This is Part 8 of the Sketches of Japan series.
The guide books don’t treat Osaka very nicely. Even when they’re listing things to see and do in Osaka, it’s only after mentioning the horrible reputation Osaka has as a disappointing tourist destination. As a result, while I was excited to visit the Kansai region, I wasn’t overly excited that my first night would be spent in Osaka.
As it turns out, my day and night in Osaka was lovely; as a matter of fact, it was a bit of a milestone for me. In Osaka, I bathed naked in the Trevi Fountain.
What I mean to say is that I went to Spa World.
Spa World is one of Japan’s most lavish and popular onsens. An onsen is like a mix between a spa and a hot spring in the west, with the most notable difference being the fact that you can’t wear clothing in the bath rooms. In other words, it’s a naked spa.
I don’t have much of a problem with public nudity. My favourite beaches back home in Vancouver are Wreck Beach and Tower Beach, which happen to be the only nude beaches in the city. Because they’re nude beaches and require a bit of a hike to get to, they’re usually far less crowded, with less annoying vendors, trash, and noise pollution. Instead, it’s just you, your friends, the sand, the trees, the ocean, and the nudists.
When I hold up my love of Wreck Beach as proof that I’m fine with public nudity, however, I exclude myself from the naked equation. I’ve never gone naked at Wreck Beach. Never. (There was one time I went pantsless during a bonfire at Wreck — I have my reasons — but that’s as far as it got.) I’ve never done the public nudity thing, and I figured I never would. Until I moved to Asia, that is.
Public bath houses are all over Asia. In South Korea, they’re called jjimjilbangs (찜질방). Basically, you go into a bath area where everybody is completely naked and then you relax in a variety of pools and hot springs. The rooms are segregated by sex (I’ve been told by Korean people that some Japanese onsens might not be segregated, but I can’t confirm that).
Depending on the place, there are a variety of different services. Smaller onsens only have the baths. Larger onsens like Spa World have options for massages, skin and beauty treatments, a gym, swimming pools, restaurants and bars — (keep in mind that only the bath rooms don’t allow clothing).
To a westerner, it might seem awkward, unnatural, and insurmountably taboo, but if you’re willing to try it, you’ll find it’s actually incredibly relaxing.
The most awkward part is the act of disrobing, crossing that threshold from Clothed to Naked. I had fears that it would be like that clichéd nightmare of suddenly finding yourself inexplicably naked in front of an audience of people. Then I realized the major difference: in that nightmare, everybody else isn’t also naked. And they’re certainly not all naked middle- to old-aged women (at least, not in my nightmares).
Another fear of mine was that we would be singled out and targeted as “gaijins,” that sometimes insulting term used to describe foreigners in Japan by people who might relate the term with promiscuity, disease, and general uncleanliness. This was the more rational fear, as I had heard at least one story to back it up.
Chelsey had also told me about her first onsen experience in rural Japan. She’d gone alone and had been the only foreigner in a room full of naked older Japanese women. Chelsey was in the shower area — where you’re supposed to wash up before entering the baths — when she was approached by some older ladies. They were trying to tell her something, but Chelsey had just arrived in Japan and didn’t know the language very well.
In their final attempt to get their point across, the two nice ladies started to scrub her back. Apparently, they’d been trying to explain to her that she’d missed a spot. Chelsey’s advice to me on my first onsen visit? Scrub everything, everywhere. Multiple times. Or somebody else might try to do it for you.
But enough about my fear of being manhandled by judgmental naked elderly women. Spa World was nothing like that.
There are two onsens at Spa World: the European room and the Asian room. Men get the Asian spa on even months, and women get it on odd months, which meant that we would be going to the European spa during our visit. The European spa is entertainingly arranged by country, so that walking through the different bath rooms of the spa is like taking a relaxing walking tour of Europe.
I started with Italy’s Trevi Fountain.
Then I went to Greece‘s Parthenon, where I sat in a tea bath of jasmine, green tea, and several other herbs, and watched the ancient constellations of the night sky above me.
Next, I stopped by Finland to sweat in its sauna before a quick dip in its Nordic waters.
I also watched some fish swim by me in Atlantis, relaxed in a deck chair submerged in the Mediterranean Sea, and stood under a hot waterfall that dropped as if from out of the blue sky above me in the outdoors of Spain.
Osaka’s Spa World: The only place where you can tour Europe in a couple of relaxing hours — naked.