TL;DR: I got out of my comfort zone by getting naked in front of strangers.
At some point, I realized that when I travel, I mainly go to cities. Because of that, I decided to make it a point to not just go to large and well-known cities, but to mix things up with some smaller places, too.
Before going to Japan, I found a small town called Itō with a ryokan, which is a traditional-style Japanese inn, usually where there are onsen, hot springs, and therefore, public baths.
I was intrigued by this whole onsen/ryokan thing, and decided to book it. I got to the hostel, K’s House Itō, and it was great. It was as traditional and beautiful as the pictures showed when I was booking. The sleeping area of my four-bed female dorm room was made of tatami mats, which are woven mats that can be slept on and shouldn’t be walked on with shoes.
I was a little worried about not sleeping well on the floor, but it was completely fine. The tatami mats were actually really comfortable, and I’d gladly stay in a place with them again.
It was the off-season, so the room I had booked only had one other girl in it each of my two nights. For my first night, there was a Chinese girl who spoke decent English. We talked, walked to the grocery store together, and she recommended that I go into the museum next door, which was previously a hotel.
All was great at the hotel museum, until I couldn’t read a Japanese sign and went into an area I wasn’t supposed to go into and was scared to death by a bunch of naked mannequins sitting on the floor and half-covered in a sheet. I thought they were real people and was so freaked out that this is actually a picture taken by my roommate the following night.
After the museum, I decided that if I was going to stay at a place with an onsen, I was going to take a bath in it. There was a private one that was taken so I went to the women’s onsen. Let’s talk about how nervous I was… Do I go to public showers and baths regularly (ever)? Nope.
To my great relief, there was nobody in the changing room. This was the first room you walked into, and there were areas for getting dressed, drying your hair, storing your clothes, etc. There were signs everywhere about what to do. (Don’t take your clothes to the onsen; only take your towel. You must shower first. Don’t take the soap into the onsen. Put your hair up and don’t let it touch the water. Take your towel, but don’t let it touch the water, etc.)
Next, I went down the stairs to the onsen. There were showers with stools and a mirror that was the length of the room that would be in front of you if you sat on a stool. What do I do with a stool in a shower?? Apparently you sit on it. There wasn’t anyone in there, so I figured that if didn’t, it would be fine. I could sit if someone came in, right? Also, what are these bowls for? I still don’t understand.
Then, I got into the onsen. More questions. Why is it so big? Am I supposed to sit here? Am I allowed to sit here? WHAT DO I DO?? Really, it was a super peaceful experience once I quit worrying about taking a bath correctly and relaxed.
I spent the next day exploring the tiny town, hiking at the beautiful Jōgasaki Coast and relaxing in my super peaceful hostel. It was wonderful. That night, a new roommate came. She was American-Japanese, and her English was pretty good. She told me about how she and her friends or co-workers often go to public onsens to celebrate different events, and how she had come to Itō because it was known for onsens. She was going to a public one down the street that night and invited me.
Am I going to go to a public bath house? Last night, I got to take a private bath in the onsen. I already know that at least one other person will be there. I decided that while I was in Japan, I was going to do things that I could only do there. (OK, maybe not only there, but please name someone who goes to public baths in Ohio.)
So I decided: This is normal to her. She regularly goes to onsens and this isn’t even weird. If I pretend like I’m not uncomfortable, maybe I won’t be. Then I went.
This place was basically a spa. She told me about how people would spend the day there. We took our toiletries and went in. The women’s section opened into an area with a changing room just like before. We changed and went to the room with the onsen, took sitting-down showers in front of everyone, and got into this onsen with the rest of the women. And do you know what? It was really nice! I would go back.
The moral of the story? Do strange things when you’re not in your home country simply because they’re different.
Without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, and moribund.Anthony Bourdain