My Key to Assimilation—The Japanese Bath

japanese-bath

A long-time resident in Japan soaks up the history of one of Japan’s most beloved traditions.


By Charles Lewis


People are drawn to Japan for any number of reasons. Anime devotees come to bow at the altar of Ghibli. Foodies seek ramen and octopus balls. Cosplay fans pursue Gothic Lolita costume ideas. Scholarly types hope for a whack on the back at a Zen temple or a cup of hot tea in a chashitsu.

Some need to find work to pay back student loans, have met a Japanese significant other or are tossed onto these shores by the winds of of chance.

I fall into the latter category. I’ve been here a while and though I’ve had my ups and down I’ve enjoyed my stay and feel that I’ve found my place and that I’ve been accepted. The key for me to assimilating was quite simple.

The Japanese bath.

The Christian officers accompanying Commodore Perry in his Black Ships on their mission of Manifest Destiny were shocked to see men, women and children naked together in a public bath house in Shimoda and denounced “the licentiousness and degradation of these cultivated heathen.”

I’ve been hooked on the fine art of bathing in Japan since I was introduced to it by a sweet lass soon after arriving. I figured if the Japanese have been doing it since the Nara Era (710–794) when large temples provided the masses with public baths I may as well join them for a soothing, relaxing and enjoyable daily bath.

Public bathing is on the agenda of many tourists today and travelers can avail themselves of the many onsen hot springs, large super sento bathing facilities that resemble amusement parks or if they are feeling adventurous a small traditional neighborhood bath house for a trip back to the Showa Era (1926–1989).

The Japanese bath did not always sit well with some early visitors, however.

The Christian officers accompanying Commodore Perry in his Black Ships on their mission of Manifest Destiny were shocked to see men, women and children naked together in a public bath house in Shimoda and denounced “the licentiousness and degradation of these cultivated heathen.”

Sadly for me mixed public baths have largely disappeared but I enjoy visits to hotels, ryokan and minshuku for a dip in therapeutic hot spring and to dine on the to-die-for cuisine or the bath house down the road whenever I can but out of necessity I do most of my bathing at home.

In “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” Ruth Benedict called the Japanese bath “a fine art of passive indulgence” and it’s as true today as when she wrote it. I’ve found there’s no better way to end a day of labor and soak my cares away than a hot bath followed by the evening meal and perhaps a glass of cheer.

Bathing takes more time than a shower but on cold winter nights a hot bath is the perfect way to warm up my body and soothe my soul. Sometimes I toss in some of the wide variety of bath salts available for extra warmth and come out smelling fresh.

I envy friends who live in newer residences with larger baths but my traditional small, deep ofuro does the trick. It’s a little tight but when I pull my knees up towards my chest and lean back I’m in a state of bliss.

Truly old school bathing, circa 1911
Truly old school bathing, circa 1911 (Photo by A.Davey, used under CC)

Japanese baths are often portrayed as scalding hot but it’s not written in stone. I adjust the temperature according to the season and my mood. Cleaning the bath is not too much of a chore with my long handled scrub brush, some bath cleaner and a little elbow grease.

Tourist guides and posters in bath houses state that a full scrub down is required before getting in a bath tub but if there is any place where rules were made to be broken Japan is it, especially when you’re in your own home. I frequently take the unrestrained pleasure of getting two soaks out of one bath by rinsing thoroughly and getting in the tub for a soak, getting out, washing properly and then jumping back in. In summer I beat the heat by washing and rinsing with cold water before my second soak.

While no place is Utopia I appreciate many things about Japan – the wonderful food and drink, the efficiency, the safe streets – and the daily bath, the one constant I just can’t do without.

Main Image: “Private Paradise” by Chris Robinson used under CC

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