Japan is well known for its onsens, its hot springs and the bathing culture that surrounds it. The bathing culture doesn’t just stay in the spa-like atmosphere of the onsen, but follows its patrons home to their own washrooms. For those who are unfamiliar, a Japanese bathroom (a literal bathroom as it is usually marked as yokushitsu, or bathing room) consists of a tiled showering area, a deep, often short bathtub and occasionally a sink. They are notably different from western style bathrooms in the fact that the toilet is often in a completely separate room. While standard hotels stick to the space-saving nature of the western-style bathroom, most Japanese hotels, or ryokan will hold to the more traditional bathing room setup.
To begin a bath, just like at an onsen, it is imperative that you wash in the showering area. Soaping and shampooing are done in this locker-room style corner with no fear of messes thanks to the built-in drain. After ensuring that the physical body is clean, only then can you climb into the warm, luxurious bath. In fact, it’s quite important that you do not enter the bath before washing due to the historic religious practice tied to this cleansing ritual.
Bathing culture in Japan is centered around the historical sento, or communal bath. There are still many sentos in modern Japan, especially in Tokyo where particularly frugal apartments don’t even offer a washroom. However, sentos were originally only available in temples, a practice that originated in India and was imported with the spread of Buddhism. These baths were only for priests and their divine services but were gradually expanded to include the sick and the suffering. Eventually, the wealthy higher class worked to move the relaxing commodity outside of the temples, and thus the communal hot spring bath house enterprise was born.
It’s common sense to wash one’s body before climbing into a communal bath, so as not to dirty the water shared with the rest of the public. And many Japanese offer up the explanation that at home, they do not want to sit in dirty water; it would defeat the purpose of bathing in the first place. Even with such practical reasons, it’s undeniable that there is a little something more behind the rigid precaution, particularly if you take note of how overwhelmingly popular baths are in Japan as compared to efficient and space-saving showers.
Remember that when we found Shinto in the genkan, it became apparent that cleanliness is a powerful tenant of the Shinto religion. And this is the height of cleanliness, bathing before entering the bath. However, the bath itself is for a cleansing of the mind, the soul, not the body. Thus, it is quite understandable that one prepares the body to cleanse the spirit. Additionally, Shinto’s pantheon of gods is near infinite, meaning that oftentimes the bath itself is the dwelling or even body of a god, thus entering it in an unclean manner is a sure way to upset the spirit of the spring.
Additionally, the development of this ritual points at another aspect of Shinto that is quite common among most ancient religions. As mentioned earlier, the temple baths started as a Buddhist practice and were adapted into Shinto practice as the two religions mixed together. Like Buddhism, Shinto plays well with other religions, often in thanks to the expanding of the religion across land and time and the gradual ways it has been pulled into simple, daily customs.
So the next time you reward yourself with an onsen or even a bath in the privacy of your own home, take a minute to clear your mind and relax. Thousands of years of tradition have come together to give you a few moments of serene reprieve from the rest of the world.