Don't throw the bath water out with the baby

For a man who wore leggings, you’d expect that Commodore Perry would’ve gone about making Japan’s acquaintance with a little more civility than trampling the “Display Only” sign on its West-facing doors, flailing his rifle and screaming “GIVE US ALL YOUR SUSHI!” And a little civility probably would’ve paid off too, for in all his screaming and rifle-flailing, the Commodore over-looked a cultural gold mine: communal bathing.

While in the West public nudity is embraced only upon nudist beaches by male perverts and the occasional hippie, our Oriental counterparts know how to get naked at any age or intimacy with the penal system. Buried deep behind Kyoto’s largest Family Mart (an illuminative experience in itself if you didn’t know you could buy the entire body of a squid sealed in glad-wrap with a quail egg in the place of its brains), my very first onsen experience saw me wedged between two eighty year olds comparing arthritis across my naked body.

I soon discovered that the crystal waters of the onsen is the ideal place to make some Japanese friends; nothing breaks the ice like a spot of nudity between strangers. As our muscle tension melted away in the 45 degree water so too did any tension over atom bombs, harpooning of endangered mammals or Gwen Stefani’s ostentatious prancing about Harajuku, (though I will say the energetic miming and flailing of limbs customarily employed to overcome the language barrier can become a little problematic when performed nude). But though I always made plans to meet my new onsen buddies for a plum wine, they rarely came to fruition; once you’ve shared a naked D & M you’ve kind of taken the friendship as far as it can go.

It was in Osaka, amidst the Octopus Balls (yep, that’s a food) and men with hair care regimes to rival Miss Dally herself, that I discovered my true destiny: Spa World. A delightfully brazen adulteration of Eastern custom by the Western maxim that bigger is better, this place was the Disney Land of onsen. I’m talking 10 levels, different themed, water of every colour of the rainbow, any temperature your heart desires, rose petals, muscle relaxant, coconut oil, even those little fish that suck the dead skin off your feet. If you can just get past the fact that everyone is wearing matching moo-moos and there’s a 100m² room filled with nothing but those reclining chairs that only old people buy, you’ll quickly stop feeling like you’ve suddenly graduated to a nursing home and start getting your relaxation on. I’m telling you, you don’t know the meaning of the word “relaxed” until you’re so Zenned-out that the fact that you’re sitting starkers in the Spa World cafe in a seat that’s met with hundreds of other naked butts being served edamame by a waitress who’s fully clothed doesn’t trouble you in the slightest.

It was my first day back at my Sydney clerkship, a lightness in my heart and a smile on my face as my boss condemned me to life as a street performer over my substandard positioning of a staple, that I realised the long term benefits of the onsen upon the spirit. Communal bathing could be the solution the Western world has been waiting for to its most abstruse problems. Would we really suffer the same neurosis towards our bodies if we grew up before a heterogeneous array of cup-sizes, muffin-top radii and intriguing mole locations? And how about that revelation that stress is a causal factor in seventy-five percent of all illnesses? And would we have needed water restrictions if the whole population shared the same bath water? And do you really think Justin Bieber would’ve assaulted us with his autobiography if he’d had the chance for the genuine self-reflection that only a long soak can deliver? Except perhaps my cousin who spent his summer detained by the Brisbane River with a game boy and a lone box of Weetbix. More water might not be so great for him. 

Note: An article celebrating water in Japan takes on particular significance since the tragedy of the recent natural disasters. My prayers are with that great place and its amazing people.


  1. Ha Mel! Representing Miss Dally! Woo, I'm sure she'll be personally thanking you for the plug.