Your best friend sees a side of you that few people do: From the first time they see you cry to the point where you’ll happily share a toilet cubicle, there isn’t much you wouldn’t do in front of them. But have you ever taken a bath together? Probably not.
In the UK, we can be a little uncomfortable with the naked body. The closest we ever seem to come to public exposure is at the beach or pool, where nonsense ‘beach-ready' myths have many of us reaching for sarongs. But covering something up is rarely as effective as confronting it, and embracing our bodies – with or without the company of other women – can be hugely cathartic. That’s where communal bathing comes in.
Elsewhere in the world, gendered communal baths are a cornerstone of how you hang out with friends. One country where this happens is Japan, where natural hot springs known as "onsen" are a big part of life. As Shino, a Kyoto resident who has been visiting the baths since she was four, explains: “Onsen are for relaxing and healing, as the waters are often high in minerals. As well as aches and pains, they’re supposed to be good for the skin, which is why a lot of women go.” For those who can’t make it out to the onsen retreats, public bathhouses – or "sentō" – offer heated waters to soothe and restore.
In either case, the visit generally goes as follows: Enter a shower room, sit on a stool and make sure you are totally clean using the soap provided. It is only then that you can go for a soak. Cloths or clothing are widely considered to dirty the hot water pools, so nakedness is pretty much a given, aside from a very small towel you can clutch as you walk around the room.
It can be an amazing, affirming experience. You’re surrounded by women of all ages, having a laugh and catching up with friends, all while completing the serious business of getting clean. It’s a self-care ritual that almost everyone makes time for, and the low prices – some as little as £2 per visit – make them as affordable as a cup of coffee. Pochi, from Tokyo, has her own bath at home (not necessarily a given in a city where space is at a premium) but still goes to the sentō two or three times per month to relax with friends or family. It’s like going to the pub, only wetter.
Trips to the spa start early and can last a lifetime. Mariko (from Shiga) loved going as a child because “it was like a big swimming pool,” while Shino notes the importance of the baths to elderly people, who use them as an opportunity to connect with friends and neighbours. With women in Japan enjoying the longest life expectancy in the world, communal activities such as these play a vital role in maintaining the health and happiness of an ageing population. It’s a stark contrast to the UK, where there’s a tendency to hide our bodies and ourselves away as we age.
Over here, visiting a spa is usually an exclusive, expensive thing to do, unless going to a hammam is part of your regular routine. Of course, that’s why a spa feels like such a treat on the rare occasion you do go – like all those hen parties you went into your overdraft for – but imagine if it could be something you did instead of, say, going to a bar (again). Sites such as Groupon can make them more attainable, but with prices still ranging from £20-40 for a visit of a couple of hours, it’s hardly one for your regular hit list.
Naturally, supply and demand plays a big part in the price structure: While the Romans and Victorians were big fans of a bathhouse, many have now been closed down. Plus the UK's level of geothermal activity means hot springs are never going to be – erm – springing up all over the place. But if communal bathing were as ubiquitous and budget-friendly as it is elsewhere, would we be ready to take the plunge?
If you want to gauge how comfortable you would feel baring all at the baths, your general approach to changing rooms isn’t a bad place to start. The difference is that in that situation, it’s totally open to interpretation – there’s a certain amount of ‘to-boob-or-not-to-boob’ involved in sharing a changing room with your colleague at your very first lunchtime spin class, for example. When the rules literally state ‘no swimwear’, however, everybody’s in the same naked boat.
There is, of course, a privilege that comes with being comfortable in a gendered space. Depending on how you identify, a female-only environment can come with its own challenges – especially if nudity is thrown into the mix. And even those who have grown up with it can find it challenging: One woman said that while she liked going to the onsen when she was young, “as an adult, I don’t want to be naked and I don’t want to see naked people. It makes me feel awkward, but my friends don’t see it that way.” Another said she felt self-conscious because her figure was fuller than others’. Finally, tattoos can make bathing difficult: some Japanese spas don’t allow them as they’re associated with gang membership.
Once you’re safely in the water, however, you’re ready to immerse yourself in the best bit – having an uninterrupted catch-up. For anyone who’s ever tried to hold a conversation while swimming lengths (and turned into a spluttering mess in the process), just sitting on submerged steps with nowhere to go is a revelation. Bonus: Phones and water do not mix, so there’s no trailing off into a silent scroll.
If you’re lucky enough to have a gym membership that includes decent spa facilities or have an affordable spa on your doorstep (seriously, where?), then these benefits won’t be news to you. If you don’t, then the trick is to embrace the mindset: Sometimes self-care is simply about lowering your defences and taking time out to be fully present with friends. Water and clothing optional.