Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Changing Morality: Nudity in Public Baths at Gero and Nagayu Onsen

Ganiyu (ガニ湯) A Very Public Free Bath

A part of Japanese culture is being comfortable while nude in a public hot spring. However, Japan, like all countries, is always in cultural flux. What was acceptable hundreds of years ago, or even one generation ago, can become unacceptable to modern-day onsen visitors. Likewise, what is permissible in one location might be taboo in another. Let's explore two places that represent different perspectives of bathing naked in public: Gero Onsen (下呂温泉) in Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県) and a bath named Ganiyu (ガニ湯) in Nagayu Onsen, Oita Prefecture (長湯温泉、大分県).
View from a Bridge
View from the Spring
In the picture on the right above, which shows a free public bath near a river and bridge in Gero Onsen, you might notice that I am wearing a swimsuit. A clerk at the Gero Information Center informed me that as of two or three years ago, wearing swimsuits in Gero's historic and famous outdoor public bath became a requirement. Wearing a suit in a hot spring reduces my relaxation, limits my freedom, and does not feel Japanese. What brought about the change?

Two men in their seventies were flagrantly breaking the rules by bathing naked; although, everyone else was wearing swimsuits or underwear. I asked the elders their opinions. They explained that rude behavior and modern technology brought on the restrictive rules. Some young stupid tourists would occasionally stand on the edge of the bath and shake their loins in the direction of the bridge upon which hundreds or thousands of pedestrians, depending on the day, walk across. That's definitely stupid and rude behavior.

Modern technology played a role in the hands of other obnoxious people. These days almost everyone has a camera with zoom lens and video capabilities. I was told that some perverts standing on the bridge took photographs and videos of people who were just trying to have a relaxing bath, as people have been doing for hundreds of years in the same location.  Some of those photographs were uploaded to the Internet.

One of the older men said that he soaks every day in the bath for about two hours, and that he could not tolerate the new rules. He bathed there naked as a child, and he refuses to change his behavior. For him, the relaxing experience would disappear if clothing restricted his natural movement. In contrast, there were several young children in bathing suits. Their fathers stood around the edge of the pool in thick winter wear. The  air temperature was minus six Celsius. The bath was very warm, but to preserve the heat in winter the old men place a plastic sheet over the surface of part of the pool.

The top photograph shows a hot spring between the banks of a river in Nagayu Onsen, another touristic location. People walking on both sides of the river and people crossing a bridge can look directly down on the rock-lined bath, called Ganiyu (ガニ湯), in the center.  However, there is no rule about swimsuits. Visitors to Nagayu seem to be better behaved and to follow traditional bathing etiquette. It is true that Nagayu Onsen is not as famous as Gero and that the number of visitors is fewer (Nagayu actually deserves a higher ranking for many reasons to be explained in a later post).

Returning to the topic of differences in the acceptance of nudity in public hot springs, social mores have gone through many transformations at various times. Mixed-sex bathing in the nude was common in different periods of Japanese history. It is fairly rare now, though. Most hot springs have separate areas for men and women. Hot springs that still allow men and women to mingle freely tend to be outdoor ones in remote locations, such as Tsubame Onsen.

Even with this separation of the sexes, there is now a substantial number of young Japanese who feel uncomfortable bathing naked with other people. Not too long ago in the past, the Japanese idea of a vacation meant going to a Japanese ryokan with a gorgeous hot spring in an onsen region. Nowadays, a vacation often means going abroad. Also, tiny nuclear families are the norm. The average fertility rate in 2014 for Japanese women is 1.4. Many children in the new millennium bathe alone, a very different experience from that of previous generations. I have met a few college students who told me that they do not enjoy bathing nude in hot springs. Moreover, I have read reports of young parents insisting that their children wear swimsuits when the children go on school trips and stay in hotels with hot springs.

For now, such shyness is still a rarity. We are all born with bodies that we should not be ashamed of. Let's enjoy ourselves while behaving respectfully and tactfully with our family members, neighbors, and strangers in and around hot springs and sentos.

If you are unfamiliar with any of the Japanese words, please click on this link to the Japanese and English Onsen Glossary.