Japanese Art Of The Bath

Japanese Art Of The BathA few years ago I was interested in opening a day spa that had as one of its options, the opportunity for customers to experience Japanese style bathing rituals and aesthetics.  So I delved into all things Japanese baths, and while the day spa idea morphed into GreenBliss EcoSpa (my mobile spa and wellness service), I have long held onto all the reams of information I gathered about the baths.  I am reminded of them especially now, in the height of summer, as there is a particularly lovely part of the Japanese bathing ritual centered around hot summer days.   Much of this information comes from one of my favorite coffee table books about the subject, The Japanese Bath by Bruce Smith and Yoshiko Yamamoto.   It is beautifully illustrated with photos and design suggestions for materials and construction, but also has poetic instructions for the ritual of the bath itself.

After a long day, especially a hot summer day, the custom in Japan is to rid oneself of the day’s fatigue by bathing and then sitting down in a clean starched yukata and having a cold drink.  A yukata is a lightweight cotton kimono, simple and comfortable during hot weather.  It is often made of indigo cloth dyed with patterns of waves, flowers, fish or geometric shapes.  The Japanese word for this custom is yuagori, and it is enjoyed as a time of luxurious repose — a time of doing nothing but sipping a cold drink and being idle and languid, of enjoying the heat at day’s end and allowing one’s worries to escape the body.

In the west, a bath  is a place where one goes to cleanse the body; in Japan, it is where one goes to cleanse the soul.  In America, the idea of getting in a tub to soak conveys either a bubble-filled luxury, an extravagant and indulgent alternative to the speed and efficiency of the shower.  In Japan, it’s about the idea of taking time and care to be alone (or with others in the Japanese style of communal bathing), to be contemplative, to watch the outdoor scene and feel a part of nature’s rhythm’s at the end of the day. This time and attention to the bath is equivalent to the time and care one takes with the preparation and cooking of a meal:  unlike in America, where speed and efficiency are valued, the Japanese make bathing a ritual – a prescribed order of rinsing, washing, and soaking that is passed down from one generation to the next, becoming an integral part of each day.

Japanese typically bathe in the evening, unlike Americans with their morning showers.  There are good reasons for this; a bath relaxes one, removing him or her from the confusion and clutter of the day, and it induces a restful slumber.  However, bathing right before sleep should be done in lukewarm water.  This better stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and accelerates the secretion of nor-adrenaline.  In other words, it lowers the level of psychological tension and physical stimulation , thus helping to shut down the entire body system before going to sleep.  Conversely, if a person want to wake up in the morning, a quick very hot or cold dunk into water is recommended since it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and accelerates the secretion of adrenaline, getting going ready to face the rush of the day.

The advantage of saving your bath for the end of the day, is that it acts as a transition between work and leisure, between publicJapanese Art Of The Bath and private time.  Typically, in Japanese family life, schoolchildren and working people come home and take their baths fairly soon and only then sit down to eat dinner.  It’s a wonderful chance for family members to relax together, spend time chatting about their days, and being close to each other.

Here are some of the ritual components of the Japanese bath:

  • Shedding one’s clothes and changing into the yukata robe is an ephemeral moment  – the day’s worries and stresses fall away as one’s clothing falls to the floor.
  • One’s clothing, and the towels and washcloths to be used during the bath, are tied and wrapped into a bundle called furoshiki. This is also the word for a gift wrapping technique the Japanese employ to use recycled pieces of silk and cotton fabrics when gift giving.
  • Yu – hot water sacredness; connotes the experience of bathing one has had.
  • Four stages of bathing   1) Rinsing.  After taking off one’s clothes, the bather steps into the washing area next to the bathtub and sits on a small stool, then scoops water from the bath with a wooden bucket and pours over the shoulders.   This is repeated several times to rinse the dirt and grime of the day off in consideration of others the bather will be sharing the water with, and to test the temperature of the bath before submerging the whole body.  2) Soaking.  The bather slowly sinks into the water and soaks for 3 to 10 minutes (shorter in summer, longer in winter).  3) Scrubbing & Rinse.   The bather gets out of the tub and sits on the stool again.  This time, he or she gets a bucketful of water from the faucet and soaps up, to be followed by vigorous scrubbing all over the body with a loofah or sponge.  Hair gets shampooed as well.  The bather completely rinses all the soap off, a couple times very thoroughly.   4) Final Soak.  The bather is now ready for a final last soak in the bath.  The body will feel smooth and soft after the vigorous scrubbing, and the muscles and nerves begin unwinding from the accumulated tensions of the day.   It is here that conversation and socializing is done, reconnecting to family, or enjoying the company of friends (even strangers) in the communal public baths.

Taking a short bath is looked down upon — in Japan it is taking a karasu no gyozui, or raven’s bath, with the implication that it is done hastily and without care.   Bathing to the Japanese is to be done with care, taking time and pleasure, and should be valued as a prescribed part of one’s daily routine.

This is but a small part of the deep tradition of Japanese bathing – time spent soaking, sharing, cleansing, relaxing, separately or together – realizing that this is not just about bathing; it is about the very way we want to lead our lives.

You can use your own bathtub in much the same ritualistic manner, with the same intentions for emotional and mental release, as well as spiritual connection, as the Japanese do, even if you don’t have a perfectly designed Japanese style bathing area.  As with all rituals, the key is intention.  Let your summer bathing ritual include a simple cotton wrap and cold drink at the end of it, and I guarantee, the long hot days of summer won’t feel so bad after all!