With no clothing to hide behind, barriers melt away like steam in a Japanese onsen.

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By Alexander McCoy

Travel Writer

17 Oct 2017 - 6 Minute Read

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The frigid air hit my face like a blast from the snow monsters themselves when I stepped off the bus and into the little onsen town of Mount Zao. In the distance, steam rose on all sides, thickening the atmosphere.

I’d spent the past few weeks trying to reconcile my own issues with the desire to take part in one of Japan’s most noteworthy customs. The onsen are not mere bathhouses or saunas; their water is drawn from the island-country’s many natural hot springs, geothermically warmed due to the volcanic terrain, and filled with minerals traditionally believed to carry healing properties.

They’re also separated by sex, and clothing is not an option: you’re getting naked with strangers, a concept that many Western tourists balk at.

“The onsen is a bonding experience,” an innkeeper had explained to me over dinner. “It is—how do you say it—”

“Intimacy?” I’d offered.

“Naked communication,” he concluded emphatically. “If two rivals go to onsen together, they are like brothers, not enemies. There are no more barriers. They are sharing naked communication.”

I settled on snowy Mount Zao because the Internet told me some of the onsen there were unmanned. No front desk meant no chance of the awkward, grasping, and futile explanations in broken Japanese that I feared: yes, it says “M” on my passport. No, I can’t go into the men’s side, because my body is still currently female.

Humidity dampening my face, I breathed in sulfur and uncertainty as I opened the door to the ladies’ room and stepped inside. It would be the first time in two years, which suddenly stretched further behind me as I was faced with the same gut-churning flaws that I’d wrestled since adolescence.

But now they would be noticed by strangers.

There were only two women in the bath. Middle-aged, and one of them had a long scar running down the center of her torso. They greeted me cheerfully and didn't flinch at what they saw: an androgynous gaijin female with piercings and masculine amounts of hair. My face was clean-shaven, but there was no hiding the rest.

The onsen town of Mount Zao Alexander McCoy
The bathhouse Alexander McCoy

The wooden floorboards were clean but damp under my bare feet, and the small bathhouse was filled with the noise of sloshing water. Rays of sun lit through the clouds and pressed their way inside between the planks, the pool sparkling with natural minerals. “How is your Japanese?” one of the women asked in accented English.

I told her I understood a little, and we conversed in a mix of broken languages about my spontaneous trip through the Yamagata prefecture. When I stepped into the spring for the first time, they laughed at my expression. I hadn’t expected the burn that came with bliss.

I lowered myself until the water rose to my neck, suppressing a smile of my own at the grunts of “Atsui!” (hot!) drifting from the men’s side. The heat sank past my skin and settled into my bones like some kind of possessive spirit.

It was like ripping off a Band-Aid. They only saw the surface, which didn’t include my version of reality. They didn’t need to see deeper. With a day-to-day life that included anxiously hiding my chest and trying in vain to make myself seem taller, I realized that I’m entitled to a vacation from my incongruity now and then.

These moments don’t comprise the entirety of my life; that’s how I’ll cherish them.

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With roots in the Washington, D.C. area, Alex has spent his adult life moving around the country. He was one of the winners of the World Nomads 2017 Travel Writing Scholarship.

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4 Comments

  • FEROZ A. KHAN said

    I would like to read stories of every corner

  • Vaishali said

    Great read. I could step into your shoes and concerns and vividly experience your apprehension.

  • Robert croghan said

    The only problem with your writing is that it is way too short. I was just getting into the story when bam it’s finished.

  • wanderlady said

    Oh wow that was such an interesting experience. Reminded me of my first time in an onsen I was shy and self conscious but now I love it!
    Your story was great but like Robert said in the comment above, its so short!!! I’m curious to know more lol

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