[From December Issue 2012]
Throughout Japan’s history there have been many works of art based on the theme of bathing. This shows that the relationship between Japanese people and baths runs very deep. One example of this can be found in the classic Edo-period novel “Ukiyo Buro” (The Bathhouse of the Floating World). A manga series titled “Thermae Romae,” which tells the story of a bathhouse designer from ancient Rome who travels in time to modern day Japan and creates an uproar, was adapted into a movie.
Some old Japanese words that exist to this day, such as “furoshiki” and “yukata,” are all related to baths. In the Edo Period, a furoshiki was a piece of fabric that was spread out on the floor while changing for a bath and was then used to wrap clothes in. The yukata was originally used as a garment that was worn while soaking in the bathtub. Once people started to take their baths in the nude, as they do today, the yukata began to be worn after baths.
Compared to the rest of the world, Japanese people are particularly enthusiastic about bathing. One of the reasons for this is that Japan is an island country. Being surrounded by the sea, the climate in Japan is very rainy and when the temperature rises, the level of humidity also rises, making it hot and sticky. It has been said that the culture of bathing in cool or warm water was developed because people living in these conditions wanted to freshen up, even if it was just for a little while.
On the other hand, there are many famous hot springs, or onsen, around Japan. This is because geothermal heat from volcanoes warms underground streams which bubble up out of the ground as onsen. These hot springs can be found all over Japan, and depending on the elements the water contains, its effect on the body differs from onsen to onsen. Soon spas were developed around Japan to welcome visitors who wished to bathe in the hot springs, places where travelers could stay over in hotels or ryokan.
Another characteristic of Japanese spas is that they have a strong connection to nature. For example, a mountain onsen will heal the fatigue of skiers, a seafront onsen will have a view of a vast expanse of ocean, and onsen in a valley will have a view of the trees as they change in color from deep green to autumn brown depending on the season. Hot spring spas that develop near places of scenic beauty and historic interest contribute to bringing in tourists to the area.
Today, “bathing in an ofuro” means to soak in a bathtub. But originally, a bath was a room in which people bathed in steam. So, in the old days, people would scrub themselves off in the steam, and then rinse with warm water. The small rooms that were designed to keep in the steam were called “muro.” This word is thought to be the origin of the word “furo.”
In the middle of the Edo Period the number of sentou, or public baths, used by people who did not own a bath, increased. The sentou was not just a place where people washed their bodies, but also a place for socializing, a place for fun. Sentou are divided into a men’s bath, “otoko-yu,” and a women’s bath, “onna-yu.” Although some places may be different, up until kindergarten age, it is not unusual for girls to be bathing with their fathers and boys with their mothers.
When speaking of public baths, many people think of Mt. Fuji as the mountain is commonly painted onto a mural on a wall beside the bathing area. It is said that this is because the shape of Mt. Fuji, with its wide fan-shaped base, is a lucky omen. People also like Fuji for its grandeur and rarely get tired of seeing it. But the biggest reason is probably that it is the landscape closest to everyone’s heart.
Japanese people love onsen, ofuro and sentou and this passion has led to the creation of today’s “super sentou.” With a variety of facilities under one roof, super sentou quite literally go “beyond public baths.” Entrance fees are higher than for traditional public baths, but these leisure complexes built all over Japan allow visitors to enjoy stone saunas, games, movies, karaoke and meals, in addition to simply bathing.
In recent years, bathing services, such as the “Hu No YU” scenic bathtub at CHUBU CENTRAIR International Airport (Aichi Prefecture), are being offered inside different businesses. Many travelers have healed their fatigue here. Hu No YU is on the fourth floor of the terminal building, so visitors can enjoy a view of airplanes and the sunset as they bathe. Stepping outside onto the deck, visitors can get a visceral experience as they hear the noise of the aircraft and feel the breeze on their skin.
Other than the hot springs and sentou, which are facilities to be enjoyed outside the house, there are also products to enhance the bathing experience at home. For example, aroma candles that float inside the bathtub, waterproof radios, and bathing pillows. They are not items to wash the body with, but are items for enjoying and enriching bath time.
Making bath time even more enjoyable, powders or liquids, that contain ingredients found in various onsen, are now popular. If you add these to your bathtub at home, you can enjoy an experience similar to that in an onsen, and because of this a wide variety of these are on the market. These are convenient because you can enjoy water from different onsen all over Japan every day without going to an actual hot spring.
Also there is a bathroom heater and dryer (a product that dries and warms the bathroom) with an “utase-yu” function. Utase-yu (hitting water) is a device that pours warm water over the person standing underneath producing a massaging effect. Mounting this machine on the ceiling allows you to enjoy the real utase-yu feeling in your own home.
Although in many countries showering is a quick and simple way to wash the body, the Japanese like to submerge the entire body up to the shoulders. Soaking in a Japanese bath is also effective way to revive the body. In a Japanese bathtub you can slowly warm your body up in winter. Developed in accordance with the country’s unique climate and geography, bathing is an exceptional part of Japanese culture.
Text: ITO Koichi