A Night in Outer Space, or My First Onsen Experience

I had no plans last Saturday night and eagerly said yes when my roommate asked if I’d like to join her at the onsen. Having heard her mention it before, I knew that the onsen was a sort of sauna/spa and I knew that we’d be naked. I love trying new things and I’m willing to do just about anything with a buddy.

Still, I asked for step-by-step directions before we left the house. What did I need to wear? (Something easy to take off.) What did I need to bring? (Face lotion, maybe a face mask to do a mini facial.) That’s it? That’s it.

And off we went!

I learned that an onsen is a Japanese hot spring, which is replicated as best as possible in a bathhouse, which is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Bathhouses are part of Korean culture, too, and my helpful guide told me about the differences between them.

When we walked in, we were given small and large towels and a kimono. We locked up our clothes and personal items and like a child, I subsequently copied everything my roommate did as we moved in and around each room.

The first room was the shower room and we sat on low stools, getting used to the heat of the air and temperature of the water. I adore piping hot showers and haven’t had one since leaving the US, so it was really enjoyable to just feel such hot water on my body.

From the shower room, we spent a few minutes sitting in the sauna. I rubbed salt on my arms and washed it off with hot water, leaving a softness that I can still feel two days later. I’ve been in saunas before and sauna heat is unlike any heat I’ve ever felt in the real world. There’s always a moment where my breath catches because it’s so freaking hot but I love the feeling of what is actually just “good, clean sweat.” I love feeling it run down my back in tiny rivers and I love not caring that it’s happening.

Once we felt ready, we returned to the main room with its four pools. This was when I realized we were actually in outer space. The room was dark with low ceilings (rare in Singapore) and walls covered in white tile shaped sort of like hot air balloons. The four pools were roughly oval-shaped and situated next to each other on a raised platform making an almost wave-like pattern along the floor. It was quiet except for the bubbling from jets under the water. There was murmured conversation that could hardly be heard. Weightlessly floating in the pool, watching naked women climbing in and out, I truly felt like I was somewhere secret, somewhere unearthly. That feeling stayed with me all evening.

The first two pools were 38-39°C and the third was half a degree warmer, hence the need for the sauna before entering the water. The water in each pool had a slightly different mineral or chemical formulation to mimic the effects of a hot spring. It was interesting to notice the effects of each type of water on the body. I noticed a tingling and then almost tangible sleekness as my skin got used to what was in each pool. That silky, tight, rejuvenated quality seemed to remain only until the next pool’s sensations washed it away.

The fourth pool was the cold bath, which was 17-18°C. It was shockingly cold. I couldn’t sit down in the pool the first time at all and could crouch down only as low as the tops of my thighs. The cold shower, however, was much easier, if for no other reason than I had just been in a very cold pool.

Feeling clean and refreshed, we dried off and changed into our kimonos to have dinner at the onsen’s Japanese restaurant. We walked down a wood-panelled hallway with elegant lighting placed so that you couldn’t quite see where it was coming from. Thick strips of dark curtain partially obscured any additional light sources from the locker rooms themselves, adding to the sense of wonder and mystery I felt. Again, I pointed out the odd sensation of being in outer space.

Although we didn’t spend any time there, my roommate also showed me the resting room, a darkened space with couches, chairs, and blankets reserved for reading, silent use of electronics, and quiet conversation. More curtains segmented, creating a calm and privacy almost like being in a pod (outer space again!), but far more open with easy access to other parts of the area around.

After dinner, we went through the rotation a second time, though much more quickly and with the addition of the face masks we had brought. This time, determined to prove that I was stronger than the cold bath, I jumped in as much as one can in a pool shallow enough to sit down in, and successfully submerged for a few seconds. Victory.

Throughout our time at the onsen, I’d been very interested in all the different bodies and their shapes, sizes, hair, or lack thereof. I consciously looked at everyone out of pure curiosity, with no element of voyeurism at all. While floating in the very first pool, a quote often attributed to Maya Angelou (though originally from the Roman poet Terence) came to mind for what might have been the first time: “I am human. Nothing human can be alien to me.”

What was strange, and I didn’t realize this until later, is that I was almost completely unaware of my own body. I’m very, very shy most of the time where my own body is concerned (as in, I have blushed at my own reflection in more than one dressing room and quickly discarded whatever I was trying to wear). I do think, however, that shyness is different from being self-conscious. I don’t care particularly what I look like but I do like my own privacy. That was utterly stripped away at the onsen and I didn’t even notice. So now I wonder if my shyness is more of a habit than anything else. I don’t have an answer, but will be exploring this new idea.

We spent a few hours at the onsen and I left with such a feeling of relaxation that it took some real effort to lie in bed and write about the day, which I try to do most nights. My skin felt clean and soft, my muscles loose and comfortable, and my mind calm and easy. I’m really glad we went and it was such a nice way to spend an evening. I highly recommend it.

Interested? Intrigued? Take a look. Let me know if you need a buddy.

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5 thoughts on “A Night in Outer Space, or My First Onsen Experience”

  1. When I was in Japan I went to onsens four times! Each was a unique experience. I’ll new going to Singapore soon, and I heard there is an onsen there that you can enter with a special bath suit. I bet the ones in Korea are great too!

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