Monday, September 9, 2013

Mixed-sex Bathing in a Japanese Konyokuburo

Many people have asked me questions about public mixed-sex hot springs, called Konyokuburo (混浴風呂) in Japanese: What exactly does Konyokuburo mean? Is it embarrassing? Where does it happen? Why would men and women who are strangers bathe together? Is it sexual? Are people completely naked?
Of course, everyone is naked. This is Japan, where the only suit allowed in ninety-nine percent of onsens is your birthday suit. People do use towels to cover their bodies when walking about the hot spring facilities, but these towels are just a tad larger than an American hand towel. A man usually holds it in front of his genitals when walking between baths or sitting outside of one. A woman might be able to cover up the area between the breast and her genitalia with her towel. Towels are not allowed in the water, so complete nakedness reign in the baths. Covering one’s hair with a towel is acceptable as long as the towel does not enter the water.

The two kanjis for konyokuburo (混浴) translate into the English words mix and bathtub. There are many places in Japan where men and women bathe together, but they are not all konyokuburo. Kazokuburos (家族風呂) and kashikiriburos (貸切風呂) are similar in that male and female bathers can enjoy being together. The important distinction is that konyokuburos are public. Anyone can enter at any time. You may end up bathing with complete strangers—some might be stranger than you would like. Most of the people are pleasant.  I just recently enjoyed two outdoor konyokuburus in Tsubame Onsen, Niigata, and everyone was friendly and gracious.

Kazokuburo means family bathtub, and kashikiriburo means a rented bathtub. Others cannot join you, your family, or your friends in Kazokuburo or kashikiriburo. These terms basically have the same meaning. You pay and then you have control of the baths for a set time. With konyokuburo, you have no control regarding who will join you.

Mixed-sex bathing is a practice that goes back hundreds, probably thousands of years. However, the number of public mixed-sex facilities is decreasing. The social mores of Japanese are changing. People are becoming reluctant to socialize with strangers, and that, of course, includes bathing. In the past, most homes were not equipped with bathtubs. A village might have only one bathing facility. Baths were often communal, and they served various social functions.

When I bathe in a konyokuburo, I have a complicated mixture of feelings. I become very conscious of how others might perceive me, so I do my best to avoid looking at the breasts or vaginal areas of women. I do not want a woman to think that I am a pervert if I should look in her direction, so I concentrate on the sky, trees, or the water. If we should converse, I look directly into her eyes. This concentration and slight worry on my part does detract a bit from the relaxing experience of bathing.

On the other hand, though, I enjoy being with a group of people who believe that nudity is nothing to be ashamed of. A part of me experiences a sense of freedom, of shedding uptight social conventions, when I am in a konyokuburu. It is also nice that male and female friends can be together, instead of being separated as they are in most hot springs.

As for sexual activity, I have never seen or heard about it happening at a konyokuburo. Probably, the chance that a stranger or strangers might suddenly enter would hinder the impulses of most people. Anyone who wants to have sex in a Japanese onsen would most likely do it in a private kashikiriburo or kazokuburo.

My first experience and one of my most recent experiences at konyokuburos were very different. The first time was with three couples who were all friends and a child of one of the couples. It was a very relaxing experience because of the trust and friendship we felt for each other. We were enjoying the evening in a bath located about twenty yards above the ocean on Sakurajima Island, Kagoshima. The blackness of the sea melded with the darkness of the sky. The edge of a vast arena of glimmering stars denoted the horizon.

In contrast, an experience at a konyokuburo in Yuya Onsen, Aichi Prefecture, was very different. In fact, it was strange. My brother-in-law and I went to Yukawa Onsen in the town of Yuya, Aichi Prefecture, because of the great view it offered from the side of a clean, meandering river. One woman and six men were in the bath when we entered. This woman did not seem concerned at all about being the only woman there, and her boyfriend/husband/partner(?) did not seem to mind either. As I mentioned earlier, women in mixed-sex bathing situations usually cover their breasts and vaginal areas with a tiny towel when outside of the water. This woman, however, did not bother using her towel. The bath was ringed by large rocks. She suddenly stood up and sat on one of the rocks without her towel, and she did not even close her legs. This was very unusual behavior. It was impossible for anyone in the bath to miss the view of her private area. Her display made me feel shy. She was directly in front of me, so I had to keep my head turned away in order to prevent any misunderstanding that I was staring at her. Another man, though, focused his gaze only on her for the hour or so that I was in the bath. I doubt that he even noticed the river, the sky, or anyone else. His behavior and her public display were unexpected and in violation of unstated social mores.   

In conclusion, the naked reality of mixed-sex bathing is that the atmosphere of each onsen will vary from place to place and your experience will vary from time to time. Once you get used to it, you will wonder what all the fuss was about.

Do you want to learn more about Japanese vocabulary related to hot springs? If so, click  to read a Japanese to English glossary of Japanese onsen terminology.