Taking a bath—whether bubbly or flat, in front of Netflix or with a book or a drink in hand (hey, you do you)—can be one of life’s most relaxing rewards. In Japan, though, baths aren’t just for cleaning yourself off or soothing aching muscles after a long day, they’re part of a long tradition of health, wellness and relaxation.
Even at home, the Japanese bath is full of ritual and tradition. There are two separate areas in a traditional bathroom: a shower that includes a stool and bucket, as well as a tub filled with warm water. The shower is where all of the cleaning is done: First, you rinse your entire body in the shower, then you soak in the tub. Leaving the tub, you then use the shower to cleanse your body, and return to the tub for a second soap.
Bathing is typically done at night, so that it’s a relaxing and meditative affair, rather than a rushed obligation in the morning before work. When you’re soaking in the bath, you’re supposed to sit still, with your knees drawn up, so you can clear your head and think about the events of the day—a much more soothing experience than that five-second shower you took this morning to make it to work on time!
Another traditional Japanese bath is the onsen, or natural, geothermically heated hot springs and the inns surrounding them. The baths can be indoors or outdoors, and the minerals found in them are thought to promote health and wellness. Many are communal, but if you visit a ryokan (inn), you may be able to book a room with a private onsen.
Much like bathing at home, visitors to onsens are required to shower before entering the baths. At bathing stations, you’ll find stools, faucets, wooden buckets, and toiletries such as soap and shampoo for cleaning yourself off. Entering the onsen if you’re still dirty or there are traces of soap on the body is considered socially unacceptable.
Even at the communal baths, swimsuits aren’t permitted. So if you’re visiting Japan and plan to visit an onsen, get ready to strip down to your birthday suit and soak in the healing waters!