One fat girl’s bare experience at a Japanese Onsen

In April, my fiance and I visited Japan for the first time. Both of us spent years read manga and watching anime, it was only a matter of time before we meandered our way over the Pacific. Foreign to me as an American is the concept of public bath houses. Also known as an onsen, Japanese bathhouses are commonly depicted in Manga. I’ve always known it as being a place for women to escape and relax. I was going to Japan because, I too, wanted to escape and relax.

Add a Japanese Onsen to your Japan bucket list

Authentic Japanese onsens use real natural spring water in their baths and make an effort to bring humans back to nature. In order to reap all the benefits of the onsen, you need to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. The average American isn’t super excited to get naked in front of a group of strangers. As a plus size woman, the thought of baring it all was both exhilarating and a bit scary. The night before our adventure to the bath house, I found myself rationalizing why I didn’t need to go. I remember laying on my tatami mat while my fiance slumbered above me, thinking of other things we needed to do that should be prioritized over an onsen.

 

 

My plus size experience baring it all at a Japanese nude bath house

Anyone who has body hangups, knows that it was all just bullshit. When I planned this trip, visiting and onsen was in my top 3 on my list, and even made my top things to do in Japan list. I was letting my body insecurities get the best of me at the moment. My heart kicked my brain in the amygdala and said “stop feeding her insecurities!”

There are plenty of reasons why I didn’t feel confident in myself at before that moment:

  1. I had never been nudie judie in front of anyone in broad daylight before
  2. I have never done anything casual in a public setting
  3. Japan is a thin-is-good culture
  4. I had no one to talk to in the bath as a security blanket
  5. No cellphone for distractions
  6. I don’t speak Japanese (which might have been a good thing)
  7. Japan has a lot of unwritten societal rules for how to conduct yourself

All of these reasons almost convinced me that I didn’t need to visit a bath house. So I went to bed that night ready to abandon my plans and spend the morning doing what my plus size ass does best, eat.

Waking up, I had a moment of clarity. I could not leave Japan without experiencing this everyday ritual for Japanese people. Jay and I took the JR Yamanote line to visit the Tokyo Somei Onsen SAKURA 東京染井温泉 by Komagome station.

plus size japanese onsen experience

Visiting Tokyo Somei Onsen SAKURA 東京染井温泉

We visited just before sundown and after much of Tokyo had just gotten home for work. We walked from the station to the bath house and passed by several aunties and kids, business men on bikes, and grandmas with groceries. As we passed by the cemetery, Jay was ready to abandon ship and head back since we were pretty deep in a neighborhood. We decided to keep going since Apple maps said we were close. From the outside, Sakura looked an American community center. Once you walk through the entrance though you are met with traditional Japanese structure and lots of lovely wood.

First things first, you have to remove your shoes before entering the building. Yes, it’s just like any Asian household. The front desk women yelped when we stepped foot on their wood flooring with our shoes on. After removing our shoes and putting them in a locker, the receptionist opened a binder (in English) with their prices and services. For 1,700 yen we had unlimited time in Tokyo Somei Onsen SAKURA’s natural hot springs. The women get six different spa options and the men got five. Women have a special milk mineral bath that the men do not have.

Tokyo Somei Onsen Sakura

Me, myself, and 30 strangers sharing a bath

After Jay and I separated, and I went into the women’s room I found myself reading the cartoon pamphlet they gave me to make sure I did everything right. You do not get to wear any type of undergarments. I repeat you are 100% naked, nude, in the buff, for this experience. Embrace it, because in America you won’t have quite the same opportunity. Yes, America has nude spa experiences but our society just isn’t as comfortable with public nudity.

Japanese Onsen rules of conduct

I stripped off my clothes slowly and put them nicely into my locker. The old woman in the locker near mine seemed to have just jumped out of her dress and disappeared into thin air. I rounded the corner with my towel and proceeded to a small wooden stool and started pumping soaps into my hand to cleanse. I made sure to cleanse, double cleanse, and triple cleanse just in case.

Then, I slipped into the first bath I saw and closed my eyes. When I opened them, no one was gawking at me. No one was whispering to each other and staring, or even looking in my direction. After 15 minutes in the bath, I no longer felt self conscious about being naked in front of people. In fact, it was liberating. Beyond the liberating feeling of fresh air touching your bare skin after sitting in a hot bath, I mentally felt liberated. I had overcome my mind’s longing to bail, my insecurities, and fear of the unknown. When I realized I could relax, I strutted from pool, to rain room, to cold bath like I was in my own home.

Tokyo Somei Onsen Sakura

Washing away my insecurities and being comfortable with my body

As a plus size woman, in a country that still sees fat women as lazy and the opposite of feminine, I felt very exposed everywhere I went. But, to allow someone else’s depiction of me detract from my trip would be a shame.  I am so proud of myself for overcoming that fear. Now that I know what it feels like to feed myself doubt, and to mentally overcome it, and physically experience something out of my comfort zone, I can equip myself better for everyday life.

Tips for a more comfortable onsen experience:

  1. Remove your shoes before entering the onsen
  2. Bring your own towel if your Airbnb or hotel provides you one
  3. Bring an extra set of clothes so you don’t have to put on your old dirty clothes
  4. Be very thorough when pre bathing. Wash your body and hair very well, and tie it up if it is long.
  5. Put a towel down over any dry surface before you sit on it
  6. Coordinate a time to leave if you have men and women in your group. Otherwise you may end up waiting around and wasting precious onsen time in their relaxation room.
  7. Drink lots of water afterward
  8. Eat at the cafeteria!

Put a Japanese onsen on your to-do list the next time you plan a trip to the land of the rising sun. Beyond the food, and Tokyo Disney, there are so many cultural experiences that are a shock for Americans.

Bianca Karina japanese onsen

Why I like Tokyo Somei Onsen Sakura? Out of all of the onsens I researched, this one had the best bang for my buck. It also was an authentic onsen with natural spring water. Many of the other bath houses I looked into were sentos, which is just heated tap water. The outdoor area was a huge plus for me, as it changed my whole experience. How many people can say they have walked around outside naked? Not many. It also was convenient and easy to navigate to from the train station.

Visit Tokyo Somei Onsen SAKURA for yourself:

Address: 5-4-25 Komagome, Toshima-ku, Tokyo
Phone: 03-5907-5566
http://www.sakura-2005.com/

9 comments

    1. It is definitely a new and different experience. Proof that breaking your own boundaries and stepping out of your comfort zone can be a positive experience. Thanks Ayana 🙂 I hope you are enjoying life on the east coast!

  1. Oh. My. Gosh. You are so much braver than I would ever be!!! Good for you! I am super, super, SUPER self conscience…have always been, about my body. Even pre-kid size (which I was a twig), I’ve never felt comfortable naked, lol. I had to immediately google the yen to usd conversion to see what the price was and for $15-16 usd, that’s a pretty good deal you got! How exciting 🙂

    1. Even better is that these onsens offer memberships. You can pay a monthly membership and can relax in the baths every day after work. Imagine how great Friday nights are. Such a great deal. Though they are more expensive if you go to more touristy areas in the city. There were Sentos closer to us that were pricier but of course they aren’t natural spring water so it seemed dumb to pay more for a lesser experience.

  2. We didn’t make it to an onsen when we were in Japan, although I wanted to. We had so many things on our list, and we both have significantly large tattoos – we couldn’t find one that we could determine 100% was ok with tattoos, as traditionally I guess they are not. So we didn’t try to go for fear of being turned away and wasting precious in-Japan time. But next time I go I do want to do some more research and try it. It sounds like an awesome relaxing experience, and totally novel from what I’d expect in the US, or most places really.

    1. I know that feeling. I had it on my list to go to Tokyo Disney and Tokyo sea while I was there….I am HUGE disney fan. But I couldn’t rationalize dedicating full days to the parks when I only had 8 days in Japan 🙁 But that just means I have a reason to go back!

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