In Japanese culture, taking a bath is more than just a daily activity to maintain proper hygiene. Bathing in Japan is akin to a meditative ritual —a time to renew, revive, relax, and cleanse the soul. To the Japanese, bathing is about washing away stress and sending the cares and worries of the day down the drain.
Since ancient times, water and bathing have been associated with a cleansing of the soul. Many daily routines and activities in Japanese life—from flower arranging, gift wrapping, and preparing meals to home decor, beauty rituals, and pouring coffee—are practiced with an intentionalism and mindfulness that elevates them to artistry. So it comes as no surprise that the most intimate contact between humans and water—the act of bathing—is also steeped in tradition and ritual.
Though it is not clear exactly when or how the Japanese passion for bathing began, Shintoism and Zen Buddhism, two of the country’s oldest religions, both associate water with spiritual purification.
Types of Japanese Baths
In Japan, baths are normally taken in three different places: Onsen (Japanese hot springs,) Sento, (Japanese communal baths,) and Ofuro, (in one’s own home, like the common western bath),
Onsen, a naturally-occurring hot spring, usually caused by geothermal activity, is an essential part of Japanese bathing culture. A hotbed for volcanic activity, there are thousands of hot springs spread throughout Japan. To be officially classified as an onsen, a hot spring must have a natural temperature of 77˚F/25˚C or more before any artificial heating elements are used. It also must contain at least one of 19 different naturally occurring elements, often including minerals such as iron and sulfur.
The term onsen refers to both the natural hot spring and the business that provides access to these hot springs as communal baths. Ryokans, a subcategory of these businesses are Japanese inns that operate as traditional hotels offering access to natural onsens. There are also onsen towns, located in historically significant onsens which contain a variety of onsen businesses and ryokans, all serviced by the same natural hot spring.
Though the Japanese onsen has been in existence for thousands of years, the role these hot springs played in daily life has changed throughout history. Once considered to be a medicinal practice, used for treating various ailments and illnesses, the waters of onsens were believed to have mystical properties, according to ancient Shintoism. This led to their role in Shinto purifying rituals. In ancient times, they were used as healing baths for the Emperor, and reserved for members of the Japanese society’s upper class.
During the Edo Period (1603 to 1867), a period characterized by economic growth, modernism, and strict social order, when a vibrant urban culture developed in the city of Edo (today’s Tokyo) and Kyoto. Often referred to as Japan’s “early modern” era, onsens gained in both popularity and accessibility to the general public during the Edo period. Many houses were built without bathrooms, which meant visits to the onsen to bathe were a part of everyday life.
Healing Benefits of Onsen
The benefits of onsen vary by the mineral and chemical makeup of the water. Some of the general health benefits offered by onsens are fatigue reduction, relief of muscular pain, stress reduction, and an improvement of the skin’s appearance.
Specific hot springs cater to different issues based on the chemicals in the water. Sansei-sen, or acidic water, is often praised for its ability to improve skin issues, including healing scars and even curing some chronic skin problems. On the opposite end of the spectrum, alkaline water, (‘bijin-no-yu,’ or “the water of beautiful women,”) is revered for its beautifying skin benefits. Alkaline water helps to smooth and exfoliate the skin and reduce dark spots.
Another healing mineral in onsen water is magnesium chloride useful for those with chronic pain, joint issues, and sleep disorders.
One of the more interesting and rare types of onsen water is tansan-sen, or carbonated water, found in southern Japan’s onsens. The carbonation in the water is said to help improve blood circulation and have detoxification properties.
With so many variations in water composition, texture and appearance, from milky white sulphuric water to fizzy carbonated water, the vast array of onsen throughout the country allow for a wide range of health benefits and experiences.
Though traditional medicine has long replaced the onsen as a prescription for disease, the Japanese bath remains popular to this day.
There are more than 20,000 onsen facilities located across Japan. While there are still onsens in Tokyo, they are higher in abundance in more rural areas where traditional Japanese inns dot the countryside.
Though many onsens are located in the wide open so bathers can feel one with nature and experience the overall pleasures of bathing under the stars, many are enclosed inside structures designed to keep the elements out, but keep the experience intact.
The outdoor onsen is known as rotenburo, which translates to “bath amid the dew under the open sky.” The hitou, or “secret hot springs,” are indoor baths that draw their water from the onsen.
A long-standing part of Japanese culture, the onsen has always provided a respite from life’s difficulties and daily stressors. Whether it is through belief in their health benefits or through improved family bonds, onsens have been a cornerstone of Japanese society for centuries.
Onsen are ubiquitously popular throughout Japan, but since not everyone can live near a natural hot spring, the emergence of the public bathhouse, or sento, was introduced for those living in areas without onsens. First appearing in the latter part of the 16th century, sento is an artificially-created onsen that brought about a dramatic change in Japanese bathing culture.
Sento is a public bath that can either be sourced from a natural hot spring or running water. The water is artificially heated and any beneficial mineral elements to the water are added, rather than naturally occurring. In modern times, this has evolved further to allow the creation of super-sentos, multifloor sento buildings with themed bathing areas.
Historically, sento was the center of community life in Japan, a place to gather and connect with friends and neighbors. In ancient times, when many homes were not equipped with private baths, sento was a place for folks to come together in the evening to discuss the day’s events, compare stories with one another, and even gossip. Like a corner American bar, sento has long been at the core of Japanese culture. Today, amid increasing concerns about germs and disease, (especially in the era of Covid,) and the fact that modern Japanese homes have their own baths, the fate of the sento is unknown.
Ofuro is a Japanese word that is used both as a noun to describe the physical bath and a verb to describe the act of bathing. Typically made of wood, such as cedar or cypress, Ofuro is the most common form of bathing in modern Japanese culture.
Unlike in the US, where most people bathe to clean their bodies and wash their hair, bathing in Japan is a practice steeped in history and tradition. More than a quick jump-in and jump-out daily routine, the bath is not about cleansing the body in Japan; rather it is a ritual performed at the end of the day to cleanse the mind.
Because the bath is seen as a vessel used to purify the whole body and soul, it’s essential that the water in the Ofuro be free of soaps, shampoos, and dirt. More akin to an American hot tub, which is not emptied and refilled every day, because the water in an Ofuro is kept clean, it is common for families to share the water and reuse it for days at a time.
The Cleansing Phase
Because Ofuro in Japan is not used for hygienic purposes, the body is cleansed before entering the bath.
To keep the Ofuro clean and pure, bathing in Japan is done in two phases. The first step involves cleansing the body in a small shower or sink, using splashes of bathwater scooped with a hinoki wooden bucket before proceeding into the bathtub to soak.
Japanese Bathing Etiquette
- The body is washed before entering the bath.
- Hand towels or washcloths are generally not brought into the bath
- There are no soaps, shampoos, or conditions used in the ofuro to keep the water clean
- Soaking hair is not acceptable.
Similar to showering off in a pool shower after the beach, cleansing before entering the bath is considered considerate of others, allowing for a more relaxing bath experience.
The Soaking Phase
Soaking in a bathtub at the end of each day is a way of life for many Japanese. In part, it is a daily routine to rid the body of the contaminants and dirt from the outside world; and in part, it is a relaxing ritual used to warm the body to withstand even the coldest and longest winter nights.
Soaking and relaxing in the bath is about pure enjoyment—a time and place to be completely present and reconnect with self after a long, busy day. In most Japanese bathrooms, there is a separate area used to wash the body and hair before entering the warm bath to soak and relax. In the bathing area, there is a shower hose or a bucket of water with which to rinse. On the bathroom floor, next to the bathtub, there is usually a stool where the bather can sit down to wash their hair and body.
Only after all of the soaps and shampoos are rinsed from the hair and body does one enter the bathtub. Because the bath water is not used for cleansing, the tub doesn’t have to be emptied and refilled after each use and can be shared among other members of the family. Though traditional ofuros in Japanese homes had lids to keep the water warm until the next member bathes, modern ofuro bathtubs have temperature control.
The appropriate temperature for bath water is 104°-107°F (40°-42°C), but immersing your body in a slightly cooler bath, 100°F/38°C for 30 minutes is said to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, relaxing the mind and body, and improving the quality of sleep.
Since the new bathtubs have temperature control, water can be reused for days. In large families, where parents and children take daily baths, the baths are usually refilled once or twice a week.
In Japan, families bathe in order, with the eldest and male members going first. In a typical multi-generational family, the order would be as follows:
Rooted in their deep respect for natural resources, the Japanese are extremely conscious of water conservation and use an innovative system to recycle the water they discard from their bathtubs. After the water is no longer useful for their baths, they connect their tubs to a washing machine and use this water to wash their clothes.
The Japanese are also masters of efficiently using space and they apply this skill to their bathrooms as well. Ofuro tubs are shorter in length than regular western tubs but they also have greater depth, which means one can soak in a sitting position with warm water up to the shoulders. The smaller size not only uses less water but the reduced surface area keeps the water warm longer.
Many Ofuros come with built-in benches, allowing users to sit comfortably. Though the Japanese Ofuro is most often made with Hinoki, an aromatic wood revered for its beauty and strength, the modern-day bathtubs in Japanese homes are made of synthetic materials such as acrylic or FRP fiberglass, similar to that of western baths. The size of today’s Japanese tubs falls between that of traditional Japanese tubs and western style tubs.
The Japanese style bathroom consists of a bathtub and a separate washing area (arabia). The arabia is an area in front of the tub, equipped with a shower and a faucet and with a drain in the floor. The user sits on a stool and cleans the whole body, then rinses away any soaps or cleansing agents before entering the bath. For this reason, the bathroom itself needs to be waterproofed as if it was a large walk-in shower.
The preferred time to take a bath in Japan varies. Some people prefer to get straight into a bath when they get home from work before eating dinner or going out to socialize with friends. Others prefer a long and relaxing bath just before bed. There are also some who prefer to bathe in the morning before going to work. While, like most aspects of private life, the time of day to enjoy a bath is a personal preference, the Japanese all share a love of the ritual, unlike any other culture on earth.
Bathing has played an essential role in Japanese culture throughout history. From its roots in Shinto spirituality and belief in its healing properties to its importance in the community and family life, the bath provides a respite from the stress and strife of daily living.
A time and place to rinse away the physical and spiritual contaminants of the outside world, quiet the mind, shower one’s self with calm, and become centered with self and the universe, bathing has been an integral part of Japanese life since ancient times.
More than just a daily routine to maintain proper hygiene, bathing in Japan is immersed in tradition. A meditative ritual, bathing is about washing away stress and sending the cares and worries of the day down the drain. A time and place to renew, revive, relax, and cleanse the soul, bathing is an essential element in daily Japanese life.
Though Japanese bath culture has evolved with the ages, the mindful, intentional, and zen practice of bathing, seeped in rituality, continues to flood the mind, body, and spirit with a sense of well-being and drench the soul with peace.