One of my favourite parts of a recent two week whistle stop tour of Japan with my 75 year old father was getting to escape the neon lit, smog filled cities of Osaka and Tokyo (and my father) and enjoy the ritual of a female only hot spring bath in a traditional Japanese Onsen.
We have travelled for hours on the famous bullet train and taken a winding local bus up the hills towards the shores of Lake Ashi near Mount Fuji and are staying at a traditional Ryokan where the walls of our room are made of rice paper dividers and the only place to sit is a small mat on the floor.
The Onsen are divided into male and female bathing quarters and the rules are strict. One washes first and bathes, naked.
A young student in her twenties laughs in delight when i ask if i have to get in naked.
“It is strange for you, are you embarrassed?” she asks.
Although i’ve never been body conscious it makes me wonder - there is a second of discomfort due to the strangeness and unfamiliarity of disrobing in front of so many of my own sex that has never happened taking my clothes in front of a man before.
I drop my towel and perch on the little plastic stool, and then wash using the shower handle to rinse myself down.
Peering over the steam drifting in layers over the sunken stone baths I make my way over and ease my way into the hot water. The onsen is beautiful. A sunken stone pool outside, lit up in the early spring sunshine with bright pink bursts of cyclamen decorating the grounds.
I gaze at all the different women’s bodies I'm sharing this pool with. I look at their thick, creamy white legs and the heaviness their hips, of the young student who talked to me and the xylophone of her ribs and study with envy the sheets of their black, shiny hair twirled up into chignons.
It's like a Degas painting in here, beautiful and sensuous and steamy. Women of all shapes and sizes huddling in corners or floating in the water in a world of their own.
Old ladies help each other over the slippery tiles, giggling and a mother guides her little girl down into the waters.
There is a something I find so special about this ritual of communal bathing with our own sex and soothing - the softness, camaraderie and safety of women of all ages gathering and bathing naked.
It reminds me of other times and other cultures where i’ve had the pleasure of experiencing something similar.
I oncespent several happy nights in Luang Prabang, Laos wandering through the tumbling rain and jumping over the puddles in the broken stones of the road to join the local women at their herbal steam room.
Here young girls in their twenties showed me how to wrap my cotton sarong and tie my hair up in a knot. They handed me barley tea outside when i needed to cool off and gave me the communal pumice to slough away dead skin on my body. I will always remember the deep, steamy heat and medicated air of that steam room and the soft hushed giggles and whispers of the women I shared it with whilst the dark, chilly rain pounded outside.
In Morocco and Turkey I’ve stood naked and shivering whilst a little old lady in plastic knickers throws a bucket of foam and water at me and then scrubbed me down with a brush. Laying on a thick marble slab i remember anticipating a relaxing western style spa massage only to endure an hour long torture of my poor muscles being slapped, poked and pummelled into submission.
It reminds me of an anecdote one of my friends told me, who also experienced the baths of Morocco and, unable to believe that one should enter naked, found herself standing in soggy bra and knickers in ornately decorated tile room where everyone else was naked. I wonder how much i’ve missed not having a ritual like this in my Western world where its more normal that women have been pitted against each other in the office or are held up for scrutiny in the gossipy trivia of the glossies.
Would we be as fixated with the body beautiful and burdened by the pressure to conform if we had this regular ritual in our day to day experience in the UK. Sharing a zumba class together and then getting changed after at the local gym just doesn't cut it.
That sense of female bonding seems so far removed from the smoothies and hipster cafes and mindless TV and grafitti of South East london. Perhaps my female friends who are mothers get to share a female solidarity in baby and toddler groups with each other i've missed out on so far - but even that portion of our lives is such a small segment in comparison with the whole. I imagine having a place when I was a teenager where, instead of the likes of Page 3 or Conde Nast dictating how and what our bodies mean, we were able to experience the whole gamut of female body shape and life from the very young to the very old. Where we could find solace in a regular ritual amongst women of all ages and use that to define both our comfort and our relationship with our own bodies as well as with other women.
I like to think, if i ever have a little girl, I would try and incorporate this ritual into her life...Not sure how achievable its going to be this side of Waterloo Bridge though... !