Some tortures are physical and some are mental

Colourful snowboards in snowy Niseko

Prior to our trip to Japan last year, I had only fleetingly read about their hot springs, or onsens, as they are known locally.

Due to the volcanic nature of the islands, geothermal springs are scattered throughout the country. These springs vary in mineral and chemical composition, with a number of different medicinal qualities, and are an important feature of Japanese tourism.

Having seen alluring photographs of outdoor onsens (rotenburo) in picturesque surroundings, I was really looking forward to blissfully lounging in one.

However, not having had the time to research further in advance of the holiday, I found myself on our flight to Sapporo, reading about onsen etiquette with increasing horror.

You see, public onsens in Japan are meant to be enjoyed (!?) à poil. Nu. En tenue d’Adam/d’Ève. (Since I just googled these expressions in an unsuccessful quest to find a delicate way of putting it, let me translate – Naked. Nude. In. your. birthday. suit.)

The instructions in the guidebook were simple – Strip down fully in the changing room, walk into the bathing area with nothing but a small hand towel, wash yourself thoroughly at the hand shower stations lining the wall and then, soak in the onsen.

The Japanese talk about the virtues of “naked communion” for breaking down barriers and often travel to onsens with work colleagues, friends or family. The male and female bathing sites are segregated, though mixed bathing apparently persists in some rural areas.

As someone who won’t even wear a bikini on a beach, my mental debate of ‘Onsens: To do or not to do?’ lasted all of five seconds with a resounding winner- Nope. Not happening. Thanks, but no thanks!

Blame it on my conservative Indian roots or call me prudish. But I was perfectly happy to put aside my usual, be-open-to-trying-new-things motto and not partake in this ‘ritual’.

But then, A and I took our first skiing lesson.

Skiing in Niseko

As those of you who have skied before can imagine – for an un-athletic, unfit individual with a desk job and a generally unhealthy lifestyle, the after-effects of the lesson were pretty extreme.

For those of you who haven’t, let me paint a picture – Muscles that I didn’t even know existed, started to ache. It became difficult to bend, to walk, to stand up, to lie down. Every tiny bit of movement became an exercise in self-torture. Even staying still was excruciating.

Needless to say, my judgment got clouded and suddenly, the thought of a steamy mineral infused hot spring became quite enticing.

I hobbled into the (thankfully unpopulated) female changing room, shed my clothes, grabbed the washcloth (lot smaller than a handkerchief, to be clear), gathered all the dignity I could muster and walked into the bathing area. It was filled with women – scrubbing, showering, soaking, strutting about and chatting nonchalantly.

My bravado melted… but I followed through, clutching to a cloak of anonymity.

Oh my god, I am in front of absolute strangers without a stitch on. Big deal, they don’t know me. I don’t know them. It doesn’t matter. Umm, how the hell are they perfectly comfortable being naked in front of people they KNOW. Save those moves for a private shower sis. Shit am I also supposed to be doing THAT? Why do oriental women have such perfect figures? Gosh, I really need to do crunches. No more pizzas from now on. What am I supposed to do with this towel? Keep it on my head. This is ridiculous. The water is nice but it is so clear. What if I fart? Is she looking at me? Jeez, I thought MY cellulite was bad. Why is she okay baring all that? Relax. Don’t think about anything. This is not helping. This cannot be hygienic. Would it kill them to allow swimsuits? Should I attempt the outdoor tub too? Am I supposed to shower again? F**k it’s freezing. How do people manage this? Better stay indoors. I’ve had enough of this. Screw it, I should just go and get a massage.

I was out in ten minutes.

If you are lucky, you may experience an epiphany and discover your inner Venus, like Nina Nakamura describes here.

For me, it was just a firm resolve of Never Again!

Physical agony, I can take. But why add mental anguish on to that?

P.S. The title of this post is inspired by a line from one of my favorite poems by Ogden Nash, called “This is going to hurt just a little bit”. Check it out!