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At the Bath-house: The Ritual of Cleansing

Sitting on one of the World’s most prolific Volcanic belts, it is clear why Japan is home to over 27,000 natural hot springs (or Onsen). The Volcanic belt means that there is a natural access to hot water without the need for external heating sources. What better way to take advantage of this than to create a unique culture of bathing. Not only is the culture of cleansing based around the Onsen, but also in the many different types of public bath houses called Sent ō. These have been used as part of a Japanese lifestyle since at least the Eighth Century, tracing them back to those found in Buddhist Temples in India.

Even in a culture as technology-conscious as Japan’s it is still such traditions as public baths that ground it in antiquity. Other than a cultural-borrowing from Monks, there is a more practical aspect to public baths. When not, every household had a bathroom indoors, this was the only option. In some of the more traditional houses across the country, this is still the case. Not only that, but it can save you money on water bills as basic entry fee into a Sent ō is around 450¥ (about €3).

To a lot of Westerners, it can be uncomfortable, the thought of being naked in front of people that you don’t know...and those that you do! But, get past that barrier in your mind, and you too can enjoy the relaxing Onsens in Japan. Some people even meet with work colleagues here! This is about more than going somewhere to wash. The minerals in the hot springs, promote what the Japanese call Toji. This is the treatment of ills using spring water. Many have claimed that soaking in Onsens have cured ailments, relaxed muscles, aided beautification, pro-longing the aging process and matured the bonds between family and friends. It is also an opportunity to experience the unique culture of ‘naked friendship’: an appreciation of interpersonal relationships beyond physical barriers in a non-sexual context. And this is all simultaneous to cleansing the body, mind and soul. Use it for a quick wash on a daily basis or some Onsen offer weekend-long restorative retreats.

Whichever reason you are going for, remember there are basic rules that need to be adhered to, especially as a visitor to Japan. There is an almost ritual-like etiquette for when entering the washing area. You’ll most probably be given two towels at the desk when you enter the building. After you’ve removed your shoes, take the towels through to the first set of doors - usually gendered, blue for males and red/pink for females. More often than not, these will be switched week to week so if you are returning to one for a second or third time, be sure to check as you enter. Now you’ll be in the changing room where you can take your clothes off and place them into the pigeon hole or locker. Enter the main room naked, leaving the larger towel behind. The smaller hand towel can be used for various things like washing, or for modesty while you get used to the whole naked thing!

You’ll see a row of showers, taps and a stool, and maybe a small bucket. Use this shower to wash with, using soap. Feel free to bring your own if they aren’t supplied. Take a seat whilst doing this, to politely avoid splashing others or letting your soapy water drain into the main tub. And make sure you are thoroughly washed and rinsed of any soap or shampoo. Rinse off your stool too and wash area before you vacate it, so it is ready for the next person. Keep your toiletries tidy and place them out of the way. Take the small towel with you but keep it out of the bath water - you’ll see people storing them on their heads! It is regarded as dirty if you’ve used it in the shower and you don’t want to be seen dipping into the public water.

There will be different baths for you to use, varying in temperature and setting. Give them a test before getting in and try to enter without causing a scene or disruption to the water… the Onsen are supposed to be a relaxing place. You also don’t want to dunk your head or hair in the water. You can move between the different baths if you like or find your favourite one. Immerse yourself in the water, the calming environment and let the qualities of the Onsen absorb into your skin. You won’t regret it, and you’ll soon overcome the realisation that you are sharing a large bath with strangers with no clothes on.

When leaving, have another rinse if you like, be careful not to slip, and enter back into the changing room and use the larger towel to dry off. There’ll be somewhere for you to place the used towels when you leave. Get dressed and exit with a smile and free of any tensions.

Text by @abelsloane1934 | Photography by @osamuyokonami