Baths and Bathing in Japan

Cleanliness is one of the few original items of Japanese civilisation.

-Sir Basil Hall Chamberlain*

Bathing is an old Japanese custom.  I’ve never really researched just how far back it goes, but in the 1900s when Sir Basil Hall Chamberlain wrote Things Japanese, he commented on the uniqueness of bathing daily, and of using hot water.  In his autobiography, Fukuzawa Yukichi, noted on his first trip to America in 1860 that “the officials… on learning  the Japanese custom of bathing frequently, they had baths prepared daily.**”  So it was then, far before America, that the Japanese of at least upper classes bathed regularly.

Perhaps it was the abundance of rain throughout much of Japan, or the natural hot-spring baths that helped it become such a part of everyday life in Japan.  Whatever brought it about has create a uniquely Japanese custom, now shared by much of the world.

Bathing at Home

Since bathing has been around longer than water heaters in Japan, hot water had to be drawn from natural hot spring sources by pipe (often bamboo) or more usually, heated for daily use by fire.  Since it was problematic to heat that much water for every family member, it became common to wash outside of the tub, then relax in the hot water after being cleaned.  Each family member could then use the same hot water to conserve fuel and the water itself.  Since Japan was a hierarchical society, men would bathe first, then women, in order of age oldest to youngest.

Today most Japanese homes employ gas heaters that have to be turned on.  This heats water as it moves through the device, rather than storing large quantities of hot water in a separate tank.  This difference is due to the premium on space and the higher likelihood of earthquake.

Since it is still costly to heat and pay for the water for a bath every day, it was common for communities to have local bath houses for the neighborhood to use. These were places for communities to socialize and meet.  Today they are less common and many houses have their own baths.   The picture on the right is a small tub in my apartment.  Beside it is a tiled floor with a drain so that one can wash before getting in the tub.  In old Japan, one would wash with a nuka bukuro [bran bag]* which was a small bit of linen filled with bran.   Today, both Japanese and western soaps are available.

Onsen

One of the great luxuries in Japan is onsen, or open-air baths.  Since Japan is largely volcanic, there are many areas of naturally occurring hot springs throughout Japan. In communities with them, the water is often piped to bath houses, or to outdoor pools for the community and patrons to use.  Many claim to have healing or other properties due to the minerals, but they almost all provide a relaxing experience.  This picture shows a town in Kyushu Japan were the abundance of natural hot springs send steam rolling into the winter air.

The thing that gets many foreigners is that both open-air and bath houses are utilized while nude.  Since one showers outside the tub, then relaxes, inside, introducing clothes with various dirt, oils, etc. would defeat the purpose and dirty the expensive mineral waters more quickly.  There are both gender separated baths and unisex.  In Japan this is not an issue as it would be in western countries because “the nude is seen in Japan, but is not looked at.*”

The idea of bathing, and the healthful nature of it has even grown to Okinawa, where the higher temperatures and lack of natural hot springs make bathing more difficult.  On Kumejima Island, they have crated their own unique form of onsen by drawing on the mineral rich deep-sea water drawn from the ocean.  This water is then heated at the Bade Haus Spa where locals and tourists can enjoy warm water and massaging jets, sauna, and more.  Unlike traditional baths Bade Haus’s main pool area requires swimsuits and is open to the whole family.  In a nearby complex they also offer more traditional gender separated outdoor baths that are enjoyed in the traditional fashion.

More on Baths

While things are changing in Japan, and community bathing is quickly becoming a thing of the past, onsen are a luxurious retreat enjoyed by many throughout the country.  If you ever visit Japan, take the time to experience the soothing waters of a slow soak after touring around.

The film Sen to Chihiru (Sprited Away) is a popular Japanese animation that appeared in the States back in 2002.  The story takes place at a bath for spirits and provides a sneak peek into bathing culture in Japan!

*Things Japanese  by Sir Basil Hall Chamberlain.  Stone Bridge Press page 64-65.

** The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi translated by Eiichi Kiyooka.  Columbia University Press page 112.