and placing it in a basket, back to everyone, eyes on the floor, and questions of what you're putting yourself through in your head.

If the floor wasn't soaking wet we'd have scurried through. As it was, we made our way slowly into the bath house, eyes fixed on our next destination: one of the rows of low stools with shower heads beside them. Before you can step into the bath itself, the bather has to thoroughly wash themselves. Shampoo, conditioner and several types of body wash are provided, as are *gulp* mirrors at each station. There are several sets of these rows of stools, resembling a hairdresser's, so you can see everyone.

Oh. I can see... everyone.

Feeling a little more secure sitting on a stool and not walking through the bath-house, I relaxed. It wasn't scary, after all. It wasn't weird. It was just. Women.

I'm not going to pretend the reason it wasn't scary was because I wasn't looking, or because everyone just ignores each other, because Hell, I was looking. I suddenly realised the portrayal of bodies is all wrong. There were children, who we all looked like once, older women, who we'll all look like in the future, mothers, who we might resemble in just a few short years. And there were young women, and seeing us all together like that was the least strange of all.

Sometimes it seems all young women think about is the shape of their bodies. The only two things we have to compare are our reflections, and actresses, dancers, models, and we're not even seeing them naked. Well, I saw about fifty Japanese girls my age last night, and the tales of how they're all super-skinny is a myth. Breasts, hips, thighs, tummies, bums, shoulders, legs, arms. Everyone had a different combination of sizes of these, and I'm not trying to make anyone feel good by saying they were all beautiful. A true fact: They all looked like women. Yes, dear reader, even the ones with flat chests. Yes, dear reader, even the ones with wobbly tummies. Do not flatter yourself, dear reader, you are no different, and you do not escape my words.

Your body. Is. Beautiful.

No clothes, no make-up, no anything. I've speculated before about what would happen if we were all at our most vulnerable all the time, and I'm surprised to be able to provide an answer. We wouldn't be vulnerable. At least not because of the way we looked. We would have to worry about other things. Personalities, for instance. Wouldn't that be healthier? These, we can change.

My insecurities vanished into the dark sky with the rising steam. The hot, calming water does nothing to hide you, and besides, you soon grow too hot and lull on a rock to cool down for a minute. For once, the stares of the Japanese at a Gaijin didn't bother me. I was casting many a side-long glance and being reassured about my body, I was only too happy for my body to reassure also. The friend and I realised how womanly females are from the back especially. Men and women just do not look alike. I asked her to drop back a couple of steps as we moved from one bath to the other, to see if I looked as good as that. Her "Oh God, yes!", immediate and said with such sincerity only served to deepen my euphoria.

So, the first issue I have solved is body confidence. The second I feel I have an answer to is how to halt the over-sexualisation of the female form. In my opinion, the leaders of advertising companies are most to blame.  The way an advert about body wash will show a glowing, smiling woman; the camera pans across her collar-bones, show the bubbles swirling round her feet, might skim tantalisingly past what teenagers so elegantly refer to as 'side boob'. Well, I wish they showed you more. I wish they'd show you her breasts full-on, her tummy with creases in it - a tummy which does it's job of containing food... I wish they'd show you her jiggly thighs, her wobbling bum, and all the bits of fat on her, instead of pretending she looks a way she doesn't through clever camera work.

Moreover, I wish every advert along the same theme contained a woman who looked different. In one, a small woman with small breasts and a flat stomach. A short woman with full hips. A woman with large eyes and a wide waist, and occasionally, in the same frequency as every other body shape, a woman with long legs, a small waist, and large boobs, so that this particular body type is not over-sexualised or overly sought-after, so that we all understand it's just another shape women come in.

I want women to understand that the liars are not the ones who say that every body is perfect, and I want those attracted to women to have the chance to see all body shapes in a beautiful light, so that they might decide in an unbiased way which is their preference.

I can't see that it's too much to ask.

My trip to the onsen made me want to discover a way to dispel all my worries so easily as my body troubles,  I need a way to recreate this onsen feeling. More importantly though, how can I encourage everyone else, especially young women, to try it and feel it for themselves?


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