The Japanese Art of Bathing

Steeped in tradition the ritual of bathing is something quite special and unique in Japan, satisfying many different needs and purposes for Japanese people rather than purely being an act of hygiene. The act of taking a bath dates back thousands of years in Japan, however it remains as popular today as ever, with the majority of Japanese people taking time to soak in a bath each evening, after a long and often stressful day. In fact, it is something of a national pastime, with many Japanese listing a visit to an onsen hotel (hot spring resort) to be one of their favourite holidays. For the Japanese, bathing is seen as a daily cleansing ritual, as much for the mind as it is the body.​ ​

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Japanese culture has a close and harmonious relationship with nature. There is a strong appreciation and celebration of the changing seasons, the varied landscapes and plentiful freshwater found throughout the island nation. Water is an essential element in Japanese history, artwork and the way of life for Japanese people. As far back as the 6th century, people were visiting the onsen (natural hot springs) for medicinal purposes. Buddhist and Shinto water-based purification rituals are still highly appreciated by the Japanese for their physical and mental benefits- the purifying ritual relaxes and detoxifies the body and spirit. There are many benefits to bathing in a Japanese style, besides basic hygiene. Recovery from fatigue, pain relief, beautiful skin, flexibility, reduced anxiety and sleeping improvements are some of the most commonly noted benefits. Japanese medical research has also shown there are many health benefits from home bathing for stroke, heart attack, as well as anxiety and stress relief. Japanese believe that o-furo is as important to maintaining a healthy lifestyle as exercise, sleep and diet. 

There are three styles of bath in Japanese culture: sento a public bath house, o-furo a home bath, and onsen- hot springs. With the modernization of Japan in the 1950’s almost every Japanese home now had their own bath, so the number of people visiting the traditional communal public bath houses (sento) started to decline. A recent study revealed that 95.5% of Japanese homes have a bath, and perhaps more telling is the fact that no Japanese houses are recorded as only having a shower. This is something quite culturally different to most modern homes in Western countries that eschew a bath in favour of a space saving and time efficient shower. 

Traditionally, o-furo refers to a large hinoki wood bathtub, however the majority of baths in Japanese homes today are modern and include high-tech features to carefully monitor water temperature when filling and to re-heat when necessary. Maintaining the hot 40-42 degree water temperature is an essential part of the bath ritual. A Japanese bathroom layout contains a shower and o-furo in the same room, the toilet is typically closed off separately, contrary to many Western bathrooms. Ensuring that the bathroom is just that, a room for bathing.​ ​

Most Japanese bathe at night before they go to bed. Bathing at night is a way to wash off the day and release bodily tension to relax and prepare for a good night’s sleep. The process of bathing is two-fold: cleanse the body physically in the shower and then soak in the hot bath. For the bath itself is seen as the cleansing of the mind and the soul- not the body. Prior to entering the bath any makeup removal, body and hair washing is completed in the shower. When clean, the body must be rinsed well to ensure all soap is removed before stepping into the o-furo to bathe. The steaming bath water is significantly higher than in many other countries around the world and is maintained throughout the bath within the range of 40-42 degrees celsius. The deep Japanese bath style is designed to immerse the body up to the shoulders in the hot bath for 10-15 minutes for optimum health benefits.​ ​

Relaxing deep in the hot water is a therapeutic process and one that has as much relevance in today’s fast-paced modern world as it did in ancient times, when samurai visited hot springs to rest and repair after battle. This process of daily self-care, allows us to remove ourselves from the now constant connection we have with our smart phones to focus on ourselves, disconnect and revive the mind and the body. This holistic philosophy to health and beauty is something that is innately Japanese, and is increasingly being understood and adopted around the world. One Japanese medical expert, Hayasaka Shinya, MD, Professor Tokyo University and author of the book “The best bathing method” has created the term “mind-furoness” which succinctly explains the connection between the Japanese ritual of bathing and it’s health benefits to a global audience that is embracing the ancient philosophies of holistic health and wellness. In these recent stressful times the Japanese ritual of bathing seems more relevant to modern life than ever.​ ​

So tonight, why not take the extra time for yourself and take a bath. Add some essential oils or mineral bath salts, close your eyes, breathe deeply, soak and practice mind-furoness.​ ​

Related links
Rediscovering Sento- Japan’s public bathhouses
Research on Beauty in Japan Entry #3: Bath Time