One of the many things that I love about Japan is the bathing culture. Of course the onsen (volcanic hot water baths) are famous, but I also love the way Japanese people bathe at home. The key difference with bathing in the West is that Japanese people wash themselves at a faucet before getting in the bath. When Western people take a bath, they wash themselves in the bath and then soak in the soapy, dirty water. Even before travelling to Japan, I had never been a fan of Western baths. It goes without saying that I was delighted to discover the Japanese way of bathing.
Japanese bathrooms have a particular layout to facilitate the Japanese style of bathing. In a typical Japanese bathroom, the sink area and the shower/ bath area are completely separated. Usually the bath area is in a small, separate room with a bath tub and a low faucet next to the tub. The faucet has a shower head attached to it, which also provides the option of taking a shower for those who prefer it.
A typical Japanese bathroom, with the (covered) tub on the left and a faucet with shower head on the right
If you travel in Japan, you will see this style of (communal) bathroom in many small hotels and ryokan. How to take a bath in such a typical Japanese bathroom? You undress in the dressing area right outside the bathroom. Leave your slippers outside as well. Then you enter the bathroom and sit on the stool in front of the faucet. The hotel usually provides soap, shampoo and conditioner, or you can use your own. Use the shower head to hose yourself down and then clean your body thoroughly with a wash cloth and soap, while sitting on the stool. Wash your hair if you like. Make sure to rinse off all the soap when you are done. Sometimes you also get a small plastic wash basin. This is used to hold water to soak your wash cloth, and it is used to pour water over one’s head. But the introduction of shower heads has made the wash basin mostly obsolete.
Now it is time to soak in the warm water and relax. Because everyone enters the water after a thorough wash, all the guests share the same water. There are a few etiquette rules when it comes to the bath water:
- No soap should enter the bath water. Rinse thoroughly before entering the bath.
- Don’t soak your wash cloth in the bath water. The cloth is considered dirty since you have used it to wash yourself. You may rest the cloth on your head if you like.
- Don’t immerse your head in the bath water (not 100% sure on this rule though).
- In hotels, most baths will have a cover to keep the water warm. You are of course allowed to remove the cover by yourself when you want to enter the bath. Make sure to put the cover back on the bath after you are done. It is considered very rude towards the other guests to let the water cool off.
Communal bathroom in a Japanese low-budget hostel. Faucets for washing on the right, a bath tub for soaking on the left.
Put the covers back on the bath when you are done!
Families also use a cover to keep the water warm, as different family members take their turn in the bath. So in terms of water and energy usage, the Japanese way makes a lot of sense. In the West, everyone who takes a bath has to fill an entire tub just for themselves.
In traditional Japanese culture, the order in which people of the same family or household use the bath is determined by their social status, with higher ranking individuals entering the bath first and thus having the freshest water. For example, if a guest is visiting the house, the guest usually gets first dibs on the bath.
Another thing that I love about Japanese baths, is the dimensions of the tub. In the West, bathtubs are lower and longer. But if a tall person like me tries to lie down in a Western bath, either my knees or my feet will stick out and be cold. I also tend to get a sore neck in Western baths, because you have to rest your neck on the porcelain edge of the bath if you want to lie down (sitting up, your torso sticks out above the water line and again, gets cold).
A typical western bath
Japanese baths are shorter and higher, so that you sit upright in the bath with your legs pulled in. This way, the whole body is under water and I also find this posture more comfortable.
Our typical Japanese bath at home. It is a lot deeper than a Western bath. The size is perfect for me!
One final advantage of Japanese baths, is that they are, like so many things in Japan, high-tech. Look at the control panel for our bath at home: so many buttons! I especially love that it is possible to keep the bath water at a constant temperature. The ‘auto bath water fill up’ function is also very convenient. You don’t have to keep an eye on your bath while it is filling up. Convenient really is a good word to describe Japan!
Control panel for our Japanese bath at home