The Japanese Bathing Culture

Jumping into a pungent sulphur pool in Turkey, ice swimming during winter in Russia, or splashing around for a mud bath in the Dead Sea in Jordan… they are all part of experiencing the traditions and culture of a particular country.

Japanese onsen

Japanese onsen.

Japan, being an island nation, has literally thousands of hot spring resorts or onsen scattered all over the country. There are also communal public bath houses called sentō. A sentō varies from an onsen, which uses hot water from a natural hot spring. At an onsen, the bathing facility has at least one bath filled with natural hot spring water. The natural spring waters of Japan are highly prized for its mineral content and is one of the most popular attractions in the country. A dip in an onsen is a relaxing way to enjoy the one of the oldest Japanese traditions.

Dogo onsen

The Nihon Shoki (日本書紀), “The Chronicles of Japan,” completed in 720, is the second oldest book of Japanese history. It is considered the most complete extant historical records for many archeologists and historians.

Dogo onsen, one of the oldest onsens in Japan.

The Nihon Shoki references three of Japan’s oldest hot springs Dogo-Onsen in Ehime Prefecture, Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture, and Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture.

During The Meiji era (1868-1912), Buddhist monks heralded the medicinal benefits of hot springs across the country. Throughout the conflicts between warring clans during the 15th to 16th century, samurai warriors sought out the curative values of the onsen.

Religious and mythical ties

Japanese culture exhibits ties between water and religion. Many Japanese wash their hands and mouth as a customary behavior when they enter the grounds of a shrine. A Japanese legend tells us how the deities Izanagi and Izananami created the world. Izanagi bathed to purify himself after descending into the land of the dead upon the death of his wife. The other deities were created from the tears he shed, the drops from his wet body, and his clothes.

Chozuya

In Buddhism, Kukai, the founder of the Shingon sect during the ninth century, is said to have discovered numerous hot springs across the country including Shuzenji Onsen in Shizuoka Prefecture.

The Chozuya is the large basin with special wooden dippers that is usually located at the entrance of shrines and temples.

Hadaka no tsukiai

It is customary to thoroughly wash your entire body before entering the water in any communal bath in Japan whether an onsen or a sentō. It would simply be unthought of to bathe naked with friends and family, what more with strangers. But that is the traditional bathing culture in Japan. A special kind of platonic relationship called “hadaka no tsukiai” is said to develop when people do not hide behind their clothes. It is believed that people shed all pretense by removing ng all their clothing.