The Japanese Onsen -- Bathing Perfected

    When people hear that I’ve been living in Japan for over 20-years, the first thing that they usually say is, “Wow, you must really be in love with that place!” While it’s true, some people have developed romantic notions of Japan and its culture, people, and gadgets, I can easily state that my relationship with Japan is not a romance, but rather a “bromance”. In a romantic relationship, everything is perfect -- rose-colored, happy, and your partner can do no wrong. In a bromance, you know that the flaws exist, sometimes gaping, huge flaws, but because you just like being around them, you deal with the bad things because the good things more than make up for the detriments. You will never hear me make blanket statements about how Japan is so much better at everything. Like all of us, we have flaws, and I recognize the places Japan needs help, try my best to correct when possible and when not avoid those brick walls which have made my head so tender from beating up against for two decades. But, I am also happy to gloat about the things Japan does well and some things it does very, very well. The one thing that Japan without a doubt does better than anywhere in the world is the O-Furo (bathing) experience.

    From the smallest one-room apartments in the heart of Tokyo to the most gorgeous 5-star resorts, there is no doubt that the Japanese living experience revolves around the O-Furo. Bathing and purity can be traced back to Japanese Shinto beginnings where cleanliness really is next to godliness. Even 1000 years ago when “barbarians” began visiting (read, invading) Japan, the extraordinary hygiene of the Japanese, and extraordinarily bad hygiene of the visitors, was always commented on in texts describing such incursions.

    So it’s no wonder that the Japanese bathing experience has evolved to GOAT status around the world. Let’s take a quick look at the typical Japanese bath and all of its accouterments. In even the most basic home the bathroom will really be the bathroom. No toilets or sinks that would disturb the serenity or introduce potential biological hazards should ever be present. Only in the urban areas where space is a premium that few can afford are the toilets sometimes combined into the same room as the bathtub -- but this is a sacrifice no-one wants to make and “Bath-Toilet Betsu (separate)” is a housing condition that even the most cash-starved students sometimes would abide.

    The O-Furo-Ba (literally bathing place) is a self-contained, watertight unit. There is no need to worry about un-wieldy shower streams soaking the towels and precious wallpaper or a bath overflow causing the downstairs neighbors to participate in your bath. The water in the O-Furo stays in the O-Furo. This allows for one of the greatest joys in bathing -- stepping into a nearly full tub and have to water flow over the edge as your body creates your own personal Tsunami of hot water. The result is something that no sane person would try to achieve in the West, a perfectly filled tub with nothing but a bubble of surface tension holding the water in. This kind of maximum soakage is typically only available in chlorine vs detritus hot-tub experience, far from cleanliness.

    As you walk into an O-Furo, the first thing you will notice is that there is a space next to the bath for washing yourself because of course, you will want to clean off all the dirt before you get into the crystal clear water. The Western way of washing oneself in the bath is the biggest Japanese head-scratcher of all time -- why would anyone want to bathe in their own filth?! Other thoughtful additions are a stool to sit on while cleaning, you never know how great it is to NOT stand-up while showering and just let to warm water wash over your relaxed body. Additionally, you will see a scoop or a bucket. You can either use this to ladle the water out of the bath next to you or while you are scrubbing down your body, turn the water from the showerhead to the downward-facing spout and fill up the bucket while you don’t need the shower water -- saving the planet here one shower O-Furo at a time! Once you have a full bucket, you can then pour the water over your body as you imagine a warm waterfall dumping lining water all over your body. A sensation that is just starting to gain popularity in the west with the “pour over” showerheads.

    So, now that you are squeaky clean, you now have permission to enter the bath. You will notice that the shape of the bath is slightly different than what you may be used to. It’s deeper and slightly less elongated. This allows for complete body emersion -- all the way up to your chin is ideal. Shallow, long tubs don’t let you do that because the more you shrink down into the water with your upper body, the more your legs float up and out of the water.

    Some of you may be asking yourself, “Hey, you never even talked about putting the water in the tub!” Well, the fact of the matter is, I didn’t! With Japanese tubs, you set a temperature and press a button and ten minutes later, you have a perfectly heated tub automatically filled to your prescribed depth. No more turning on the cold water, running it to the correct temperature, plugging the tub only to have it heat up, or get colder half-way through. And god-forbid you get hooked on a 20-minute PewDiePie video and forget about the bath completely and flood your house.

    So, you think that sounds good? Well, hold your bath salts, the Japanese have also taken this bathing experience to the outdoors in what’s called a Rotenburo. In a Rotenburo (outdoor bath), you get the opportunity to relax in the amazing sensations of a Japanese bath while being exposed to the elements. Usually, the more elements the better. Being outside in the freezing temperatures and falling snow as you are protected by the depths of your hot water is an indescribable experience so I will not even try. Just please -- do it! (Even more fun is to just is to roll around in the snow in your birthday suit, knowing all the while that the warm paradise of the Rotenburo is just a few meters away!)

    Written by By Sean Nichols


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