Who hasn’t had that dream, the one where you’re naked in a roomful of strangers? Then comes a day when you actually are, and you can’t wait to do it again. Communal hot springs baths are a blissful gift to stressed, road-weary travelers, but these are no hotel whirlpools. Slide into muscle-soothing hot mineral springs bath at a Japanese onsen, or be washed with a cloud of bubbles while stretched out on a heated marble slab in an Istanbul hamam built for an Ottoman sultan’s wife. The twist is you’ll get naked — or at least close to it.
Like me, you may feel self-conscious about exposing your lumps and fleshy folds to strangers. Maybe other bathers will sneak a peek. I confess I did. Trust me, anxiousness fades fast, and you’ll soon get over being naked in the company of strangers.
In most communal baths, men and women soak separately. Not so at the 19th-century Friedrichsbad Spa in Baden-Baden, Germany. The first thing I saw when I pushed through the changing room turnstile was a paunchy naked man airing-drying himself as he chatted with a spa attendant. That took some getting used to. Soon nobody seemed to care. We were all naked and (literally) hanging out together.
Here are three of our favorite geothermal mineral baths experiences. They’re enough to make even the staunchest shower devotee into a communal bath convert.
Hürrem Sultan Hamami, Istanbul, Türkiye
Hürrem Sultan Roxelana, the wife of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, was influential enough to commission the greatest architect of the day to build a public bathhouse in Constantinople in 1556. The hamam was built on the site of the ancient Zeuxippus Roman baths next to the magnificent Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque. After a three-year, $11-million renovation, the baths re-opened as Hürrem Sultan Hamami in 2011. As in the 16th century, there are separate and identical sides to the hamam for men and women.
“The Ottomans went to the hamam on a daily basis,” says Jennifer Gaudet, Canadian-born owner of Jennifer’s Hamam shop in Istanbul’s old city Sultanahmet quarter. Her company works with local weavers who make organic cotton, loom-woven Turkish loop towels, as well as robes, linens and quick-drying pestemals, the flat towels used in hamams.
Gaudet encourages anyone who comes to Istanbul to experience a hamam. Not sure about being in the company of other all-but-naked bathers who are also being washed by attendants? “You just have to think of yourself being four years old and being washed by mom again,” Gaudet says.
For my part, I booked an 80-minute wash and massage package (185 euro, about $200). The tall door to the woman’s side opened onto what felt like a secret world of carved wood, long couches, candles and oodles of grey-white Marmara marble beneath a 78-foot-high dome. The men have a similar setup.
There are private changing rooms on the second level with digital locks to safeguard belongings. I slipped out of my clothes, put on a laughably small disposable thong (the guys get the same) and wrapped myself sarong-style in a pestemal towel. Spa attendant Semra, who was wearing the same minimal outfit as me, smiled and took me by the hand to lead me into the main hot room.
The peaceful world of marble and inlaid tile floors has washing stations around the perimeter. A heated, raised octagonal marble “navel stone” platform is at the centre. The only sound was running water.
It was about 120 degrees in the room, which kick-starts the sweating that makes exfoliation more effective. Semra put a scrubbing mitt, called a kese, over her hand, and used long strokes to slowly exfoliate every inch of my body. A lot of dead skin and dirt rolled off, which horrified me and seemed to please Semra enormously. Before long my pestemal was on the floor.
I was led to the navel stone at the center of the room and laid down on the pleasantly hot slab. Semra swirled what looked like a long linen pillowcase in a bucket of olive oil soap suds and swung the bag back and forth to make bubbles. She squeezed thick clouds of scented foam across my body, massaging me from neck to my feet, then tapped me to turn over for more. I flopped on like a fish on the slippery surface and stared up at the massive domed ceiling, dotted with small windows to resemble a field of stars. It was like a dream.
“I don’t think we can ever truly imagine what it was like (for the Ottomans), but the experience of having a scrub and being washed, it’s the next best thing,” Gaudet says. “I think it is a lovely experience that everyone should go to.”
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Yamashiro Onsen, Japan
The steam was so thick, it was hard to even make out the large, shallow onsen soaking pool in the main bathing room at Rurikoh, a traditional ryokan inn about five hours by train from Tokyo. The murk helped ease my nervousness about walking naked into the women’s bathing area.
The word onsen refers to both a natural, mineral hot spring and the traditional inns built around them for the relaxing pleasure of bathers. A stay at a ryokan is the best way to experience these blissful soaks. I indulged in a multi-course, beautifully presented kaiseki meal, then had the best sleep in months between plush futons on the tatami-mat floor of an elegantly minimalist room.
The ryokan is in the town of Yamashiro Onsen, one of four hot springs resort towns in the Kaga Onsen region. Local lore says a monk helped an injured, three-legged crow here in the eighth century — as he stooped to tend to the bird, his reward was the discovery of hot springs. Now, there are about 3,000 onsen ryokans across the country, proof how big hot springs tourism is in Japan for nationals as well as foreigners. The mineral-rich thermal waters are said to have remarkable curative powers, easing everything from arthritis to skin conditions.
Women and men bathe separately. A red curtain at the entry shows the women’s side. Blue is for men. Pictogram signs in the dressing rooms explain how to use the onsen. Tattoos are frowned upon because of their association with yakuza organized crime gangs. In fact, some onsens ban tattoos outright, so check first. That said, booking a private onsen solves the problem. If you have smaller patches of ink, they can be covered with bandages for the communal bath.
Many onsens have indoor and outdoor soaking pools. Hotel Urashima Resort & Spa in the town of Nachi Katsuura Onsen is famous for cave onsens that open onto the Pacific Ocean. Sea breezes quickly chilled exposed areas, so we hunkered down in the steaming water like the famous Japanese “snow monkey” macaques at Jigokudani Monkey Park near Nagano. To make the experience even more serene, guests wear long cotton kimonos, called yukata, for their entire stay. It’s like having dinner in your bathrobe.
I also had my eye on another experience on this winter evening at Rurikoh. I opened a door to the frosty night outdoors where a stone-lined hot springs pool faced a private, snow-covered garden. The pool was surrounded by lanterns, and I was the only occupant, listening to trickling water and smelling the crisp scent of cedar. The experience was as blissful as it sounds.
Friedrichsbad Spa, Baden-Baden, Germany
The rich, royal and fashionable made Baden-Baden, Germany a social hot-spot in the 19th century, popularizing water cures to complement therapeutic treatments during stays at posh hotels. The elegant Black Forest town, whose name means “bath-bath,” is on the UNESCO list of Great Spa Towns of Europe. Would a little of that luxe life rub off on me with a 17-station circuit at Friedrichsbad Spa? The Roman-Irish spa was built in 1877 on the site of ancient Roman soldiers’ baths and considered cutting-edge style when it opened.
Friedrichsbad is “textile free,” meaning no swimsuits are allowed. And it’s not segregated by gender — men and women enjoy the thermal water showers, steam rooms and swimming pools together. Once I got over the initial shock of walking around the place stark naked and in mixed company, I went with it. It’s as much a work of art as a place to unwind and renew. The main pool is the showstopper, with a 55-foot-high, neo-Renaissance domed ceiling.
After a circuit of hot rooms, steam rooms and various pools, a quiet room provides the last indulgence. I stretched out on a padded massage-style bed, pulled a soft, brown blanket around me and closed my eyes.
That faint sound of snoring? I swear it wasn’t me.
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