I still remember my disgust when I read the section on bathing that came with my study abroad packet: ‘In Japan, bathwater is shared by family members.’ Ewwwww! What I’d come to find out over my 6 + years living there, however, is that far from gross, the Japanese have perfected the art of bathing and cleanliness.
To the Japanese, bathing is more than just cleaning the body; it is a purification ritual preformed for the gods of Shinto. Cleanliness (think: taking off your shoes at the entrance to avoid bringing in outside dirt) is a way to honor the gods and thus a dirty house, unkempt clothing, and of course, a dirty body (like smelly feet!) are in a very real sense signs of ungodliness and disrespect. A historian noted that when the Americans finally entered Japan’s borders in 1853 all we saw was an ‘uncivilized society’ of men wearing sandals and still fighting with swords, while the Japanese saw us as nothing more than ‘filthy barbarians’ because of our poor hygiene.
In modern day Japan, the religious aspect of bathing is all but lost; however, the importance of and special regard for bathing remain the same. Up until the economic boom of the 1980s, many Japanese homes did not have a bath and thus people would visit the local public bath or sento regularly. At only a few coins a visit, this gave people not only the opportunity to get a nice scrub, but also a chance to chat with their neighbors and catch up on the latest gossip. Sento were traditionally unisex, although nowadays most (but not all!) are divided by sex.
Of course, nearly every home in Japan today has a bath. Whereas Westerners often feel the kitchen is the heart of the home, most Japanese families feel this way about their bath or ofuro. Parents often bathe with their young children, and any young children in the house, including visitors, will often bathe together. I was even asked by a dear friend’s 4-year old daughter to take a bath together. I gave in and was quickly humbled by the young child’s honesty of my less-than-Japanese-ideal body size. But she had a wonderful time squirting water at me and playing with her toys (I eventually got her to actually bathe!), I had a great time as we ‘studied’ Japanese together using the bath letter stickers, and of course her parents were so pleased that I was willing to become ‘part of the family’ by sharing this intimate time.
One thing to keep in mind is that sharing bathtime is much easier because of the Japanese-style bath itself. Unlike our tubs and/or showers, the Japanese bath is an entire room. In one corner will be the actual bath, a deep tub that allows the user to sink all the way up to their neck in the water, and the rest of the room will have at least a small, low, bucket-style chair and most likely some kind of scooper. Traditionally, you fill the bath with hot water (typically over 100 degrees Fahrenheit), use the scooper to scoop the water and bathe outside the tub, and when you’re clean and rinsed off, then finally you submerge into the hot bath. Because the body is already clean, the bath water can be used by many people and in many cases, for more than one day (by just reheating it). The key is bathing and rinsing outside the bath, something many foreigners often aren’t aware of and thus end up ruining perfectly good bathwater.
Bathing is typically done before bed and is the perfect way to not only wind down after a demanding day, but also to warm the body to endure the cold heater-less nights (as most Japanese do). It’s not uncommon for Japanese people to spend 30 minutes to an hour soaking, and recently, many TV makers have been producing bath TVs just for this purpose. Bath salts are common additions to baths and come in every scent and ‘health benefit’ imaginable (a popular one is for weight loss), including summer ones that claim to cool the body, even in the hot bath.
One cannot discuss bathing in Japan without mentioning a favorite of mine and of most foreigners I know (and of the Japanese), the onsen or hot springs! As Japan is made up of volcanic islands, it’s only natural that hot springs can be found all over the country. The iconic image of the monkeys bathing in the snowy hills comes to mind. I personally never went to any northern onsen and thus never had the opportunity to have my clothes stolen by some Japanese monkeys, but I did enjoy my town’s local onsen on a regular basis and it is by far one of the things I miss most. Onsen come in all forms, from fancy spa-like ones, to the more traditional and humble ones you can find out in the countryside, but they should never be mistaken for the above-mentioned sento as unlike sento, which are just simple tap water baths, onsen baths are full of natural minerals, supposedly good for all kinds of ailments. Many onsen offer various types of baths, including Jacuzzi-style ones, cold ones (for cooling down after the sauna), and of course my favorite, outdoor ones. My local onsen had nine different types of baths, plus a dry and wet sauna, and only cost $8 for as long as I wanted to stay. After enjoying the baths, we would often don the provided yukata or cotton robes, exit the bath and join the boys for some food and drinks at the onsen’s restaurant. After filling up we may leave or get back into the baths, making sure we went back into our correct side. (One of the guy’s fantasies of entering the women’s side was crushed when he accidentally did just that one day and to his utter disappointment, found it full of obaachan or grandmothers, as is typical!)
If you go to Japan, you will have the opportunity to experience a Japanese-style bath pretty much anywhere you stay. Many of the cheaper places, including cheap hotels, capsule hotels and hostels, will only offer a large public bath (nearly all are divided by sex). Private baths can be found in rooms but will be ‘Western-style’ due to the size constraints. Japanese-style inns or ryokan may offer private baths, but expect to pay for that luxury. Many others have onsen in the actual inn- be sure to ask when you make reservations. If you’re interested in onsen there are several famous onsen towns around the country, including Hakone, Beppu, and Arima. You can stay here and wear your yukata around town as you ‘onsen hop.’ One thing to note, because tattoos are generally associated with the yakuza or Japanese mafia, be sure to cover yours up with a large bandage or you may not be allowed to enter.
Regardless of your comfort level with nudity, be sure to enjoy at least one Japanese-style bath if you visit this country. And no, if you see them point and talk about you, they’re not talking about your thighs, they’re talking about your not being Japanese!! Give them a smile, and sit back and enjoy the warm bliss- this is the REAL JAPAN!
Author: Mellissa is originally from a suburb of Atlanta. After studying Japanese by chance in college, she headed to the Land of the Rising Sun on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program where her intentions to stay three years soon changed after she fell in love with a native son. Now married, Kazushi (Kaz) and Mellissa are living back in her hometown with their adorable pugs, planning our next big move. “My experiences have shown me that while travelling will show you the ‘what’ and ‘where’, living abroad, and especially international marriage, will expose you to the ‘how’ and ‘why’.”