When Nudity and Culture Collide

Never in a million years did I think being in a steamy hot public pool would challenge my beliefs. Up until this point, I had arguably been fed a belief system in a very sheltered lifestyle, but all of that was about to change.

As the Land of the Rising Sun, Japan is also known for its steaming onsens – natural hot water springs scattered over its major islands. Bathing in these springs is said to provide immense therapeutic value due to the various types of minerals they hold, which in turn, are believed to heal chronic diseases. On many occasions in the past, I had accompanied my parents to different types of relaxing saunas and spas, all proving to be pure sensory torture. Imagine being trapped in an artificially heated chamber, only to be followed by a cold shower! I never understood how this was relaxing, but I was always at ease knowing my dad was with me. That’s why the idea of visiting an “open-air” sauna didn’t seem so bad. After all, what could possibly go wrong at a family outing?

If only I had done my research before heading out the door, maybe I could have sat this trip out, feigning a stomach ache, perhaps. How on earth could none of us have known about the most basic rotenburo (public onsen) etiquette – the requirement to be completely naked amongst complete strangers. I remember the look on my parents’ faces and my teenage sister – with a sheepish smirk on her face – as if slow-clapping on the faux pas committed by my parents.

At that point, we were faced with two choices. Either we could turn around and make the three-hour drive back to Tokyo, or we could try immersing ourselves in an uncomfortable situation and hope for the best. Growing up with Indian values and morals, this type of public exposure was quite unheard of by any of us. I have spent the majority of my life going through the acculturation process in different societies, trying to find the perfect balance between maintaining my own familial values while adapting to the local way of life. Until the moment we entered the onsen area, I – and I am sure my family, too – had the notion that being naked or even scantily clad in public brought about embarrassment and shamefulness. That was definitely not the case in this vicinity. Thankfully, we chose to stay, and this family excursion ended up being one of the highlights of our stay in Japan.

We were to learn later on that this onsen etiquette is a culturally-ingrained and socially acceptable trait which, unfortunately, was unfathomable in almost all other civil societies. Japan prides itself on these age-old traditions which serve as strong foundations of its communal harmony and societal tolerance. One needs to see and experience it to truly believe it!

My first time at an onsen was definitely a challenging day for me as it was a direct contradiction to the belief system I had upheld thus far. Seeing Japanese families enjoy their day out, relaxing and recuperating in the warm pools, coerced us out of our comfort zone. My dad seemed to be bonding and sharing a laugh with complete strangers in a small pool. Thankfully, to my surprise, the feeling of shame lasted mere minutes before I decided to take the metaphorical and quite literal plunge into Japanese culture.

I consider myself fortunate to have a liberal enough mindset that allowed me to put my stigmas and preconceived notions of nudity aside. This one outing helped me fully embrace a totally foreign culture in a society where modernity and tradition coexist harmoniously. In this day and age where the world is getting smaller by the hour, it is important to be tolerant of other cultures and norms, especially if we are guests in someone else’s land. Convincing myself to spend the day at this onsen led to some very conflicting internal dialogue, but I am grateful to have gone through it at such a young age.

On the other hand, what my mom and sister experienced in the ladies section of that onsen is something I still haven’t dared to ask about.

About the author:

  • My name is Dhairya Ghai and I’m of the belief that humor can be utilized to bring light to any matter!


  • drawing by pius

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