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Finding peace, naked and alone in a traditional Japanese bath

Relaxing hot spring pools of Shikisai Ichiriki. Japanese tradition says hot spring baths can release minerals to (naked) bathers, enhancing natural beauty, reducing inflammation and improving the skin. (Katie Sanders | Times)
Published Mar. 6, 2018

KORIYAMA, Japan

A wild boar scurries in front of our tiny Toyota Vitz on the dark road. We avoid a clash but proceed up the mountain with caution, tires slipping on the ice.

Shikisai Ichiriki is a large hotel near Koriyama City, about 50 miles from where a tsunami and earthquake destroyed a nuclear plant and thousands of lives on the coast. Fukushima is one of the largest prefectures in Japan, but because it shares a name with the decommissioned coastal plant in Okuma, outsiders tend to associate the entire area with devastation and radiation.

I came here to relax and recharge ahead of my own stop in the towns close to the nuclear disaster the next day.

The hotel, called a ryokan, features spacious rooms with tatami mat floors and futon beds, traditional breakfast and dinner, a snow-capped garden, and indoor and outdoor pools of hot water supplied by a spring.

In the bitter February cold, the idea of soaking in an onsen sounds like heaven.

The catch: naked.

In Japan, bathing is an essential ritual of life, at home and in public, often at the end of the day. The tub isn't for washing, but resting, a chance to soak in natural nutrients.

An adherence to rules keeps the naked peace in order.

Men and women have separate baths, for one.

And everyone has to wash and rinse before entering the shared water.

But still.

I'm a woman from small-town Madison, Fla., who takes quick showers and wears one-pieces to the beach. I dragged conservative dress like a safety blanket from middle school into my married late 20s. "You once wore tights to the beach," a longtime friend told me.

Could I enjoy this?

• • •

A friendly concierge escorts us to our room on the second floor, the same as the onsen. He points out that Prince William dined here three years earlier with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, each man in traditional robes and slippers.

Twin futons lay on the floor of the main room. I slide the screens of the window to find an illuminated, snow-capped garden and pond. I change into the large mustard yukata provided by the ryokan, unaware that I have tucked in the wrong side of the robe.

Junko, my friend and interpreter, cuts the tranquility.

"I left my phone in the car. I'm going to get it," she said. "You're going to the bath?"

Yes. Right. I told Junko I was going to the bath tonight, after ducking it for two nights in Osaka.

"Should I wait for you?" I start to ask. Then I remember that that's kind of awkward.

I walk down the hall clutching my bath towel, taking a breath at the red flaps of the women's salon. I remove my slippers on the other side and see no shoes on the shelf.

Don't get your hopes up.

I take off my robe, wrap up in the body towel and walk inside to the bath.

No one is here.

The shallow, steaming indoor bath is proper and large. The glass wall overlooks an outdoor hot spring, edged by darkness and shallow woods.

In the first moment of easing in, I feel giddy and daring. Restless.

The hot water is almost too hot to stand. My back, sore from hauling an overstuffed backpack through Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, starts to feel better.

Alone in my thoughts, I look for something else to conquer: the vacant and hot outdoor onsen.

The air is beyond nippy on my shoulders, somewhere in the 30s. The hot water feels purifying, leaving me parched.

When I look out from the water, I see twiggy trees along a wall and icicles hanging from the wooden roof. White snow bunches in small piles. Trains pass beyond the brush.

• • •

The untrained mind wanders.

What if I see an owl?

Why did I think of an owl?

Is there a security camera?

Was that a boar rustling in the woods?

Could the boar just walk into this bath? Is the fence high enough?

Yes, those are boar noises. (But not really.)

The cold air dances as it meets the heat.

I start to relax again.

• • •

I go back inside. There is a sauna. I don't know what to do in a sauna beyond what I've seen in the movies. But I'm apparently game for anything now, so I bring in my towel and flip the timer of black sand.

I feel lightheaded.

I think I like this.

Wait, what if someone blocked the door? How long would I have before … do all women think like this?

Fall, sand, fall.

From the sauna I see someone enter the bath. The woman goes to the same stall I chose earlier, the one in the back corner that I thought people were less likely to use, or see.

Everyone uses that one, don't they?

• • •

Back in my room, I hit the bed on the floor still wearing the yukata, with the lights and television on.

At 8 a.m. I shuffle to the hotel restaurant in the robe and slippers. Junko is wearing her normal clothes, and I wonder if I am a doofus eager American.

Breakfast is already staged. The stars are salmon, vegetables, soup and plain rice to neutralize the flavorful extras in tiny ceramic bowls.

I think about how vacationers in the States use breakfast to go over the plan for the day. At the yokan, there isn't anything to do nearby. It's meant for relaxing.

• • •

The snow is still swirling after breakfast, and this Floridian wants to bathe with the snowflakes.

By a miracle that surpasses all understanding, I have the salon and bath to myself once again.

The snow collects into clean white piles at the water's edge. I keep my shoulders below the water and let the flakes hit my face.

There is no owl or boar or predator of any kind. Only peace.

Contact Katie Sanders at ksanders@poynter.org.

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