BRITA worldwide

Series: Bathing culture and water rituals Part I



In Japan, a elaborate bathing culture has developed over the course of centuries. In contrast to practices in Western cultures however, the Japanese do not get themselves wet to cleanse themselves. No, they strengthen relations with each other in naked bathing rituals. Friends and family immerse themselves together into an o-furo, sento or onsen. For in Japan, water (mizu) is the substance that binds people.

Clean meeting 
The Japanese bath is like a stern, elderly lady who highly values a well-groomed appearance and the strict observation of etiquette. She sees everything and forgives nothing. For there are precise ideas about decency and morality, irrespective of whether the Japanese person wishes to bath at home or in public. And everyone who gets into water observes a very complex code of behaviour.

One of the worst offences of the uninitiated is to confuse cleansing and bathing. Thus someone who enters an o-furo (family bath, bathtub), sento (public bath) or onsen (thermal spring) without first washing themselves is seen to be extremely unmannered. The arrival of an unwashed person causes a similar level of outrage and disgust among others bathing as does someone attending to the call of nature in a public pool in Western nations. In Japan, bathing not only serves the purpose of cleansing the body, rather, its primary goal is relaxation, letting oneself go. Particularly in public baths, being with other people and communicating with them play a large part. It is the place where people meet family, colleagues and friends or make new acquaintances.

Clean rituals
The bathing ritual is always the same. First, men and women visiting a public sento or onsen take off their clothes and put them in baskets provided for that purpose. Then they thoroughly clean their bodies: Sitting on a low stool, they carefully rub soap all over their bodies, scrubbing them with a brush now and then, and rinse themselves with plenty of clear water. Then, when they are pink and spotless, they climb into the pool. Because lots of people share the water both in public and private baths, it must not be polluted with soap or shampoo. Thus bathers even wash their hair beforehand.

The private o-furo is a wooden tub or a basin which sometimes accommodates an entire family and friends. Generally speaking, Japanese baths are considerably larger and especially deeper than central European ones. Thus the whole body up to the chin is covered with water and people can relax in them without their shoulders getting cold. Modern models are even equipped with a computer-controlled system that constantly filters the water and heats it according to requirements. Traditionally, the owners use the water in the o-furo several times, by covering it to keep it warm for a number of days. If the tub is too small for all those wanting to bathe, then people take turns according to a strict order of rank: Guests are always first, then the head of the family and finally the rest of the family.

Hot customs
The islands of Japan were formed out of volcanic rock, which also gave rise to the country's over 1000 thermal springs, the onsen. It is presumably owing to these flowing resources that the Japanese developed their preference for hot baths:
A gaikokujin (foreigner) is not so hasty to voluntarily dip his foot into an o-furo or onsen containing water of 43 to 56 degrees Celsius - the Nihon-jin (Japanese person), on the other hand, has no problem. Yet even the natives are advised to get in slowly, so that the body can get used to the high temperature of the water gradually. In this way, muscles enter deep relaxation and the body is thoroughly warmed through. Depending on the chemical composition of the individual springs, they aim to alleviate various physical complaints, for example, skin disorders, rheumatism and metabolic complaints.
Onsen are frequently part of particularly beautiful landscapes and are formed from natural materials. Small gardens with wooden bridges, stone lanterns and marble baths invite visitors to spend some time there and create an additional aura of calm. Open-air onsen are sometimes found in picturesque natural settings such as caves and behind waterfalls. Most of them however are in the mountains and are operated as hotels.

Rippling business
Water is the central element in Japanese culture. We find it in the country's history, in its literature and mythology. We can no longer imagine artistic forms of expression such as horticulture and landscape painting without it. Nonetheless, water is part of Japanese everyday life. This is evident not only in the penchant for taking hot baths in society. The entire world of adult entertainment in Japan has established itself under the name "mizu shobai" (water business). There, people go to "soaplands", bars and saunas mostly for very intimate "washings", however, contacts made there generally do not last long.

Relaxed equality
Serious bathing houses like onsen and sento, although they do not counteract the very rigid hierarchical social ranking in Japan, they do partly dissolve it. The bath represents a kind of social grey area, a no man's land, where the people slip out of the social rules at the same time as they slip out of their clothing. Thus guests experience both physical and mental relaxation, because complete equality means social convergence: People converse, find out the latest gossip or participate in others' stories. Although most apartments have had a bathroom since the 1960s, for many Japanese it is obligatory to spend every evening in a bath at a sento. It is a fixed part of their everyday culture, especially the "bathing rush hour" between 6 and 7 p.m.

If you also want to experience "hadaka no tsukiai" - the friendly naked meeting, then look for people in the evening who are dressed in a yukata (cotton kimono) and are carrying a plastic bucket of shampoo. They are sure to be going to a sento. The stern lady, with her undiluted gaze, rewards everyone who knows to follow her rules.
Gaijinperson from outside, Westerner (negative)
Gaikokujinforeigner (polite)
Hadaka no tsukiai literally "naked relationship"
O-furoprivate bath, bathtub
Onsenthermal bath
Nihon-jinJapanese person
Mizu shobaiwater trade, water business
Sentopublic bath
YukataJapanese: unlined cotton kimono