I often say that the Japanese are so clean that they take a bath before they take a bath; most people laugh thinking I’m being funny but it’s true: there exists in Japan what we could call a “bath culture”, a basic characteristic of which is that people bathe in two phases. The first is a regular shower with soap, scrubbing etc. (although it’s usually done in a sitting position, probably because of the well-advertised problem of space in Japanese homes) and the second is “o-furo” (お風呂) i.e. relaxing for 10-15 minutes in a hot tub. What’s more the latter is so popular that, aided by the abundance of hot springs (Japan is full of volcanoes) it has become the most common type of vacationing: instead of going to the beach for a swim (as would be expected in an island country) most Japanese spend their holidays in onsen (温泉) hot-spring resorts, soaking in their therapeutic waters.
I have to admit that the first time I went to an onsen I did it for the experience –I was only visiting Japan so I didn’t really have something I wanted to escape from. But as years passed, I came to understand their functionality, especially if one lives within the suffocating limitations of Japanese society. In the same way the after-work drink decompresses the tensions of the day, the onsen is necessary to decompress the tensions of months –practically it’s pampering: a few days during which you don’t do anything more besides eating (the onsen resorts are true culinary paradises both in terms of quantity and quality), relaxing in the hot water and sleeping.
What I find more interesting in onsen (and their urban cousins, the baths called sento/銭湯 still existing even in the central areas of Tokyo) is that they are common –bathers are just separated according to sex and this is a rather recent concept since it was only strictly enforced during the Meiji period and the country’s Westernization. History tells us that the common usage was a product of practical need (lack of hot water and bathrooms at homes) but even the mere existence of the expression “hadaka no tsukiai” (裸の付き合い) or “naked association” in the Japanese language, referring to the social relationships that can happen when one is, literally and metaphorically, naked makes me believe that the true need was deeper. And it still is judging from that even today, in an age where everyone has their own private bath, onsen and sento are usually filled with people.
Journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.