Japanese Bathing Rituals

It would be difficult to research and write about bathing rituals without looking at Japanese bathing, this is a phenomenon remarkably different from most traditions in the modern Western world. I’ve not been fortunate to visit Japan yet, I would really love to visit such a diverse and fascinating country. I have been reading about at the customs of Sento, Furo and Onsen and the significance of the bathing culture to Japan. This is not just about washing the body but ritual purifications embedded in the Japanese culture for centuries. There is no better example of literally immersing yourself in another culture than the bathing rituals that have endured for many lifetimes.


Is an age-old Japanese practice of public baths, to cleanse both the mind and body. Sento Bathing became popular amongst common people who relished baths at Buddhist temples. Empress Kōmyō began the practice of charity baths, where 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 from 1603 to 1868. The first public bathhouse in Tokyo was founded in 1591. By the late Edo period, there were over 500 Sento in Tokyo. Both gender-divided and mixed baths were popular during this period, despite the Shogun’s concerns about the potential for immoral behaviour in mixed baths. The prudishness of 19th century Westerners led the government to ban mixed bathing to make Japan seem more civilized. In the early 17th century, amusement and recreation was frequently combined with bathing. Men could often have their backs washed by women called Yuna or bath prostitutes. (Until the government outlawed these). Large groups of people that would travel to their local Sento to eat, drink and sing. It introduced the concept of social mixing which not only aided in slowly deconstructing the existing social hierarchy but created a new cultural flow between the elite and commoners, this had a lasting effect on Japanese social status- quo.

Even after WWII, it was still relatively common for people to not have baths, due to the post-war construction boom in residential housing without bathing facilities or running water. So, the only way to bathe was to attend a Sento at the end of their day.  They 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 has dwindled to around 4,000.  Japanese people are now able to afford baths or showers in their own homes. For a class-conscious society, the Sento has become an embarrassing reminder of an impoverished past, and as the ranks of Japan’s nouveau riche have continued to swell, a stigma has fallen upon those who patronize the humble Sento. However, it remains a veritable oasis in many communities, especially in the suffocating hot summers and cold winters.

The two main kinds of traditional Sento are Furoya , steam baths, and Yuya a central large communal bath. Ancient cultures believed in the healing effect of water and today the Japanese believe the adoption of hot baths and its related procedures are the cure for many ailments such as: obesity, kidney disease, rheumatism and neurological disorders. The Sento is roughly divided into two sections: where you wash and where you relax. It is vital to wash thoroughly before entering the relaxation baths. Most baths are classed by temperature: tei-on (tepid) to chu-on (warm) which is bearable for 10 minutes or so. The waters of Sento differ from those of Onsen in that they are not naturally heated.

Some Sento have evolved into Super-Sento, which charges a higher price than the public sento and offers an all-day luxurious bathing experience more like an Onsen. It caters to the Japanese post-modern love of all things comfortable and affordable, usually boasting between fifteen to twenty different types of baths, ranging from jacuzzi tubs, whirlpool baths, steam baths, open-air baths to dry saunas. The Ja-Kuu-Ji, Japanese for jacuzzi bath, is popular, and many are spiked with scented bath oils to sooth and restore vitality. The Uutase Buro massages the head, shoulder, spine and back with a high-pressure stream of hot water pummelling down from a meter or so above. Some Sentos have tapped spring water, which enables them to recreate the Rotemburo: an outdoor hot spring that is a cheap alternative to the more expensive Onsen. The Denki Buro (Electric Bath) is a small bath equipped with steel plates that discharge pulsing currents of electricity into the submerged bather to relax the muscles.

While the future of the traditional Sento is bleak the Super-Sento is poised to solidify its position as a staple of Japanese culture. No longer mystical or godly, the modern-day Sento has reinvented itself as an affordable, chill-out, entertainment, yet still elevated beyond a mere bath. So, for total relaxation and the bliss of total cleanliness, the cultural experience of a Sento is a real must!

Furo– Home bathing version of Sento

Bathing in your own home in Japan is called Furo or the more common form of Ofuro. As part of the Japanese ritual of bathing, these are not meant for washing but rather for relaxing and warming oneself. To achieve cleanliness, the bather washes before entering the bath. Furos are seen as a total renewal on many levels including spiritually. In a Japanese-style bath the water is heated to 110° F or even hotter. In private Japanese homes the bathing facilities are always constructed separately from the washing and toilet facilities. The Furo started the popularity of hot-water soaking in other countries, especially the hot tub craze. Today several firms specialize in the construction of wooden Japanese-style bathtubs. The home version of the Ofuro includes a wooden box or a small pool of water with a couple of benches inside. These large baths were traditionally made of Hinoki, Japanese cypress, which is considered sacred. The modern Japanese bath is a high-tech affair that can automatically refill the bath or reheat the water. Within a home’s private ofuro, family members bathe together and discuss their day in a relaxing environment. These larger baths are fairly new, before that, the family used the bath in order of importance, with guests going first, men before women and the eldest family member before the youngest. The Shimai-Buro, the house wife, went last so she cleaned up after everyone else.

Onsen- Japanese hot springs

The Japanese archipelago is highly volcanic with over 100 active volcanoes and rich hot springs which have become recognised landmarks. 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 led to the development of Onsen. Which is an excellent way to enjoy Japan’s natural beauty, particularly during cold winters.

 The Japanese have been bathing in the natural hot springs for well over a thousand years, and there are many historical accounts of feudal lords having their own favourite Onsen spots, kakushiyu, where they may have let their samurai bathe after battle. Claims regarding the curative properties precede Buddhism’s introduction to Japan. The Onsen’s healing waters were frequently believed to be gifts from animals, gods or Buddhist deities. The Japanese longevity and long-standing dedication to Onsen are a testament to the positive effects of natural springs on health and well-being. The healing benefits of each Onsen depends 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 achy joints and muscles even easing arthritis. Taking to the waters of Onsen has historically carried spiritual and religious meanings in addition to their cleansing and healing properties. Devotional bathing and charity baths show how Buddhism and bathing are intertwined in Japanese history and culture.

Generations of Japanese women and men have practiced the ritual of bathing in mineral-rich Onsens for beautification and health. Despite the technological advances in skin care coming from Asia, Japanese women still consider Onsens a fundamental part of their beauty regimen. Dermatologists have long known that sulphur nourishes the skin, is anti-inflammatory, heals acne and relieves various skin conditions. But beyond the science lays a few centuries of nourishing the soul and a mythical history.

Within the Onsen, there may be one large bath or several big pools, these can be indoors or outdoors. The Rotenburo is an outdoor bath, allowing you to experience nature while enjoying the shelter of a roof of some sort and the heat of the bath. After showering, they slowly lower themselves into the water in the pools, exhaling a long, protracted achii, meaning hot, and then relax and practice mindfulness.

Many newer versions of onsens have been adapted to appeal to the changing needs and interests of Japanese consumers and tourists. The modern Onsen resort experience includes up-scale hotels and spas to replace Ryokans (inns)

Where to try Onsen Bathing in Japan:

Noboribetsuo: On the northern island of Hokkaido, a volcanic area known as Hell Valley supports the town’s thermal pools.

Takaragawa: Tokyoites flock to this Onsen for a dose of nature with their skin-reviving soak. The large outdoor baths are mixed-gender.

Naoshima: The public bathhouse here doubles as an art installation commissioned as one of many contemporary artworks and museums on this remote fishing island in the Seto Inland Sea.

Kinosaki: This old-fashioned village north of Kyoto, has bathing options which range from historic bathhouses to private tubs in ryokans.

it is certain that bathing culture in Japan is vibrant and still flourishing indicating a long-term economic stability and prosperity. By continuously reinventing themselves to remain entertaining and engaging, Onsen and Sento continue to about much more than a simple bath.

Forest Bathing and The Power of Green

When I lived in London, I was close to Hampstead Heath, I had a hectic and stressful lifestyle and if I had a rare free moment I would always go for a walk on the heath. Slowing down and observing the most minuscule of details, how the smells changed as I strolled along the rough paths: earthy, fresh, woody, musty and floral. The noticing of these things deeply quieted my busy mind. I always returned from my walks grounded. At the time I didn’t intentionally practice connecting with nature and surrounding myself with the energy of the natural world. I felt grateful for a chance to get just out of my head, as I have a constant Monkey Brain, and found mediating difficult, then and now, walking in the woods, was a mediation of sorts for me.

Forest bathing originated in Japan in the early 1980s, where it is called Shinrin-Yoku, practitioners greatly respect trees and believe that they’re the protectors and wise watchers of the forest. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries created Forest Bathing as a way to promote national health and being outdoors. Even Forestry England promote this on their website. While this is not an ancient practice, many see it as a cure for modern ailments and a form of nature therapy. Investigations on the physiological effects that result from being in a forest began in Japan in 1990 and continue today. In a 2011 study, scientists found that people walking in nature had lower blood pressure than those in the city. Another study in Japan showed that inhaling the aroma from cedar trees boosts stress-fighting compounds in the body.

During a nature bath, you’re “bathing” in the energy and clean air of the woods. The healing effects of forests and other natural, green settings, is shown to reduce stress hormone production, lower heart rate and blood pressure, improve moods, free up creativity, boost the immune system, accelerate recovery from illness, reduce anger and aggressiveness and increase overall happiness. So, is advantageous for your physical and mental wellbeing. Most of all, Forest Bathing positively benefits your mood. After trying this many have seen a noticeable improvement in both focus and attention, researchers have even linked this practice to better focus in those with ADHD. Personally, even looking at images of forests and woods fill me with a instant sense of calm and relief.

5 simple steps to practising Shinrin-Yoku or Forest Bathing;

  1. leave behind your phone, camera or any other distractions, so that you can be fully present in the experience.
  2.  Leave behind your goals and wander aimlessly, don’t plan a route.
  3. Pause from time to time, to look more closely, feel some bark and leaves, hug a tree or run dirt between your fingers.
  4. Find a comfortable spot to sit and listen to the sounds around you.
  5. If you go with others, agree not to talk until the end of the walk.

If possible, embrace all your senses; sight, touch, smell, listen to the sounds, bring natural snacks with you to eat, nuts and berries are ideal.

 Thanks to the power of the internet, Forest Bathing has dramatically increased in popularity all over the globe. For the full experience, participants walk with trained guides, who are like therapists, taking their clients through guided meditations, yoga and walks, helping them to see nature in a new light.

The International Nature and Forest Therapy Alliance (INFTA) is committed to establishing Forest Therapy as a scientifically-proven natural medicine by building networks and establishing partnerships with research, education and Public health bodies across the globe. Through these networks, INFTA will access studies, contribute to research on and create awareness about Forest Therapy and Forest Medicine. INFTA’s mission is to make Forest Therapy accessible to all for the health and well-being of people world-wide. Recent estimates by the INFTA project see a demand of up to 10,000 INFTA-Certified Forest Therapy Guides in China alone over the next five years.

Though still a new practice, forest bathing has already shown great promise in treating real conditions without the side effects of medication. It is possible to do this without using a guide, so the costs are low. A pair of walking boots or trainers, a rain proof jacket in the UK and a water bottle are all that are needed.

So next time you go outside, why not find your nearest nature trail and begin your own forest bathing experience?

Bathing for Good Health

I started to research this blog on bathing (one of my favorite pastimes) and I found so much great information about this topic, I will be writing about different types of bathing for weeks to come, so in advance, I am very sorry about that!

At one in time in England a bath was a rare occurrence even for the upper classes, and now its seen as something so ordinary its almost taken for granted and its wide range of benefits are under-valued.  We know about the relaxing benefits of unwinding with a hot bath, but did you know it can also help to improve your health?

Baths and bathing have been such a huge part of human life that there’s a bathing tradition on every continent.  Most ancient cultures have long believed in the healing effects of water. Hippocrates in the 5th century understood the connection between health and the practise of daily bathing and he was the father of Hydrotherapy. The Roman love for bathing gave birth to huge bathing complexes with under-floor heating and a range of temperatures (for Hydrotherapy) some of which are still standing and used today. The Japanese practice of engaging in public baths is known as Sento and lone-bathing at home is Furo.  This is similar to mindfulness rather than a cleansing bath. (I will write a blog post about this)

Your skin releases endorphins in response to the soothing warm water the same way that endorphins are released when you feel the sun on your skin, says Dr Bobby Buka, a dermatologist based in New York. He explains that submerging ourselves in hot water can be both therapeutic and reinvigorating. So, soaking in a bath for 20 minutes, can help to stabilize blood pressure, regulate blood sugar, aid the flow of oxygen throughout your respiratory system and contribute to overall better heart health by increasing and improving blood flow to and from the heart. Taking a bath also helps to strengthen and synchronise your circadian rhythms, the daily fluctuations in behaviour and biochemistry that affect every one of our organs, including the brain.

 After a bath your limbs and muscles will feel less sore after strenuous exercise or a demanding day at work and it can also help you experience less mental fatigue. It is said that our bodies associate horizontal conditions with relaxation and vulnerability, particularly in the bath, which possibly mimics the warm, liquid conditions of the womb. When struggling with a bad cold or flu, actually elevating your body temperature with a hot bath can actually boost your body’s ability to fight infections and viruses, combining this with essential oils, like lavender, eucalyptus or chamomile, and Dead Sea or Epsom salts can help reduce stress and aching muscles, allowing for even greater healing and relaxation. Simply making a daily routine out of unwinding in your bath at the end of a day and thinking, (or meditating) that the water is washing off your day and removing your worries will help to improve your well-being and sleep quality. Adding a gently, fragranced bath product, made from natural ingredients would add an extra touch of pampering, important to self-care.  

Researchers have also found that soaking in an hour-long hot bath burned as many calories (around 140) as a 30-minute walk. This is because the warm water makes your heart beat faster, giving you a gentle workout session. As this may help reduce inflammation and in much the same way as exercise does, this is especially helpful for people who are unable to exercise through illness as well as a helping them to manage any pain. Many people who have chronic illnesses report feelings of depression, taking a hot bath can provide physical comfort and ease the blues that are associated with chronic pain conditions, literally washing your pain away.

I would just add one note of caution, if the temperature of the water is too hot it can put your body under what’s called heat stress, where your body’s internal temperature regulation is thrown and doesn’t have enough opportunity to recalibrate. Heat stress, can cause a strain on the heart, nausea, vomiting and dizziness.  So keep check of the temperture.

There is some disagreement on whether it’s better to have a bath in the morning or evening, but some doctors advocate the benefits of a morning bath. Cortisol levels peak at 8am, so lowering the level first thing, would give a calmer start to the day, as we do on occasions wake up actually feeling stressed. Personally, I enjoy having a long soak in the bath, on the mornings I don’t work, as it’s a real chance to relax, get a bit of time to myself and spark my creative juices. I add some of my favourite oils, like bergamot and ginger. It is best to mix the essential oils in to a tablespoon of carrier oil like grapeseed or olive oil and use around 5-6 drops only. If you swirl your hands in the water to disperse the oil it doesn’t then sit on the surface of the water.

I hope this has made you re-think the humble act of bathing and I will add more in-depth details about some of the methods mentioned. I always think a long blog post is a bit like a speech that is far too long….

The poet and novelist Sylvia Plath wrote, “I am sure there are things that can’t be cured by a good bath, but I can’t think of one.”

 I couldn’t agree more!