Rain drops fall, bouncing off the surface of the steaming, open-air pool. Up to my neck in hot water, I turn my gaze to the left see roughly hewn boulders and mini Cyprus trees flanking the water — a makeshift Zen garden of sorts.

There's a chill in the air, which makes the scalding temperature of the mineral-infused waters more bearable.

To my right sit four Japanese men, also submerged in the water, their eyes closed and beatific expressions on their reclined faces. Aside from the gentle pitter-patter of rainfall, the silence is almost palpable.

While there's nothing especially out of the ordinary about this scene — extreme serenity aside, perhaps — there is one thing that's making me internally squirm.


You see, both I, and my fellow bathers, are completely naked.

Welcome to the world of the Japanese onsens where a soak means checking your inhibitions (and your clothes) at the door.

Here, swimming suits are banned, which means being totally nude in public with a bunch of total strangers.

And in the land of sushi and samurai, the onsen isn't just a pastime, it's a way of life.

A blanket word for both hot springs and the various bathing facilities that utilise them, the onsen has been a mainstay in Japan for thousands of years.

Thanks to its location on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan is a literal hotbed for geothermal activity, resulting in 25,000 naturally-occurring mineral springs, which are channelled into more than 3,000 spa resorts that pepper the country.

Revered for their relaxing effects and circulatory benefits, the use of onsen bathing as a form of medical treatment is widely practised and it's believed that the sulphur and magnesium-rich springs reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, improve the skin, ease fatigue and even help with digestion.

And while the purported health benefits are numerous, for foreign visitors who aren't used to baring all in front of complete strangers, it can be a little awkward.


What do I do? Will they stare? Did I spend enough time washing myself? Time can be wasted stressing, rather than actually enjoying the experience. So, in the interests of research, to conquer my own fears, and for real onsen immersion (get it?) I've allowed myself two days in what has been described as Japan's 'onsen Mecca': Kinosaki-Onsen.

Though under-the-radar for foreigners, this tiny town only 2.5 hours from Kyoto is hailed by the Japanese as one of the best hot spring destinations in the country. Previously named the top onsen town in Japan, it has been a local favourite since the eighth century.

Set around a scenic willow-lined river and surrounded by mountains, Kinosaki is a postcard-perfect time capsule of old school Japan.

Indeed, as I walk across a small stone bridge, cherry blossom petals flutter through the air around me, before landing on the surface of the koi-filled river below. I feel like I've stepped into one of those scenes that adorned your late-granny's blue and white ceramic tea set.

Good looks aside, when it comes to onsens here, you're spoilt for choice. In fact, there's one for every day of the week, and that's on top of the bathing facilities within many of Kinosaki's ryokans (traditional Japanese inns).

There's a whopping 74 of them in town, but I've checked into what is regarded as the best — Nishimuraya Honkan.

The oldest and most luxurious, this haute inn has been welcoming guests for more than 150 years through seven generations of the same family. So for an authentic Japanese accommodation experience, you can't get any better.

Conveniently sandwiched between two public onsens I don't need to walk far to get wet, which is a good thing as the geta sandals I'm provided with (wooden platform shoes similar to clogs) are pretty tricky to master. Donning these and a yukata (a thin, cotton version of a kimono that's akin to a bathrobe) I join other soon-to-be bathers, clip-clopping up the streets in their geta, clutching bags or baskets of towels.

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With each step I have to give myself a mental talking to. Despite having braved naked saunas in Sweden and the like, my inner-prude still lingers, rearing its ugly head.

It's odd, as I grew up in what you'd term a 'naked house'. I can't ever remember either of my parents closing the bathroom door and the sight of both my mum and dad walking around the house sans underwear was a common occurrence.

It was so bad I'd fear inviting friends over in case they got an eyeful. Then there's my memories of the loathsome, cold PE showers from my formative years at high school *shudder*.

Arriving at the onsen, the first thing I notice are the separate entrances for men and women. Historically, both sexes bathed together, but these days almost all onsens are segregated.

Battling trepidation, I head into the changing rooms where I coyly shed my clothes. 'Relax!' I silently tell myself.

Grabbing the postage stamp-sized towel (the only thing you're allowed to take into the baths) I hold it over my nether regions and walk towards the main bathing area, trying to convey a stride that gives both the impression of confidence, and that I know what I'm doing. 'Hmm. Now what?' I wonder.

Spying low shower stations lining two walls, each with a corresponding plastic bucket and what appears to be stools for kids. Taking my cue from an elderly man who is sitting on one of these and washing himself, I pull up one and begin to do the same. Legs akimbo, my rear clearly on display to everyone in the pool behind me, this is far from what you'd call dignified, but no one else seems to mind.

Not to cause offence to the notoriously hygienic Japanese, I self-consciously scrub for way longer than I ever would in my day-to-day toilette, before rinsing off and making a beeline for the pool itself, again, clutching my paltry towel to my privates as I go.