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Stinky Tofu: A Steamy Experience

Britain doesn’t cope well with nudity. Unless you are an avid attendee of life drawing classes, it is unlikely that you have ever seen someone completely naked in a public setting, let alone been naked yourself. Thus, in true British fashion, when I was first informed that the hot springs in Taiwan offered both an indoor, nude pool and an outdoor, clothed option, I assumed I would always be sticking to the latter. 

My year abroad in Taiwan thus far had been stuffed with new experiences and going out of my comfort zone, but the Brit deep down inside of me still recoiled at the thought of stripping down and sitting in a pool alongside twenty odd other unclothed women. Eating cured jellyfish I could just about manage but being naked – God forbid!

It took the arrival of a friend from home, a little bit of silliness, and a strong determination to show her the ‘Authentic Taiwanese Experience’, for me to finally sum up the courage to give it a go, dragging Leah along with me. After all, what’s the point of doing something at all if you don’t do it properly?

Along with sushi-train restaurants and bullet trains, hot springs in Taiwan are a remnant from the era during the first half of the twentieth century when the island was ruled by Japan. Sitting at the convergence of two continental plate lines, Taiwan’s volcanic geography allowed the colonisers to import their hot spring culture, with the most famous site being that of Beitou, just north of Taipei and at the foot of the Yangmingshan mountains. 

Nowadays, the Beitou we arrived at still appeared as an idyllic Japanese village, as if we had been transported back in time to early twentieth-century Kyoto. Dotted with rich wooden buildings and tea houses, and mainly frequented by the elderly, the town was sleepy and beautiful, an unlikely location for our own personal nude revolutions. 

The disrobing process was admittedly a little painful, as after a commitment to being open-minded, Leah and I suddenly found ourselves standing in the changing room in a joint giggling fit, aware that just around the corner we were being harshly judged by those more sophisticated than ourselves. Eventually, we mustered up a veneer of composure and walked in.

The entire focus of the hot springs was the definition of self-care; to soak in the goodness of the warm water and spend an hour or so caring for your body. The room was filled with ladies practising aerobics or performing the gua sha routines we all wish we had. It didn’t matter one bit that their boobs and vaginas were hanging out for all to see – they didn’t care and so why should we?

 People often say that nudity can be liberating, but I had always thought that required a bold gesture leading to a grand, sudden rush of freedom and empowerment. This, however, was no I Capture the Castle moment. Instead, it was a slow process – as I sunk into the steaming pool, I also sunk into the comfort of not feeling self-conscious about my body. For most of my life, nudity has been sexualised, yet here, it was amazingly normal.

Not to mention, it is very hard to find nudity sexual when surrounded by ten or so butt-naked elderly Taiwanese women arguing over water temperature. 

Taiwan is not abnormal for having nude hot springs. As mentioned, the tradition originated in Japan, whilst a similar nude sauna culture exists in several European countries, including Finland and Germany, where saunas are sometimes entered naked regardless of whether or not they are segregated by gender. Not to mention, public baths across the Ancient Roman Empire were also attended en masse in the nude. 

I am still very much a Brit when it comes to nudity. I am not about to sign up to be a model for Oxford’s life drawing classes, nor do I plan to acquire a public indecency conviction by strolling around with no clothes on. The thought of entering a sauna packed with naked German men also still terrifies me. But, for an hour or so in the Beitou hot springs that Friday, my skin felt softer, my mind an inch more ‘year-abroady’ and, if asked to go back, I would in a heartbeat. 

Illustration credits: Yii-Jen Deng