Empresses of the Japanese Bath

I feel like I am all skin. It’s not just that I am naked, but that the warm air presses up against me like a damp blanket. I scrub my skin with the rough flannel, scraping off dead skin cells and other accumulated detritus until it is pink and smooth. It’s as though I am reminding myself of the limits of my existence:where the edges of my body meet the air.

Only minutes ago, I was clothed and on the street, standing outside the humble exterior of the Japanese bathhouse, surrounded by warehouses and sandwich bars in a nondescript street in inner-city Melbourne.

From the moment I step through the door with the prim, handwritten sign ‘Strictly non-sexual!’ taped to the glass, there is no room for ambiguity: all activity here will be undertaken with decorum. The removal of clothes, and the exhibition of the skin and the body it encases, could be read as an invitation to breach the very boundary displayed. Yet the atmosphere at the bathhouse makes me aware of containment, rather than any messy spilling over or melding of forms.

In Japan, where the communal bath has a long tradition,I imagine group nakedness is no barrier to laughter and the exchange of gossip. Here, in predominantly Anglo Melbourne, where nudity is associated with private intimacy, the tone is discreet, muted, almost solemn.

Over the threshold, I remove my shoes and receive a small stack of towels, a flannel, and cotton pyjamas. Disrobing in the change room, I take the flannel and a towel and enter the tub room. Taps and showerheads on hoses are set below a long mirror; shampoo and body wash are placed on a low, narrow ledge. My body must be scrupulously cleaned before disturbing the pristine waters of the tub. The hard plastic of the small stool that I perch on to perform my ablutions presses into my skin.There are four of us in the women’s area, and it seems to me we move carefully and deliberately, as if the ritual of the public bath has bestowed a gravity to our movements and bearing that evaded us while clothed. It is a little like being in church: the muted tones of our voices, low and respectful; the dimly lit space and the air of contemplation.

I lower myself carefully into the water so that I only create the most well-mannered of ripples across its surface — splashing is definitely not an appropriate response to the expanse of dark fluidity. My skin registers the rising tide of hot liquid, and the silken touch of the water soothes not just my body but my endlessly flapping thoughts. Languorous and heavy, my mind, too, allows itself to be cradled in the buoyant embrace of the bath.

Nudity accentuates the body’s physical borders. The skin unclothed registers the limits of the body’s perimeter more so than when it is swathed in garments. Clothes tend to blur the boundaries between the physical world and the body so that it is more integrated with the medium in which it is enveloped. Herein the bath, I feel the shape that the contours of my flesh leave in the water like a mould cast in silicone.

It’s not quite polite to stare at others when they’re nude, and yet here we all are in our skin. Being naked in the presence of other nude women is somehow reassuring. One is encouraged to view the body in its entirety — not parcelled up into unsatisfactory bits presented for consumption. The body dressed only in the skin has a wholeness, an integrity that is sometimes kinder than clothes that shield and reveal our shape.

Perhaps I would be less well-disposed towards nudity if some young Amazon — all long legs, high breasts and flat, un-creased belly — was sitting beside me in the weltering heat. But the young Amazons are elsewhere today, and it is just us ordinary women with our dimpled thighs, our puckered stomachs, our unremarkable beauty, moving from the plastic stools to the bath, the sauna, and the change room with deliberate grace and gravity, clothed only in our skins; empresses in our new clothes.