I was 20 the first time I was invited to get naked in the company of other men. I was in Fukuoka, Japan, accompanying my parents to a conference, and we had been invited to a fancy dinner by the professor who was hosting us.
Before the formal kaiseki meal, our host and his colleagues – nearly all of whom were men – planned to bathe together before changing into bathrobes for the meal. Apparently it’s customary to chillax in the hot tub before an umpteen-course meal, and donning a yukata (a thin robe) afterwards means it’s easier to loosen than your pants as your stomach distends.
But when we were asked to arrive early for a dip, my father and I exchanged a quick glance of terror. We hadn’t shared a bath since I was a toddler, and it definitely didn’t seem the ideal time to start, let alone strip off in front of a dozen or so strangers.
Dad made his excuses on behalf of both of us. They were accepted with good grace, and probably put down to foreign eccentricity.
On the night, we arrived to find the bathers lobster-pink and rather jolly, probably thanks to bath beers. I vividly remember how delicious the food was, and how extremely comfortable I wasn’t as I tried to sit cross-legged for several hours – another skill we Westerners tend to lose as we grow older, like communal bathing.
At the time, I was relieved to skip the bath, but in hindsight, it was a mistake. Because I’ve subsequently learned that immersing oneself in steaming hot water is a delightful thing, whether or not you’re in the company of friends – or even substantially older Japanese men, many of whom have limited English.
A decade later, on another trip to Japan, the opportunity presented itself again. We were near Kyoto, staying at a traditional inn called a ryokan – think futons, tatami mats and paper screens. The attendants told us it was time to bathe before dinner, and so we split up, divided by genders. Three gentlemen and I found ourselves disrobing and sinking into the hot spring water for what turned out to be a long and very pleasant chat.
While it was odd at first, bathing dos and don’ts were clear and commonsense: no splashing, no pushing. What was not clear, though, was whether you’re supposed to look, avoid looking, or simply try to ignore the whole nudity thing, which was my approach – it soon seemed unremarkable. We ended up staying in there for well over an hour, until our fingertips and toes grew crinkly and we dragged our bodies out of the water, as red they’d be after a bad sunburn.
I later explored some of the onsen and sento (non-hot spring baths that used to be the only option before modern plumbing) in Tokyo, and came to realise that in Japan, Korea and the other parts of Asia that share this bathing culture, it must be a normal thing to know what all of your same-sex friends – and, more bizarrely, your work colleagues – look like naked.
You’ve all been at the bathhouse together, squatting on those little plastic stools as you rinse yourself with a shower nozzle in preparation to enter the tub. And you’ve noted your friends’ various imperfections, but you have different ones yourself, because really, who among us doesn’t look ridiculous when naked?
In my experience, once your gear is off, other social barriers drop, as well.
By missing out on this, Australians often miss out on not only a brilliant way to relax, especially during winter, but on a quality bonding experience. I’ve never been to Scandinavia, but over there it is common, apparently. It’s not surprising that there, and in the colder parts of Asia, there’s a culture of regularly spending time in an extremely hot space. And here in Australia, we’re only used to changing together for high school sport. It doesn’t have to be weird.
Don’t get me wrong – it is weird, at least at first, but it doesn’t have to be.
A few years ago, a few dozen friends and I went to Sydney’s now-defunct Ginseng Korean bathhouse for a buck’s night. It had several different pools, including a freezing plunge pool, and both a sauna and steam room. Again, it was strange at first, but as a stopover between lawn bowls and the pub, it was a beautiful moment of male bonding. I vowed to become a regular, but unfortunately it closed shortly afterwards.
I’m no exhibitionist, but I wonder whether the Puritan prudishness that’s so common in the West has deprived many Australians of an experience that many of us would come to enjoy. Because in my experience, once your gear is off, other social barriers drop, as well.