The Water Cure: The Japanese Bathing Ritual

By Staff
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In Japanese culture, many everyday activities–arranging flowers, preparing the dinner plate, pouring tea–are practice with 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.

So if creating a separate bathing room seems somewhat out of reach at the moment, many elements of the Eastern bathing experience can be captured in a traditional Western setting–without spending a fortune or tearing up a perfectly good set of fixtures.

Consider a few basic strategies:

Create a ritual

Collect your bathing needs–sponges, loofah, brushes, skin products–in a decorative tote or basket. This will make everything easy to find and remove the clutter from the tub edge or windowsill. Carry your bathing equipment from its stored location to and from the bath.

If you want to invest in a little luxury, get a real yukata, a traditional cotton bathing kimono (see “Resources,” page 47). It is not an expensive garment, and every time you put it on, it will make your bath or shower more special.

Part of the appeal of the Japanese bathing room is its spare simplicity. If the kids, your spouse, and the dog have all used the bath and shower ahead of you, take a few minutes to clear the clutter before starting your own cleansing routine.

Beautify your bathing space

If the bathroom has a window with a private view to a natural setting, take advantage of this lovely feature, and let the sunshine in. If there’s a view but privacy is an issue, use a translucent or bamboo shade so a hint of nature can still permeate the bath.

Make sure there’s a robe hook on the back of the door, a bar or pegs for towels; little else is needed to capture the spare look of a Japanese bath.

Instead of a plastic shower curtain, use one made of organic canvas or hemp; unless the bathroom is constantly damp, these natural fibers air dry well and are so much nicer to the touch than synthetic material.

Borrow from tradition

If your bathroom has an adjoining shower and tub, you’re sufficiently equipped to try the Eastern method. All you need is a shower stall with a flat floor, a small stool, and a bucket (a wooden one is nice; many Japanese specialty shops sell these). Then, you can sit and scrub, rinse off, and step cleanly into the steamy tub, just as the citizens of Tokyo or Kyoto might. (It’s fun, once you get used to the stool!)

Try making your daily ablution in the evening. It’s hard to break the morning shower habit, but you may find that a hot bath or shower in the early evening makes you feel happily invigorated. In their book The Japanese Bath (Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2001), authors Bruce Smith and Yoshiko Yamamoto note that a hot water bath or shower will stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, accelerating the secretion of adrenaline. If you are bathing just before bed, lukewarm water is more relaxing.

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