The Water Cure: The Japanese Bathing Ritual

Take inspiration from the Japanese ritual of the bath.

| September/October 2002

In Japanese culture, many everyday activities—arranging flowers, preparing the dinner plate, pouring tea—are practicewith a mindfulness that elevates them to artistry. So it is not surprising that the most intimate contact between human and water—the act of bathing—has also become a cherished tradition in Japan, with its own lovely ritual.

Although most Japanese homes are small by Western standards, nearly every household dedicates a room to bathing. And unlike American bathroom suites, where all hygienic fixtures are contained in a single room, the Japanese bath is constructed solely for the task of cleansing and refreshing the body. Its main feature is a deep, commodious tub, traditionally made of fragrant Hinoki cypress wood, though more modern materials may be used in contemporary houses. When possible, a window is positioned over the tub, so that bathers may take in a garden view. Adjacent to the tub is an open area, often equipped with a hand shower and a floor drain; the drain is sometimes covered with a slatted wooden floor, which feels soft and warm beneath the bather’s feet. This shower area may also be equipped with a small stool and a bucket—tools of the bathing ritual.

Bathing is an unhurried affair, and the bath is customarily taken in the evening. Removing everyday clothes, the bather puts on a yukata, a lightweight printed cotton kimono that is the traditional garment worn to and from the bath. In the bath, very hot water has been poured to the brim of the tub; the room is steamy. Before immersing, cleaning is done in the shower, with water scooped from the tub with the bucket. The bather, sitting on the shower stool, scrubs away the dirt and cares of the day, cleaning vigorously from head to toe.

Then, the hand shower or the bucket is used to thoroughly rinse off the soap suds and soil. The bather slowly immerses in the tub, for a leisurely soak that opens the pores. No soaps are used in the tub, but bath salts or other products that condition the skin and please the senses may be added to enhance the water. After immersing, another quick rinse in the shower follows, then another, longer soak. By the conclusion of this process, the bather is squeaky clean, refreshed, and relaxed. The yukata is donned, and the bather is ready for dinner and a quiet evening at home.

West meets East

A space devoted to leisurely bathing may seem out of step in Western countries, where the morning shower rules, yet those who have tried bathing Japanese-style are soon seduced by this sensuous, restorative ritual. And gradually, the concept of the deep soaking tub has captured the attention of Western bath designers. Custom and mass-produced soaking tubs are now available in many luxury materials, from the traditional Hinoki wood to stainless steel, copper, and porcelain. Prices are steep, however, and can easily run into the mid-four figures for tub and installation alone.

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