Written By Emma Do
Written By Emma Do
Long: JAPANESE BATHHOUSE
07.12.18

Japanese Bathhouse

Recreational nudity is one of those things I think would be fun to share with people outside of my bedroom. You know, as a social activity. I’m a firm believer we could all learn to appreciate our bodies a little more if we desexualized them for a minute. Nudity is cool, I’m cool with nudity, being nude in summer is cooling. Why not be nude around some mates?

But I never quite mustered up the courage to attend a nude swim in the Eastern suburbs (my lack of swimming ability was the main trepidation) or nude hangouts in the houses of perfect strangers (blame the online stranger danger fears drilled into me at school when ‘the internet’ first became a thing), and while I didn’t have grave concerns about the intentions of anyone on the message board, the ratio of men to women was uncomfortably skewed towards retired men in their sixties.

Later in the year, I booked a three-week trip to Japan. My friend and I planned all the must-dos: maid café, robot restaurant, getting lost in Shinjuku, karaoke until dawn. We also planned a homestay with a Japanese family in a small city three hours from Tokyo for a couple of nights. I pictured us having wholesome family meals, handing over stuffed kangaroos and Tim Tam packets, and arguing with the kids over who the hottest One Direction member is.

Sure enough, those expectations followed through. What I didn’t expect though, was to be taken to the local bathhouse with the entire family on our first night in the country. I was surprised at how nervous I suddenly felt about the prospect of being naked in a public bathhouse. Maybe I’d been a prude in denial all along.

But here was finally my chance at recreational nudity, albeit with a family that just fed us a five-dish spread and listened to us clumsily perform a ukulele version of the Fugees’ Killing Me Softly. I suppose if you want to fast track bonding, soaking in a 40-degree bath with a woman and her three tween daughters, like a pot of steamed salmon fillets, is the way to do it. 

The local bathhouse was a large building that glowed red across the dark expanse of a car park. It looked supersized amidst the sparse landscape of the town – clearly a snazzy operation and not anything like the small-time, inconspicuous, neighbourhood bathhouses I’d seen in the movies. 

The local bathhouse was a large building that glowed red across the dark expanse of a car park. It looked supersized amidst the sparse landscape of the town – clearly a snazzy operation and not anything like the small-time, inconspicuous, neighbourhood bathhouses I’d seen in the movies. 

My friend and I followed as our host mum and the kids made their way through the corridors into the change room; a long room lined with lockers and vanity mirrors. It was clear we’d have to remove our clothes here, before proceeding into the baths. If I was holding onto any hesitations about being naked, I’d have to shed them now. I looked over at Hina, the youngest of the three girls. She smiled back reassuringly.



There were multiple baths in the complex – a large outdoor one you had to run a few paces through the winter night to reach, a couple of boiling hot wooden tubs beside them, and two main baths inside. Women of all ages soaked in each, some were with their children, others were on their own, and many were grandmas, chatting away in groups of three or four on the edges of the pools. I imagined myself as one of them, talking animatedly and stopping every so often to grunt at the noisy children darting back and forth among baths. 

Our host mum revealed she actually hadn’t been to a bathhouse since she was a child because she found being nude in public a weird experience, but ever the gracious host, she had taken us to show us a part of Japanese culture. I was grateful. 

The bathhouse was just another social setting, like a park bench, or a café. But more than that, it appeared to me as a safe recreational space for women and children not to be shy about their bodies but to simply unknot their back muscles and catch up over the day’s events. It reminded me of being six again, bathing with my mum and cousins in the tub.  And as I surveyed my surroundings, I saw my body reflected in those around me. 

Here were a multitude of East Asian women whose bums caved in at the same place as mine, their pubic hair unchecked and long as mine, nipples as dark, bellies that bulged in the same places, long torsos, shorter legs, and tummies that sagged in the way my mother’s does – in the way mine will likely come to in another 15 years or so. The women around me reflected what my body would grow to become throughout various stages of life, and that was in itself was a comforting solidarity to feel. 

It’s a feeling I’ve come to miss since returning home. Japanese bathhouses in Melbourne can be prohibitively expensive, functioning essentially like day spas. Still, in an ideal world, I’d choose to catch up with my girlfriends at the local bathhouse over the café any day.