Looking back twenty years, I had only been living in Japan a couple of months when I found myself sitting in a large Japanese bath surrounded by my naked coworkers. I was at an onsen (温泉), or Japanese hot springs, along with everyone else from my office, as part of our company weekend retreat. The purpose of the trip was not work, but simply relaxation, dining, drinking, and a little fun with colleagues. By getting away from the formality of the office setting, my boss told me, staff and managers can experience more natural communication and build better relationships which will be good for business in the long term. Eating and drinking are part of the onsen experience, and so is communal nude bathing which is thought to strengthen bonds among team members. This is when I first learned of the phrase Hadaka no Tsukiai (裸の付き合い) which means naked relationship or naked communication. My boss informed me that the Japanese bath is an important part of the Japanese way of life, and the ritual itself is also a kind of metaphor for healthy communication and good relationships. Through mutual nakedness we are all the same, he said. When you remove the formalities and the barriers through communal relaxation in the bath, you create a sort of skinship which leads to more honest, clearer communication. At least in theory, then, the hierarchical nature of Japanese relationships begin to ease as one soaks with others.
Connection with nature
The ofuro (お風呂), or Japanese bath, is an integral part of Japanese life. Just as the meaning of Japanese cuisine goes far beyond sustenance, the significance of the bath goes far beyond merely washing. For generations the sentō (銭湯) or "bath house" was a focal point in residential areas and a gathering place not just for bathing but for chatting, meeting friends, and generally feeling connected to others in the neighborhood. Today there are fewer sentō as all modern homes have a private bath, but the significance of the bathing ritual — whether at home, visiting an onsen, or at the local sentō — runs deep in the Japanese approach to life, which traditionally is closely tied to nature.
It may not seem like it sometimes in the ultra modern, fast-paced urban centers like Tokyo or Osaka, but nature, or shizen (自然), also plays a central role in Japanese culture. For many, the bath is a time for relaxation and contemplation and connecting with the natural surroundings outside the ofuro. The famous Zen scholar Daisetz Suzuki (1870-1966) often discussed the deep affection Japanese have for nature and how the yearning for that connection was something deep in all of us. "However 'civilized,' however much brought up in an artificially contrived environment," Suzuki-sensei said, "we all seem to have an innate longing for primitive simplicity, close to the natural state of living." The bathing ritual is a chance, then, to take some time off the grid of daily life and reconnect to that simple, natural state of living.
ABOVE: An older style of sentō. Although the public bath in the cities usually lacked the beautiful natural surroundings of an onsen, attempts were made to help visitors at least feel a bit of nature through large wall paintings. Fuji-san is a popular subject. (Photo source.)
ABOVE: The water in an onsen is extremely hot. Notice the washing area in the background. You sit on the wooden stools and use a bucket or shower with soap and a washcloth to thoroughly wash before entering the the large bath. The changing area is separate from the shower and bathing area.
ABOVE: The outdoor bath — rotenburo — is a particularly popular style of onsen bath. Here one feels the closest connection with nature.
Above: These are examples of private baths that came with our room at two onsens we visited in recently. The washing areas are just outside the photos. These type of onsen resorts also have large communal baths inside and outside for guests to use.
Above: It is not uncommon for brand new houses in Japan to have such a beautiful ofuro. Although most home bathrooms are not yet so beautifully designed, the basics of a shower/washing area and a deep bath which are both separate from the changing area is typical. It's not uncommon for new houses and remodeled homes, however, to included such aesthetically pleasing bathrooms. The showrooms at interior design centers such as Panasonic are packed on weekends. Checkout samples here. (Bathrooms, remember, are just that: bath rooms. The toilet has its own room unattached to the bathing area, except in the case of very small apartments and hotels.)
Seven Lessons from the bath
So what can we learn from the Japanese bath as it relates to communication and presentation? How is a Japanese bath like a presentation. Here are just seven ways:
(1) You must first prepare.
One must take time to thoroughly wash *before* taking a bath. And one must fully prepare *before* taking the podium.
(2) You must go fully naked.
Shorts and swimming suits are not allowed. You must enter the washing area of an onsen or sentō fully nude (save for a small washcloth). Presenting naked is about removing the unnecessary to expose what is most important. Naked presenters do not try to hide but instead stand front and center and share their ideas in a way that connects with and engages the audience.
(3) Barriers and masks are removed.
Removing our clothes is symbolically removing the facade and the walls that separate us. In today's presentations, visuals are sometimes used as a crutch rather than an amplifier of our message, thus becoming a distraction and a barrier themselves. Visuals in a naked presentation never obfuscate but instead illuminate and clarify. The naked presenter designs visuals that are simple with clear design priorities that contain elements which guide the viewer’s eye.
(4) You are now fully exposed.
The best type of bathing is in the roten-buro, or the outside onsen, especially in Fall or Winter. The water is hot and the air may be cold, yet you feel alive. Presenting naked is about being free from worry and self-doubt. Gimmicks and tricks and deception are inconsistent with the naked style. You are now transparent, a bit vulnerable, but confident and in the moment.
(5) You are on the same level as others.
Hierarchy and status are not apparent or important naked.The best presentations are less like a lecture and at least feel more like an engaging conversation in a language that is clear, honest, and open. Don’t try to impress. Instead try to, share, help, inspire, teach, inform, guide, persuade, motivate, or make your audience a little bit better. No matter your rank, a presentation is a chance to make a contribution with fellow humans.
(6) You must be careful of the time. Moderation is key.
Nothing is better than soaking in the hot water, but do not over do it. Too much of a good thing can turn unhealthy. A good presenter also is mindful of time and aware that it is not his time but *their* time. Remember the concept of hara hachi bu. Give the audience greater quality than expected, but be respectful of their time. Never go over your allotted time. Leave the audience satisfied but not satiated (i.e., overwhelmed).
(7) Feels great after you're done.
The bath will recharge you as it warms your body and it will energize your soul. After an important talk, if it goes well, you also feel invigorated and inspired. If we connect with an audience in a meaningful and passionate way that leaves them with something of value — knowledge, insight, inspiration, even a bit of ourselves — then we feel a sense of joy that comes from making an honest contribution. (Photo: with friends at TEDxTokyo after the bath at the Odaiba Onsen, their website is wild.)
Going naked and going natural are the key takeaways from the Japanese bath that, with a little creativity, we can apply to many aspects of our work and daily lives. In this time of ubiquitous digital presentation and other media tools, the tenets of nakedness and naturalness are more important than ever. At the end of the day, it still remains people connecting and forming relationships with other people. And that's best done naked.
• Photo essay of Japanese sentō by my buddy Markuz Wernli Saito
• Photos from one of our onsen trips in Japan.