What it's like to use onsen in Japan as a trans person

For gender minorities like myself, entering these public bathhouses poses a great dilemma. 🛁

5 mins
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You hear the term “transition regret” thrown around sometimes. The concept is mostly a myth made up by people who want to stop trans folk from living their best lives – and when it’s not, it’s regret caused by the discrimination people face after starting their gender transition journey.

In my case, though, “transition regret” meant the possibility of never being able to enter an onsen in Japan again – at least not until I opt for both top and bottom surgery, which is wildly expensive and could take over 10 years.

Onsen – meaning “hot spring” in Japanese – are dotted all over the volcanic country, and have been enjoyed since as long ago as the 7th century. Onsen culture involves bathing naked with strangers, and traditionally consisted of natural outdoor pools shared by all genders. However, after the Meiji Restoration began in 1868, the Japanese government decided that in order to keep up economically with the West and avoid colonisation, they had to adopt Western customs and rules, which included banning homosexuality and splitting onsen by gender.

For gender minorities like myself – a transgender man (FTM) going on two years of testosterone injections and zero years of surgery – entering onsen poses a great dilemma. Now that I have obvious facial and body hair, along with a masculine build, I have the privilege of no longer being mistaken for a woman. I can use the men’s bathroom smoothly and rarely encounter issues. However, when it comes to getting naked to use onsen, I have to expose my “not-so-masculine” parts.

As much as I would prefer to use the men’s onsen, I can’t shake off the fear of harassment or sexual assault were I to enter. So, I choose to use the women’s onsen, where although I have the benefit of feeling physically safe, I battle with anxiety that someone might file a complaint about me being there. I also often have to tolerate shocked or frightened stares from women, which have the potential to make me feel gross about my not-100% male, not-100% female body, or guilty for invading women’s space.

For this reason, I believe most physically transitioned folk choose not to use onsen altogether. I, too, was trying to come to terms with the fact that I may have to give it up.

But in the end, I couldn’t do it. During my five years living in Japan, I have become somewhat of an onsen addict. Nothing beats reaching a semi-meditative state relaxing in hot spring water after a hard day’s work or a long hike. And why should I let society’s prejudices control my life anyway?

So follow me as I navigate the ridiculous journey of using the onsen in Japan.

Step 1: Onsen Diagnosis

Lounging on the double bed of my dingy business hotel room, enveloped by the smell of tobacco like a 1930s cinema, I contemplate what lies ahead.

Since I’m out of town and well away from any acquaintances, location-wise, just about anywhere should be fine, I think, playing absentmindedly with the hairs of the short beard I'm growing out.

Before transitioning, I sometimes visited onsen with friends or co-workers, and it was never awkward. Now, I feel uncomfortable entering onsen with people who know I’m transgender, and going with people who think I’m cis-male is out of the question – as I don’t want to “out” myself.*

There’s only one solution: going incognito.

After searching 温泉 (“onsen”) on Google Maps, I begin to flick through photos of each onsen in the vicinity and scrutinise them carefully, like a detective cracking a code.

My favourite onsen in Japan tend to be the rustic ones favoured by locals that remain almost unchanged since they started hundreds of years ago. However, a fair share of them are only big enough to fit two or three people.

Mmm, definitely a no-no. Can’t have anyone in close enough proximity to be unable to resist staring at my hairy torso.

I settle on a relatively large onsen, with a variety of small to medium-sized indoor baths and one medium-sized rotenburo (“outdoor bath”). It’s not too far away, and the price is decent.

I check my watch. It’s 10am, and the onsen has just opened. This is one of the least busy times, and since it’s a weekend, it will only get busier from here on. Best to avoid the crowds.

Photo by Soyoung Han

Step 2: Getting past reception

As I glide into a parking lot, I’m greeted by the gurgle of a flowing stream. Looking up, I spot a small Zen garden: karamatsu trees arranged with careful precision around a small pond into which the stream is flowing. A breeze ruffles my hair fondly, and the quietness of the Japanese countryside pats me on the back like an old friend.

But the tight knot in my chest doesn’t let that fool me. I’ll have to at least pass the hardest step before I can let myself relax.

I make my way through the entrance, insert my cash at the ticketing machine and show my ticket at the counter. I notice I’ve been holding my breath. Humans need oxygen to survive, remember.

The receptionist hands me a key for one of the clothing lockers inside.

“Go down this corridor. Men are to the left and women to the right,” he explains in Japanese.

Haaah! I let out a big sigh of relief. Down the corridor. That means the receptionist can’t see which onsen I enter. Safe!

There have been several occasions where receptionists have run after me in panic and stopped me from entering the women’s onsen. After all, it’s not uncommon for foreign tourists who can’t read the kanji (Japanese characters) for “man” and “woman” to accidentally walk into the wrong room. I then have to lie to them in my best (and very unconvincing) high-pitched woman’s voice.

“I am not a man.” Sometimes, I say, “I cannot use the men’s onsen.”

I never say I am transgender, as this would most likely lead to confusion. The term “transgender” is still very misunderstood in Japan, where awareness of gender minorities remains extremely low.

Their reaction is always one of surprise mixed with embarrassment, but it can’t compete with mine.

Step 3: Getting dressed.

I pass down the corridor, admiring the Japanese paintings set in golden frames along the walls. Beneath my feet, the floorboards quack rudely, reminding me that the worst is not yet necessarily over.

At the end of the corridor are two doors: one with blue cloth hangings adorned with “男“ – the symbol for “man”, and the other with red hangings reading “女” – “woman”. You know, blue for boys, pink for girls and all that. I slip through the women’s entrance as quick as a rat, and search the locker doors lining the room for the number corresponding to my key.

To my relief, I find the number. Sometimes, onsen sort keys into men’s and women’s, and if they give me a men’s key, I have to turn back to reception before I even get a chance to undress.

With the worst finally behind me, I start undressing – taking off my men’s clothes.

Step 4: Time to enjoy the water!

After washing myself under the shower, as is required at all onsen, I scan the scene. Thankfully, my meticulous planning seems to have paid off: only a handful of people are about.

I choose an empty indoor bath and relax as my body oozes into the water, slick as osmosis. I can already feel the tension in my muscles beginning to ebb and my dry skin turning silky.

Onsen are too good not to use, I re-affirm for the hundredth time.

Once the heat and steam of the indoor bath gets too much, I retreat to the rotenburo. As I pass through the door, a woman walks the opposite way.

Avoid eye contact at all costs, I remind myself sharply. My body tenses up a little. From the corners of my eye, I can’t read her expression, but I do notice her gaze shift from my face level to further down, and down again.

Police check… clear, I guess?

Usually it’s considered rude to stare in the onsen, but I suppose if I saw a hot guy walk through the onsen door, I would look too.

Outside, the sun fills up a stone patio which looks out upon the forest. In the centre is the rotenburo, sheltered from the elements by a thatched roof. It is empty. Bliss.

Soaking in the centre of the rotenburo, my mind drifts to a distant image of Edo period onsen. I can’t help but wonder, Did sharing an onsen with all genders improve or worsen the rate of sexual assault? While it may seem unthinkable to most, the concept of everyone feeling comfortable soaking in an onsen with each other is a dream come true for me. While I’ll have to make do with this for now, I’ll always have some shred of hope for the day when I’ll no longer have to make the choice between safety and comfort.

I check the clock up on the onsen wall. 11:00. It’s nearing that pre-lunchtime period where crowds start to gather. And with that, my time is up.

See you next time, suckers.

Photo by Akira Deng

*for me, hiding that I’m transgender and simply living as the gender I identify with – male – works best.

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