Japanese Bathing Culture: Sento, Onsen, and Ofuro
Japan’s long bathing history and its spiritual roots
In Japan, bathing is a daily cleansing ritual. While Westerners thought bathing was unhealthy or at least unnecessary for hundreds of years, Japanese have long valued bathing’s purifying and healing properties.
The daily practice of bathing connects to the importance of purification in Buddhism and Shintoism. In both religions, washing oneself of all impurities is a critical step for followers. Visitors to Shinto shrines are discouraged from going while in poor health, or during menstruation. Shinto Shrines have temizuya (手水や - purification fountains) where visitors are expected to cleanse their hands and mouth before prayer.
Bathing has been tied to purification rituals since the beginning of the sixth century. Buddhist temples built baths for monks and visiting pilgrims to use for ritual cleansing. Building baths at temples was ingenious; they provided a social, spiritual space for people to congregate. The evolution of bathing practices in Japan has maintained a spiritual element, even as bathhouses and home baths became more widespread.
Japanese home baths- Ofuro
Ofuro (お風呂 - bath) refers to a large bathtub traditionally made of hinoki (ヒノキ - Japanese cypress), but more frequently made of more modern materials in homes today. The significance of the Japanese bathtub in Japanese culture is underscored by the attachment of an honorific O to the word furo (bath). Contrary to the typical Western bathroom layout, the toilet is typically closed off separately from the ofuro and shower area in a Japanese home. The modern Japanese bath is a high-tech affair that can automatically refill the tub or reheat the water.
Most Japanese bathe at night before bed, though many also shower in the morning, particularly during the intensely humid summer months. Bathing at night is a way to wash off the day and release bodily tension to relax for a good night’s sleep. Showering before entering the ofuro is to keep the ofuro clean so other family members can bathe too.
Japanese bathing is a social space. Within a home’s private ofuro, family members bathe together and discuss their day in a relaxing, device-free environment. The ofuro is an opportunity for “skinship,” or closeness between parent and child, in an otherwise very reserved culture.
Though ofuro are a common component of the modern Japanese home, the advent of the family ofuro is a relatively recent development. Up until the latter half of the 20th century, people bathed in public bathhouses, or sento.
Public bathhouses- Sento
Sento (銭湯) are public bathhouses where customers pay a small fee (around 400 yen in Tokyo these days) for entrance. Sento are not natural hot springs and therefore use plain hot water. For this reason, sento tend to be less luxurious of an experience than onsen.
In traditional sento, when you enter, there is a banto-san - or an owner of the sento - sitting on top of the barrier separating men and women’s sections. After you pay the fee and enter, there’s a changing room and locker area. Once ready, you open the glass door and enter the bath area. a barrier often separating genders in one large room. Shower heads and buckets line one wall so that bathers can clean themselves before entering the communal bath. Because sento have a more utilitarian purpose than onsen, it is within Sento-etiquette to bring shower caps and other bathing accoutrement into the bathing area.
History of Sento and public bathing
Bathing became a popular amongst common people who relished baths at Buddhist temples, leading to the development of sento by the end of the Heian period (794-1185). The KOnjaku Monogatari, a collection of over a thousand short stories assembled during the Heian period, makes references to public baths in Kyoto, the then-capital city. Heian Empress Kōmyō began the practice egan the practice of charity baths, wherein she would wash beggars at temple baths. Charity baths eventually became an act of reverence for ancestors and practitioners who would offer baths to any person, regardless of age, sex, or social status. The evolution of temple bathing to include charity baths and public bathhouses demonstrates the connection between religion and bathing in Japan. The popularity of public baths continued to increase, particularly during the Edo period (1603-1868).
Common people began bathing daily during the Edo period. Edo, modern-day Tokyo, was a densely populated commercial city. By the late Edo period, there were over 500 sento in the city, demonstrating the integration of bathing into the daily routine of Edoites. The two main kinds of traditional sento are furoya (steam baths) and yuya (centered on a large communal bath tub) though today, the communal bath is standard but called furoya. Both gender-divided and mixed baths were popular during the Edo period, despite the Shogun’s concerns about the potential for immoral behavior in mixed baths. The influx of Western influence during the Meiji era would once again reconfigure bathing practices.
During the Meiji era’s (1868-1912) push to industrialize and modernize, the prudishness of 19th century Westerners led the government to ban mixed bathing to make Japan seem more civilized. The Meiji era sento has remained the standard for public bathhouses today. After WWII, it was still relatively common for people to not have baths in their homes and attend sento at the end of their day. Sento continued to be built well into the mid-20th century, with the number of bathhouses reaching their national peak in 1968 at 18,325.
Today, the number of sento has dwindled to around 4,000, due in large part to standardization of ofuro in people’s homes. To compete with people’s personal bathrooms, some sento have evolved into “super-sento,” which charges a higher price than public sento but offers an all-day luxurious bathing experience like an onsen. Despite the indoor limitations of sento, most are decorated with murals, tile art, etc. that reflect the natural setting of onsen.
Japanese hot springs - Onsen
The Japanese archipelago is highly volcanic with over 100 active volcanoes (10% of all active volcanoes in the world) and rich hot springs. Over 25,500 hot springs bubble in Japan year round and are distributed according to the numerous volcanic chains running through the archipelago. The wealth of hot springs in Japan led to the development of onsen (温泉 -hot spring) resorts. Onsen are an excellent way to enjoy Japan’s natural beauty, particularly during cold winters.
Japanese have believed in the curative power of hot springs for over a thousand years. Healing benefits of each onsen depend on the minerals in its water; hydrogen carbon-rich springs smooth the skin, sulphurous springs help manage blood pressure and keep arteries supple, and iron-heavy springs soothe joints. Claims regarding the curative properties precede Buddhism’s introduction to Japan, and the onsen’s healing waters were frequently believed to be gifts from animals, gods or Buddhist deities. Many onsen rooted their credibility in mythological accounts of animals being cured by regular visits to the hot springs. While it is debated whether bathers actually absorb the beneficial minerals, Japanese longevity and long-standing dedication to onsen are a testament to the positive effects of natural springs.
Taking to the waters of onsen have historically carried spiritual/religious meaning in addition to their cleansing and healing properties. Devotional baths developed during the Muromachi period (1336-1573), an era of Japanese history marked by conflict, particularly during the late Muromachi period, known as the Sengoku (戦国) or Warring States period. Praising Buddha, devotional bathers would immerse themselves in the natural setting and pure waters of hot springs. Devotional and the aforementioned charity baths exemplify how Buddhism and bathing are intertwined in Japanese history and culture. Unfortunately, the links between religion, healing, and onsen led to levels of onsen propaganda which have since calmed down.