Going nude at a theme park

Unwinding after a relaxing break in the bathhouse.
Unwinding after a relaxing break in the bathhouse. Photo: Emma Davis

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Emma Davis strips off at a bathhouse where nudity is compulsory, but falls foul of other rules.

It pays to have a Japanese friend when visiting an Onsen. The rules of the bathhouse are strict: total nudity, separate baths for men and women and no pockets for a phrase book. As neither I, nor my husband Brendan, speak much Japanese it's an adventure fraught with embarrassment if we get the complicated regulations wrong.

Happily, our Japanese guardian angel Nami-san takes us under her wing. She convinces her university lecturer to accompany Brendon the next day to the Ooedo Onsen Monogatari - proudly described as Tokyo's first and only "Onsen Theme Park".

We're a motley crew; a young bilingual Japanese woman, her 60-year-old university professor and two foreigners, affectionately (or so we think) called "Gaijin" (in Japanese, which literally translates as "alien").

As is Japanese custom, we take photos of the four of us in every combination possible. During the paparazzi session I notice people leading their designer-dressed dogs into an adjoining building and jokingly ask Nami-san whether they're going to an onsen for dogs?

"Of course! This is Japan!" she answers.

After paying the entrance fee, we store our footwear away in lockers to sock skid over to the counter to choose from 18 different patterns of cotton kimono called "Yukata". Brendon points to the longest one to cover his long, hairy gaijin legs. At 6' 1”, he is quite the sight standing next to Awano-Sensei, a dead ringer for Mr Miagi from 'Karate Kid' and a mere 5 feet.

With folded yukata in hand, I head for the door marked "women" and Brendon tries to follow. I realise that while he cannot read or speak any Japanese, he has a male bathing partner who cannot speak any English which could make for an interesting afternoon. Awano-Sensei reaches up on his tip-toes to tap Brendon on the shoulder, and with a perfectly straight face, points to the door marked "men".

In the women's change room, I strip to change into my yukata just as a mother and her three young daughters return from the baths to get dressed.

Of course, their lockers are next to and underneath mine and all hopes of a super-hero quick-change evaporate as three red-faced daughters all gawk at my pale nudity. They fire all sorts of questions at Nami-san but my Japanese stands the test of conversing with seven-year-olds and they all inhale a sharp breathe before the giggling commences.

The hysteria only escalates when I tell them that I am from Australia and instantly, there are three nude Japanese kangaroos jumping around the change room.

Deciding to store my modesty along with my jeans, I whip on my yukata. But just as I start to feel quite pleased with my newly kimono-ed self, there is a tap on my knee and a little Japanese voice advising me that I have it tied up all wrong. It seems I have managed to tie the lapels right over left, which is reserved for dressing corpses. How many more faux pas will I make before the afternoon is over?

The first pool is the outside "foot bath", a 50-metre artificially carbonated spring that is designed to look like a natural stream and set in a traditionally landscaped garden. We are given 'outside jackets' to wear over our yukata, beautifully coloured and thickly embroidered.

The wind blows delicate pink petals around, some landing perfectly on the surface of the water like confetti. There are small wooden pergolas under which Japanese folk sit chatting and paddling their feet. We hitch up our kimono and walk the length of the stream, the smooth round stones stimulating the soles of our feet.

Following a string of perfectly lined lanterns inside, we take our separate doors toward the hot baths, and nudity. Shuffling my way toward the next change room, I walk past the first sign I have seen in English. It reads; "Tattooed bodies may be excluded from the bathing area"." Oh dear.

Nami-san walks straight past the notice, so I too choose to ignore it.

We are given two towels each and are advised that only the small one can be taken into the bathing area. It is barely the size of a handkerchief and with tattoos placed randomly across my body, there is no way this miniature towel will cover them. I shove my kimono into yet another locker and make a run for it, the snippet of towel inconspicuously hanging over my left buttock.

A huge steamy rooms hosts baths of varying sizes. I follow Nami-san to the 'cleanse area' where women of every age sit in divided sections on plastic stools in front of vanity units stocked full of soaps and hair products, brushes and mirrors, scrubbing every inch of their bodies in preparation for the 'big soak'. It's like a classic movie scene of naked woman combing suds from long black hair, but rather than lying on the river bank we are on kindergarten sized stools. I rinse myself, grab my hanky and pretend that no one is watching me as I make my way to the first bath.

All the baths are filled with natural hot-spring water pumped in from 1400 meters beneath Tokyo Bay. Composed mainly of sodium and chlorine ions, as well as calcium and magnesium ions and other minerals, bathing in these waters leaves a film on the skin that reportedly has many 'healthful effects'.

The first bath I plunge into is "Kogane-no-Yu", meaning "golden waters". The water is naturally amber-coloured with a muddy consistency, although the pamphlet describes it as "reminiscent of molten gold". The colour creates some camouflage for my nakedness.

I feel myself unwinding in this bath and relax into the sound of Japanese women conversing casually, hidden in the steam. After 10 minutes, and feeling less inhibited, we make our way outside to the "Open-Air Baths where we're surrounded by greenery and natural rock surfaces under a slightly starry Toyo sky. Taking the lead from my fellow bathers, my hanky towel becomes a hand-band. There are also large wooden bath tubs designed for one person, and I can't resist the temptation to streak across the pebble path and leap into one. They look so rustic, like a barrel cut in half. But the temperature gauge reads 65 degrees Celsius and my misty reflection in the glass window shows I look like a puffy pink pastry. It is time to head inside to the "Chill Pool".

Wading in, the temperature gauge reads 23 degrees, but with steam unfurling off my skin, I wonder if I can heat the water up to 30 simply by sitting here. I find a bucket and commence dowsing in an attempt to cool down. Nami-san, not showing any alarm at my reddened state, suggests we take a sauna. Being right next door to the chill pool, I figure I will give it a go - and last approximately 1.5 minutes before rushing back to the cool water again. My hanky towel is still comforting but now I am using it across my forehead like a cold compress.

Next comes a bath named "Hyakunin-buro", literally meaning 'one hundred people', which gives you a good idea of the size. Mothers commune with small children to enjoy a splash and delight in the sounds of their own echoes. From here I have the perfect vantage point to watch for a vacancy in the "Kinu-no-Yu", 'silk bath' which is the most popular one.

This is a bath of pure-white water activated to create superfine bubbles like a typical spa. I see an opening and bee-line straight in for my water massage. The gentle stimulation expands the capillaries on the skin's surface and after a few minutes, my skin really does start to resemble silk. Pink silk.

Now quite thirsty, Nami-san and I pay a visit to the dressing rooms and the vending machines for a bottle of water. Having completely soaked away all inhibitions, I am now twirling my hanky, forgetting completely about the English sign, my tattoo and all inhibitions. The sign, however, has not been forgotten by the change room attendant and my tattoo is no longer going to be overlooked.

As I stand nude at the vending machine, there is a very strange but polite exchange of hand gestures between Nami-san and the attendant, who makes a giant X sign with her arms. This is the Japanese symbol for 'we don't have'. I imagine it means the vending machine is broken – but, of course, no vending machine is ever broken in Japan. The X is the sign that my dainty image of a dragon fly is getting me kicked out of the onsen.

What has happened to Brendon? His tattoo is twice the size of mine and covers a large portion of his lower back. I worry he will have missed the entire wonderful onsen experience.

Avoiding eye-contact with everyone, I force my hot sticky arms into my kimono and quickly head out expecting to find a forlorn husband.

We find Brendon at a bar, but his face is a puffy pink similar to mine and his hair style has most definitely suffered from steam. He tells us he has only just left the baths and he and Awano-Sensei are enjoying their first beer together after a thoroughly relaxing time. Onsen banishment, it seems, is not so much about the rules as the strictness of the people who enforce them.

FAST FACTS

Ooedo-Onsen-Monogatari means "the tale of the great Edo hot springs". It is located near Telecom Centre station on the Yurikamome Line in the popular Odaiba area on Tokyo Bay and is easily accessible by the Metro system.

Open 11am with last admission at 9pm.

General admission; A$37.50 for adults, A$20.70 for children. Evening and morning rates are available. All major credit cards accepted

Visit http://www.ooedoonsen.jp/higaeri/english/

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