Getting Naked (or Not) With Strangers: When and Where to Take Your Clothes Off in Asia

by | Jan 7, 2024

Woman enjoys the onsen in bathtub at resort in Japan
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Last updated on June 7th, 2024

Featured image: Sandra Phillips breaks down when and where to take your clothes off during different Asian wellness experiences | Photo by leungchopan on Envato

Three countries, four different Asian wellness experiences to re-energize body and spirit

by Sandra Phillips

Some Asian countries consider hot soothing baths or massages as more of a social situation than the private, quiet, alone time one might be used to in North America. They can be found outdoors or indoors and are more communal. This might be a good way to immerse yourself in their customs and relax at the same time.

On trips to Japan, Thailand and China, I jumped into massage and bathing experiences and even made new friends. After all, how can you not become close buddies when you spend time naked together?

Getting naked at an outdoor hot spring in Japan

For centuries, the most popular area for bathing was in Hakone, due to the dozens of hot springs. Leaving from Tokyo, it isn’t difficult to book a short bus trip. And since Hakone is near Mount Fuji, it’s possible to tick off two must-sees at the same time. In fact, at the Hakone Green Plaza Hotel, the large rotemburo (outdoor baths) is situated so for views of Mount Fuji on clear days.

The bus is mostly full of Japanese people heading off to take in the healing mineral baths. There are only two other couples speaking English on board, so we become fast friends. The bus driver drops us off at a ‘spa’ hotel with no instructions – we have no idea where to go or what to do.

In each hotel room, there are two types of kimonos – short and long, and some flip flops. Which kimono is the correct dress for the baths? Do I put them on here and go to the spa area or take them with me? Are we naked under the kimonos? Do we leave valuables, passports, money in our room or are there lockers there? We run in and out of each other’s rooms, feeling like we are in an English farce, with each of us choosing a different costume.

When we ask the desk clerk for the spa, she points us to a shopping mall across a parking lot and then a large boulevard. So like ducklings walking to a pond, the six of us single-file across the parking lot, cross the street, walk through the mall and up an escalator – with the Japanese shoppers pointing and tittering away.

There are no attendants in the locker area to explain the procedures. There are no locks on the lockers. We leave our kimonos and slippers, take a towel and approach the next door. Inside a big room is a flurry of activity. Women are naked and doing their most intimate bathroom rituals in this communal setting – shaving, tweezing, cleaning nails, cleaning teeth, brushing hair, soaping, washing and hand showering while sitting on little stools.

The changing room has hair dryers, mirrored make-up areas and overhead ventilators to get you dry quickly. Sometimes, there is even a crib, so a Mom can sneak off for a bath during nap time.

Outdoor onsen (hot spring) in Hakone Japan

One of the many outdoor baths filled from hot springs in Hakone / Photo by Japan National Tourism Association

Another door awaits

The now very clean women balance their towels on their heads and walk through the door. We follow, and discover we were outside. There we find a huge hot pool in a lush garden setting with many ladies standing in the water and chattering away. No one swims. You don’t want to splash mineral water in your eyes or face. This is their end-of-the-day ritual to relax and unwind.

We can’t do the towel-on-the-head balancing act, but my new friends and I have a wonderful time learning about each other in the hot soothing water. One of the women from London becomes a lifelong pal. After all, how can you not become close buddies when on the day you meet, you spend time naked together?

Asian wellness experiences: getting naked at a private bath in Japan

If you don’t choose this communal bath, you should know about the etiquette of bathing in an inn. You may not have your own bath, but there is one on the floor or in the inn. An appointment is made with the proprietor as to the time you wish to bathe. You wear only the cotton bathrobe provided in your room along with the plastic slippers. Nothing else! Leave clothes, undies, and valuables behind.

Head to the bathing room, take off your robe and slippers and place them in the basket provided. At the washing area, I notice a tiny milk stool to sit on, a bucket, a spigot/shower hose, liquid soap and a long dishrag-type cloth. First, I try to figure out how to get the water on and squirting in the direction that I want. Then, I get it nice and hot and spray my seat down before I sit. Once seated, I fill the bucket with water, wet the cloth and proceed to wash myself.

Shampooing your hair and brushing your teeth can be done here as well. Wash yourself down thoroughly so that no traces of soap remain. The hotter the water the better, in order to prepare yourself for the hot soaking tub. Take your wet rag with you to the bath and either put it on your head (the authentic way) or find a place to rest it. Don’t lose it, because this is also your ‘drying’ towel. Don’t laugh – it’s all you get, and you really do dry off.

The bathtub already filled with excruciatingly hot water is meant solely for soaking and relaxing away all of the day’s stresses. If the water is too painfully hot, it is permissible to add cold water. If you are in a single bath in an inn, remember that others will have appointments after you, so don’t dawdle too long. To dry off, your body is so hot when you come out that you really evaporate the surface water quickly. You can bring along a towel to dry if you want.

Often hotels and inns will have masseuses available, and after your bath would be the optimum time to schedule an appointment.

If you are squeamish about germs, please note that everyone uses the same water all day long. It is constantly reheated, and they do have fancy water recirculating and cleaning mechanisms.

A typical Japanese bath in a hotel

A typical private bath at a Japanese hotel / Photo by Japan National Tourism Association

Not getting naked for Thai massages in Bangkok

In the famous Wat Pho temple in Bangkok, Thailand, I experienced another kind of pampering – the Thai massage (practiced here by students and teachers from this school), which is very different than the stroking Swedish type.

First of all, this again is a communal experience, with beds placed side by side in rooms with occasional wooden dividers for “privacy” and with background chatter. However, this time, everyone stays dressed, wearing their own shirts along with the massage pants they are given.

The massage is very energetic, with the masseuse getting on the bed and moving all parts of you up down and sideways – they could easily get a job with the Cirque du Soleil. They pull from the sides, knees, armpits, head, and climb on the table to pummel you – even using elbows! The amazing part of this massage is that instead of ending up in a sleepy state, wanting to just get into bed for a nap, I wound up hugely energized. I Loved it!

Sandra Phillips gets a Thai massage in Bangkok

Sandra enjoys a typical Thai massage / Photo by Sandra Phillips

Women enjoy a traditional Thai massage in Bangkok

Enjoying a Thai massage / Photo by Sandra Phillips

Not getting naked for a Chinese massage

Then there was the one in China – it was just as unusual to me, and odder than the other Asian wellness experiences. At the time, it was only about $8 US, so how can you resist the bargain? A group of us were all ushered at the same time into rooms which had large comfy leather Lazyboy-like lounge chairs. Again, everyone kept their clothes on, and the massage was done right through the fabric. In both the Thai and the Chinese, I would say this method worked just as well as the ones where you take your clothes off.

The Chinese massage was the most thorough one I’d ever received. By thorough, I’m saying that not a single part of my anatomy was missed (don’t faint – not my privates!). From my head to my toes, including my ears, face, stomach, fingers and every area in between was massaged and relaxed.

However, here’s the crazy fun part of this one. Remember – there were a few of us in each room. The young people who were giving us these expert massages were all watching a game show on a screen, something as boisterous as ‘The Price is Right’. They were chatting with each other as if they were in someone’s den and just hanging out. The fact that we were in the chairs and part of the furnishings in the room didn’t faze them a bit. Their fingers worked the magic, the massages were expertly done and I felt great at the end. Who says you can’t multi-task?

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New York City born, but proud Montrealer, Sandra Phillips’ stitched her name into Canada’s fabric by unexpectedly writing best-selling books. The first, Smart Shopping Montreal, set the stage for her to become one of Canada’s smartest shoppers (said Chatelaine), leading her to radio shows, a Montreal Gazette newspaper column and to the TV news (CTV, CBC, Global). She then went on to conquer the US with 4 national book awards for a travel guide: Drive I-95: Exit by Exit Info, Maps, History and Trivia. Sandra has appeared in 100’s of U.S. and Canadian media outlets. As a JourneyWoman, she has traveled to 65 countries, every US state, and all Canadian provinces.

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