Rebels with a Cause: A story of two meandering naturists

My blog is just over five years old now, and after an incredibly busy year with great periods of sparsity for managing new posts with fresh topics, I’ve exploited a bit of down-time in recent weeks to catch up. In doing so, it occurs to me that people rarely click back beyond a page or two of a blog, if that. In the blogosphere, everything is more or less in present tense, until it simply ceases to exist altogether.

And thus, it occurs to me that my sudden influx of new readers  – resulting simply from a sudden increased presence amidst all things naturist on the internet – have little or no idea who we are, how we found our way into naturism, and why we would seek ways to promote such a thing.

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First visit to La Jenny

Seems our story is unusual, as it was my wife who made the first foray into social nudity, and well before she was my wife, or even an acquaintance. Though we attended the same university in California, we had not yet met when she was enrolled in a Human Sexuality course that included an action research project. Most students stayed pretty closely on script, visiting a home for women, or a Planned Parenthood clinic. But my (future-tense) wife and a friend decided to venture out to a famous nude beach near Santa Cruz to see what all the fuss about. The was the early 80s, mind you, when the last wafts of free love were still blowing south from the Haight-Ashbury. They weren’t out looking for that, or anything else in particular. They simply thought it would make for an interesting term paper.

We had been dating for some time when she first told me this story, which immediately caught my attention given my proclivity for home nudity as a kid growing up in a very conservative household. My father would frequently rant about the newspaper stories that gave the play-by-play about a nearby nudist watering hole, and I think he was genuinely giddy when the police finally raided the place and sent all the hippies away to find their clothes.

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First visit to La Jenny

Suffice it to say, I was nude-curious, but it would actually be another three years until I would work up the courage to bare all, with all the typical concerns about male arousal, wandering eyes, and comparison shopping! We were married by then, and it was immediately evident my wife had – unknowingly at the time – married a serial naturist. Neither of us had the body types that played well in a swim-suit, nor were either of us fashion conscious enough to even join in that game. But naked on the beach became an immediate and persuasive common denominator that would come to define many other values in our relationship, beginning with this unusual thing that we shared with each other, to the way we’d eventually raise our children in regard to body acceptance and self-esteem.

It is worth noting that at this point of our lives, children arrived early, and money was tight! And beaches in Northern California were always a crap-shoot even at the height of summer, as it might be 90°F five miles inland, but round the bend near the ocean, and suddenly you’re shrouded in fog! We found a quirky hot-spring establishment that was close enough for an occasional Friday night date, and if we could save up enough for a real splurge, we’d visit a brand new little nine-room inn called Desert Shadows resort in Palm Springs, California. I remember fretting over our first visit, trying desperately to read the subtext on a primitive 1993 website (remember those?) as to where you could and could not be naked, and is there an implicit expectation that we will be doing more there than lying naked by the pool? We watched the place grow up, and even took the kids a time or two, and it was… “OK.” Except for the part when they would ask, “Where are the other kids, mom? Thought you said there would be kids here.”

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La Jenny, France

We also checked out a couple traditional nudist clubs in the Bay Area, then later, on the east coast, far enough inland to be warm, and remote enough to be naked. But almost without fail, not only were we the token familial unit on the grounds that day, but we would be saddled with the sales pitch of “You can come three times, then you need to become members.” Membership might have involved a commitment to helping with spring cleaning, or to serve chili at the cook-out dinner, but it almost always required a hefty annual membership fee that at the time was roughly equivalent to two months of our food budget. Perhaps a worthy investment for some, but beyond our means at the time, especially when we knew that life with young kids – at least for us – did not mean every weekend at the nudist club, particularly since we couldn’t find one where our kids didn’t feel like Thing One, Two, and Three.

In the meantime, I had been corresponding with a guy named Don (Cadonick, I think was his on-line forum name) on a server called Compuserve. Even in its time, it was basic technology, and one had the sense that when you hit send, a pigeon carried the message from the back of your computer to that of the receiver several states away. Slow, cumbersome, and awkward were the defining traits of the platform, but it was about the only place I could find an internet message board about social nudity, or… naturism.

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Naturist Dordogne, France

This guy Don was married to a French woman. He read my post about my frustrations in searching for a place where we could practice naturism as a family. A place where we would all feel safe, where the amenities would be a bit nicer than a 1950s church camp, and where the children would feel like they’re part of a real community with families like ours, doing things that families do! After bantering back and forth on the topic over several posts, he finally gave me the clear directive that what I was looking for most certainly did exist, but I was looking on the wrong continent. He pointed me to a place called La Jenny, west of Bordeaux on the south Atlantic coast of France, suggesting my efforts were futile until I found a way to get there and see it for myself.

Remember, we were long on children, and short on cash! So it took several years until my wife and I could make our first reconnaissance trip to naturist France. We checked out St. Tropez, (Yeah, I guess!) and the famous, or infamous Cap d’Agde (Oh! Well… That’s something!), then finally made our way to Village Naturiste La Jenny, where Don’s words immediately rang true. Naked or clothed, this was a beautiful holiday center for families from all over Europe where everything happened in (at least) four languages, and as weather permitted, most things required no clothing. Nirvana!

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Corsica, France

Our children were near adolescence before we could cobble together enough frequent flyer miles and loose change to get a family of five to France, but from then on, we somehow found a way to make the trek every other year, until things got a bit better yet and we could go every year. Strangely, we never morphed into one of those “naked at home” families you read about in naturist magazines. For our kids, naturism was a vacation in Europe kind of thing, and the day we would get home, they would essentially revert to traditional American household modesty values. That was OK with us. In the last place, nudity was simply not a thing – one way or the other.

Around 2004 I put together a website about our family naturist travels, and started getting more involved in various message boards that far exceeded the technology that had been offered by Compuserve. I lost track of my friend Don and never had a chance to tell him that we had made it to France, and that he was right! In the meantime, the activist part of me said this ethos must exist in America – we just need to help other naturist families find one another with all these newfangled internet tools. To that end, I started a new website called Naturist Family Network, which I managed in my spare time for perhaps a year or two, mainly trying to create an online community where “real naturists” could find one another. Frustrated with the outcome, I eventually handed that off, and I’m not sure… it may still be hanging around the web someplace.

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As such things do happen, our children grew up, our discretionary income increased, and our discretion to use it on ourselves changed quite dramatically. One advantage of starting a family young is still being (relatively) young when they leave home and graduate from college. As we both have an affinity for seeing as much of the world as possible, the value-added component of finding naturist places became nothing short of an obsession for me.  The upside is that looking for a naturist place in Brazil, Thailand, or South Africa most definitely pulls you off the beaten path to where the real people live, and we will long cherish the conversations we’ve had with other naked travelers we’ve met there. But at the same time, we’ve stumbled into the reciprocal downside – that outside of a few European countries where nudity is a normal part of the social fabric, (Thinking Germany, France, Spain, and Croatia to name the biggies!) social nudity is at least as complicated and quirky everywhere else as it was in California thirty years ago. It some places, quite a lot more so.

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Corsica, France

But alas, we continue to meander, seeking out unique travel experiences – naturist when possible, but with a good bit of exploring along the way – while documenting our travels in hopes of accomplishing two things. First, that people will come to think of naturist travel the same way they think about back-packing or ski vacations. “It may or may not be right for me, but it seems perfectly normal that other people would want to do that.” And secondly, an effort to simply normalize social nudity itself, until again people might say… that’s not a thing! In the same way that hiking or skiing is not a thing. At least, not a weird thing.

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Jerolim, Croatia

There is an interesting bi-product/conundrum of keeping this blog. Now married well over thirty years, we can earnestly say that travel and naturism are most certainly defining characteristics of our life together. And because naturism is what it is, that’s been somewhat removed from the rest of our hustle-and-bustle lives. Many of our friends and colleagues know about our nakations; many others simply know we like to travel. The fact that blogging makes the private part of our life “anonymously public” is  something of an oxymoron. We simply hope that in doing so, we might encourage a few others to take the leap, and join us in the crusade for making naturist travel and social nudity more mainstream and less circumspect. Like… it’s not a thing.

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The Labyrinth to Social Nudity in Japan

I have changed planes at Narita airport near Tokyo perhaps a dozen times, but somehow, never quite made it out of the airport to actually see Japan – until just a few months ago when I had an opportunity to attend a conference in Kobe. And alas, with that came an opportunity to visit one of the celebrated hot spring public baths that I’ve heard so much about over the years.

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I really had no idea what to expect, except for vague recollections of travel pieces I’ve read over the years. Travel banter from a cocktail party someplace? Somehow, I remember somebody describing a dark hall with wooden planks, and old men groaning as they lowered themselves into the scalding water. Sounding quite a bit short of alluring, I went digging on the internet to see what this famously Japanese custom was about, and if it warranted an afternoon of exploration on a cold winter’s day.

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Trip Advisor led me to the Kobe suburb of Arima; something akin to an Austrian ski village, but lined with high rise apartment and hotel complexes, it seems that hot water flows out of the mountain here in copious amounts, creating a holiday mecca for those who wish to spend an hour, a day, a weekend soaking in the healing waters.

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Turns out this is one of the more well known spots in the Japan to hang out with the boys – or hang out with the girls, but not a place where the boys and the girls will hang out together, at least, not while bathing. As I made my way through various trip reviews, I learned that nearly every hotel in this little valley had their own onsen – or hot springs bath – with the incentive of one stop shopping. “Stay in our lovely hotel, have a hot stone massage, and bathe in the magic water.” I was getting the picture, and so far, it didn’t sound much like my preconceived image of groaning old men in a dark cavern.

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To cut to the chase, I chose the Taiko no Yu onsen about a 10 minute walk, up hill, from the local train station, chosen in large part due to a reviewer who took the time to explain the process while providing a valuable tip, “Good place for first-time foreigners” as most of the signage has English subtitles.” That, by itself, was worth the price of admission.

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Things I wasn’t prepared for… and keep in mind, I’ve been naked on six continents… are many and substantial in this case. Beginning with the procurement of three lockers! One to hold your shoes, one where you leave your everyday clothing, and finally, one where you bare all (leaving your pajama like robe behind) and find your way to the hot mineral baths that have revitalized SO many souls over the centuries.

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The take away of my exploration is that naked is different here than naked in the western world, and would probably be a good bit different yet had it not been for the influence of the western world. Seems that in the days before WWII, during which Japan had been at least moderately successful in isolating themselves form western influences, nudity was essentially a non-issue. “You have boy parts. I have girl parts. Let’s bathe.”

Between the missionaries and the American military generals, it seems we convinced the Japanese to come to their senses and realize that social nudity, left unchecked, will lead to… well I don’t know what it’ll lead to as you can find pretty much anything you want on the internet these days, so what’s the big deal? In any event, today most Japanese onsens are gender separated.

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My experience – though very much limited to a one-day visit to a recommended Trip Advisor spa – was anything but sexual. In fact, this was very much a family affair, where the main (sole) objective is soaking in the magical mineral waters, some of which are clear (I personally like that!) and some of which are milk-chocolate brown (How do you know how deep the pool is when you can’t see the bottom?)

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Since it was a Sunday afternoon, many were there on family day outings, with children of all ages standing in line with their parents as if they we’re queuing up for admission to Disneyland. Of course, I can only speak to the ambiance of the male side, but once you leave your robe behind in the third locker room, nudity is prevalent and normal, even in congested areas where you can hardly get through the crowd without brushing up against another (naked) body. After the customary seated shower, I settled into one of the pools in the main area while observing with quiet awe that three generations of male humans were all enjoying the day of casual nudity and luxurious soaking. Not even in French family naturist resorts does inter-generational nudity seem like such a non issue. Somehow, they had missed the memo that a 10-year-old child seeing his father’s pubic hair or genitalia was an immediate and necessary precursor to psycho-therapy.

I’ve ruminated on this quite a lot since my visit to Japan, and have since found another great article from an author who’s experience was apparently quite similar to my own. The obvious and recurring theme continues to bare out the question: How is it we’ve made the human body so controversial when, in one version or another, our body parts are all pretty much the same. (That’s setting to one side that most cultures agree that the visibility of hands and feet is less far less egregious than the accidental sighting of a  penis or breasts.)  Seems to me the western world has done irreparable damage to this Japanese idea, as my impression is that fifty years ago, mom and dad would have been able to enjoy the entire day at the onsen together – as a whole family regardless of gender. But for those who worry about being caught climbing out of the shower by your 12-year-old, my brief qualitative survey suggests that children seeing their parents naked apparently does not scar them for lives. On this front, we westerners could learn a thing or two.

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