The changing room opened into one large area lined with wooden benches and lockers. Naked women walked unhurriedly, carrying only small washcloths, while others sat on small stools near the exit leading outdoors, scrubbing their skin into a deep lather. I waited for the uncomfortable glances of curious locals staring when they thought I couldn’t see, but their eyes stayed hidden from me as I stepped inside and moved towards the lockers.
I undressed, stowing away my clothes, and joined the women at the stools. Each seat faced a low stone vanity with a hand-held shower head in place of a mirror, and was stocked with liquid soap and shampoo. A blue plastic tub was stored at my feet, which I could see other women filling to use as a sink.
The otherness of my skin and hair, no longer hidden in the darkness of a stall modestly tucked behind an opaque curtain, felt exposed in this bright open-air shower. The light revealed every hair and freckled constellation from the crown of my head to my distant toes, ever closer now that I was seated, and yet I felt no glances from the close nakedness of the women on the stools next to mine, or from those bathers walking behind me.
I used both of my hands, newly freed from the task of keeping me balanced upright, to lather the bottoms of my feet, then extended out my legs together, toes pointed, and dumped the tub of warm water over them, washing it all away. By the time I had wrung out my hair and used my hands to squeegee the water off of my skin, I felt wrapped in a comfortable blanket of anonymity that allowed me the freedom of being just another Japanese woman taking her baths at the onsen.
The doors leading outside to the hot spring were just past the showers, so I got up from my stool and pushed them open revealing a beautiful view. The onsen was inset into a hill, so the bathers looked down into the snow-covered valley of Yudanaka, framed with the mountain ranges of Western Japan. I climbed into the bath, made entirely of natural stone and ringed with an array of plants and pebbles, and seated myself on a large submerged boulder that doubled as a seat. Looking out at the view uninterrupted with blue tiles or pumping jets, I felt an intimacy with my surroundings that only those who know it very well can have.
But soon that familiar feeling began to creep up again, and I could feel the sets of eyes looking and then darting away again respectfully when I raised my head to catch their gaze. An older woman smiled at me and addressed me in slow, drawn-out English:
“Where are you from?”
“Nagoya,” I replied, continuing in Japanese. “I teach English there. I’m just here for the weekend.”
“You speak Japanese!” she replied, pleased. A few of the other women murmured in approval. “You speak very well.”
She paused for a moment and then shifted a little closer to me.
“So, where are you really from?”