One of the best ways to get to know someone in Japan is to take a bath with them. That might sound strange, but the Japanese have a phrase for this, hadaka no tsukiai, which translates roughly to naked friendship. Literally stripped of all clothes and outward formalities, the relaxed onsen vibe gives you the chance to go beyond the surface. It seems the only other way to do this is to consume lots of alcohol so I prefer the onsen.
Having been in Japan less than a month, I already have some great onsen stories. Like the other day when I got into a snowball fight against two Australian kids in the rotenburo (outside bath). It was awesome. Just as I was getting out, the 10-year old hits me right in the back. I had to fight back. I duck around the corner, make two quick snowballs and return with a vengeance, hitting the kid square in the chest as snow explodes everywhere. They try to retaliate but I quickly escape into the relative safety of the dressing room. All they could talk about after that was a rematch, which I was regrettably unable to oblige.
Then there was the onsen conversation about English grammar with a Korean friend. He works here at the hotel and apparently studies English in his free time. I don’t remember the question, but we talked for at least 30 minutes, completely naked, about some obscure grammatical question that I had no clue how to explain in simple language.
Also over a bath, I had conversation the other day about differences between Japan and the US. Specifically, my Japanese colleagues couldn’t understand America’s dieting/bingeing culture. They thought it was hilarious and ironic that people would become vegetarians, or not eat carbs, or do some crazy diet and still remain overweight. “Why wouldn’t you just eat healthy from the start?” was their simple response. Japanese people don’t exercise much and they eat an excessive amount of white rice but their waistlines and life expectancy are worth noting.
In the end, hadaka no tsukiai reminds me of my need to be more “naked” in my own friendships. It’s easy for me to coast along, never digging deeper or having challenging conversations. But those are the conversations that matter the most and I want to value the people I can have them with. Friendship takes longer in Japan but lasts for a lifetime. With old friends and with new, those are the types of friendships I want to intentionally cultivate and invest into.