How to take a Japanese Bath

by Glenn Reynolds

As my review on the Japanese Bathhouse in Collingwood is one of the most popular on the site, I thought I might add a bit of information to help readers get the most out of a visit to a Bathhouse…

One of the quintessential acts of the Japanese, the bathing ritual is a great way to cleanse not only your body, but your soul. The architecture of a public bath or sento in Japan is similar to Japanese temple structures, reminding the visitor of its deep historical and cultural heritage, and signalling that the bather is moving from the outside world into a community of bathers.

Approaching the sento, you notice a cotton or linen banner or noren above the door with symbols to identify the building as a public bath. As you enter, the banner makes you bow slightly to progress into the building, a small part of the ritual of bathing, setting up the requisite attitude of humility, ready for the cleansing and relaxing process ahead.

1. Remove all clothing
Shoes are removed at the entrance, small change given to the host, who overlooks the bathing establishment and holds court as would a judge, ready to expel the misbehaving. Men separate from women and enter their own change room or datsuiba, leaving all clothing in a locker and proceed to the wash area to scrub. This change room marks a transition to the wet area of the bath, separating it from the rest of the building. In contrast to the inner world of the bathing area that is designed to be drenched with water, the datsuiba is kept dry and clean.

2. Scrub clean with soap and wash off
Seated on small stools in the wet area, the bathers use soap and shampoo to scrub away the dirt of the day, cleansing the skin in preparation for the languid soak in the tub. Never bring soap or soap suds into the bath water. This is prohibited. The water is to be used by many people, so it is imperative to be clean on entering the water.

3. Soak in the tub
The water in the soaking tub is usually very hot, scaldingly so in some public baths in Tokyo. Bathers recline and chat, catch up on the latest news or gossip, discuss work or just relax in quiet. Sometimes a sauna room is available, to rest in the steamy heat, followed by a dip in a cool pool, or back in the hot tub. Occasionally, specialist pools are installed, such as those that send an electric pulse through the water, to jolt the bather and stimulate the nervous system. Note: This bath is definitely not for everyone!

Both a social community and restorative process, the Japanese Bath is central to the self-understanding of Japanese people. To bathe this way is to be Japanese.

Some great books on the subject are:

Eric Talmadge’s Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath

With a great writing style, journalist Talmadge has offered a number of essays on his encounters with bathing in Japan, including sharing remote hot springs with Macaque monkeys, lone visits to shoreline mineral springs, public bathing and an eye-opening visit to Soapland, the prostitution district of Toyko. A rollicking read.

Scott Clark’s Japan, a View from the Bath
This gives a great overview of bathing in Japan, with reflections on the concepts behind the process, historical roots, the influence of Western cultures and a description of domestic, public and hot springs bathing practices. I especially liked Clark’s sociological reflections on the changes in practice over the years, and how the Japanese are able to allow influence from other cultures, but maintain a sense of their own identity.

Leonard Koren’s How to Take a Japanese Bath
This is a simple book with manga illustrations for understanding the process of Japanese Bathing. Although it contains few words, this illustrates the quiet, simple practice of bathing, and encourages a profound, meditative engagement with the bathing process.

If you are in Melbourne, you can try the
Japanese Bathhouse in Collingwood
or further around the bay on the Mornington Peninsula is the
Peninsula Hot Springs.

For those readers in NSW, try the
Japanese Bath House in the Blue Mountains.

Have you been to a Bathhouse in Japan, or elsewhere? How did you find the experience?

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