Japan is a bathing culture. Other bathing cultures include Korea, Turkey, Hungary and Finland, though I’ve not seen any literature about it, I would also include Iceland. The Romans, and Greeks were famous (or infamous) for their baths.
Especially captivating of Japanese use of o-furo (bath) is the onsen, or hot spring. These are naturally fed springs heated by the magma deep below the earth. There are also faux onsen where there are no natural hot springs. They heat up the water in boilers, though they often have all the amenities of the natural onsen. One can still feel the difference in the water, or at least the onsen devotee (of whom I consider myself) maintains it is so.
These forms of bath are not to be confused with sento or public baths, so named because they cost so little, A sen was one tenth of a yen, a currency that no longer exists. Sento were found all over Japan previous to private baths being the norm in homes. The sento is an endangered species. The underlying reasons for that could be the subject of another blog.
When Shumon and I lived here nearly twenty years ago there was an onsen-like facility that used the excess heat from the municipal waste treatment plant to produce steam for heating and hot water. The town of Inzai constructed a type of onsen for the use of the use of town residents. It was, modern, inexpensive and very welcome.
Then about ten years ago a developer was building a parking garage near the Chiba New Town Chuo train station. When the piles were being driven for the structure they struck an unbeknownst natural hot spring. It is probably more profitable, to say nothing of more convenient, to build an onsen facility, than it is to build a parking garage, over a hot spring. Hence there is a very nice onsen just a few minutes walk from the train station.
The use of onsen is part of the fabric of Japanese culture. It is not too different if one is in an onsen, one of the onsen reproductions, sento, or bathing at home. With the exception of the home o-furo, these are frequently social, not so much solitary activities. The big difference between the different venues is the variety of bathing experiences, the outdoor component and the superb amenities encountered in most onsen.
Many people spend several hours or all day at the onsen. There are ussually one or more restaurants, game rooms, relaxation rooms, etc., as part of the facilities. The person can receive casual garments (yukata – Japanese summer kimono, or loose fitting pants and tops) to be worn between sessions in the baths, when at the restaurants, game rooms, and such.
The baths are separated male and female, though this was not always the case. When first entering the person undresses and places their clothes in a locker or woven basket. A small cleaning towel is use for bathing and drying oneself.
The etiquette is important. Oh, maybe here I should mention that if you have tattoos, don’t bother to go to the onsen or sento, you won’t be permitted in, or you’ll be asked to leave. There are sign all over the facilities indicating people with tattoos are not permitted. I have seen only a few exceptions. The short of the story is that tattoos are associated with Yakuza, Japanese gangsters.
The Chiba New Town Chuo onsen is a good example. Upon first entering the bathing area it is customary to do a cursory wash, or at least rinse oneself off, before entering the pools. At Chiba New Town Chuo there are two indoor tiled pools, about 10’ by 25’ each, one with Jacuzzi, the other calm. They are about 2-2 ½ foot deep, with a stair upon which one can sit all the way around both pools. A smaller ice-cold pool provides instant cooling for those so inclined. There is also a sauna. Sitting in one of the indoor pools first helps to acclimate the body to the heat of the water. The indoor pool water is about 41° c. (106° f.).
Proceeding outside there are three main pools, six or so kettles,(round ceramic receptacles about one meter tall and about a meter in diameter for personal use), an area to lay down where the water is only a few inches deep and flows over the person, and additional benches to sit or lay down between immersion sessions. Two of the pool are tile and rock in a naturalistic configuration , one is a Hinoki (cypress wood) pool about 8’ by 12 ‘. The Hinoki pool water is milky white and opaque, whereas the other pools are clear water. Some onsen include an herbal bath either inside or outside.
The outdoor area has bamboo, trees, bushes and such to give it the feeling of being at a natural hot spring in the mountains. The water outside is kept at about 45° c. (113° f.). One goes from one pool or area to another, spending 10 or 15 minutes in each pool.
It is easy to while away an hour or more luxuriating in the natural warmth. I particularly like it during the winter, when you step out of the pool and the temperature is near freezing. The feeling of the cold air between hot dips is bracing.
After spending a time outside it is time for the other important function of the onsen. Going back inside there are about 40-50 bathing stations, each with a low stool, shallow pan , and shelf, in front of a faucet , a flexible hose showerhead, body soap and shampoo. The faucet has a push knob that releases water for about 30 seconds at a time. The temperature of the water can be adjusted. One fills the small pan of water, uses the small cleaning towel and scrubs the body in every nook and cranny, shampoos the hair, perhaps shaves for about 20 – 30 minutes altogether.
After that it is back to the baths for at least one more round of bathing paradise. Before drying dressing and taking leave.
When at Tamonin, I might spend 30-40 minutes in the evening bathing. It really is an evening activity. The o-furo at Tamonin is like most Japanese o-furo. It is a small water proof room with a drain in the middle of the floor, a faucet station a liitle simpler than the one previously described, a tub about 4’ long 30” wide and the edge of the tub comes up to the neck when sitting up straight. There is no overflow in the tub, the water just flows over the edge of the tub onto the floor and down the common drain. With the complete scrubbing and overflow of the water from the tub or pool, is the washing away of one’s burdens, at least for a short time..
Whether natural, artificial, public, or personal, the o-furo is a great way to relax after a busy day.
Gassho . . . Monshin