Not many people would think of bath time as a time to commune or connect with others, or even think of banth time as something special. However, in Japan, baths can be a chance to relax, a chance to connect with others, or a chance to enjoy the beauty of nature. It is also a very important part of Japanese culture and traditional Japanese beauty. In today’s post, we’ll be sharing all about Japanese bath culture and its multiple benefits.
The History of Japanese Baths
The ritual of bathing was introduced to Japan alongside Buddhism in 552 A.D. Buddhists saw bathing not only as a way to remove visible impurities, but also to clear thoughts and stress. The first baths were actually more like steam rooms, and it was only in the Edo period (1603-1868) that people started using traditional baths as we know them.
Sentō vs. Onsen
Nowadays there are baths in almost every Japanese home, but back then, many homes didn’t have baths so people visited the the sentō/銭湯 (bathhouse). Even today, as many Japanese homes only have a small bathtub, going to the sentō is seen as a way to relax and enjoy the traditional bath experience.
Sentōs are located for convenience, often in the center of residential neighborhoods, to create the feeling of having a bath ‘at home’. Their facilities are basic in comparison to day spas in the city and onsens (Japanese hot springs) in the countryside, and they even generally come with a place to do laundry. Sentōs are a great way to get to know the local neighborhood and have a real local vibe. It’s a place where people of all ages and walks of life can gather.
One of the most tourist-friendly and relaxing activities you can do in Japan is to visit an onsen. While the sentō is seen as more of a daily habit, the onsen is a little more extraordinary. An onsen/温泉 (hot spring) features water rich in certain minerals and chemicals, and a minimum of 25℃ (77℉).
Onsens are often located close to the source of the hot spring so you’ll often find them in the countryside, sometimes in stunning settings like in a forest in the mountains or overlooking the sea. An onsen is often designed for a day trip, so people go to onsens with their friends, family, or even alone. However, some onsens are part of traditional Japanese inns where you can enjoy a soak, a traditional Japanese meal, and a relaxing night.
Normally, there will be both indoor and outdoor baths, the outdoor being called rotenburo/露天風呂 (open air baths). The great thing about onsen is that the rotenburo often comes with a breathtaking view thanks to the fantastic countryside or seaside locations.
Health Benefits of Onsen
Aside from stories of legendary samurai bathing in onsen waters to heal their wounds, there is actually scientific evidence that soaking in a hot spring can be good for you. Staying at an onsen bath house for days and even weeks was considered therapy for a number of ailments, and till this day, you can enjoy numerous health benefits from bathing in these soothing waters.
- Increase Blood Circulation
Onsen water has a number of natural elements, such as sodium bicarbonate and calcium, that get absorbed into our bodies as we bathe. The minerals help increase blood flow and the amount of oxygen in our blood.
- Reduce Stress and Sleep Better
The hot spring water can relieve tense muscles and the natural or serene surroundings of most Japanese hot springs can help clear your mind. Your body quickly cools after leaving the hot spring which encourages your body to relax and put you into a deeper sleep.
A recent study in the Journal of Rheumatology studied the effects of hot spring on pain. The conclusion was that the intense heat of the bathing experience somewhat dulled our perception of pain. The onsen water also acts as buoyancy for aching joints. The combination of temperature, minerals, mental state, and ease of movement in the water helped relieve different kinds of pain.
Beauty Benefits of Onsen
There are plenty of components in the water of Japanese hot springs that help to remove dead cells, stimulate blood circulation, and make your skin smooth and clear.
- Anti-Aging Effect
Free radicals corrode skin cells and their membrane and can damage the DNA inside of them in a process called oxidation, and this causes ageing. Hot springs cause the opposite of that, restoring the skin thanks to its oxidation-reduction and antioxidant effects.
- Clear Skin Effect
Soaking in the hot water stimulates blood circulation and opens up your pores. Similar to sweating in a sauna, this has a cleansing effect on your skin and helps to flush out impurities. After the pores are open, the natural components in the water will stick to your skin and create a protective membrane, keeping your skin clean for several hours after your bath.
Next to reversing aging effects, the oxidation-reduction and restoration effects of hot spring water also promote the production of new skin cells. This is the best and most natural way to make your skin look young and refreshed. Ask frequent onsen goer and they’ll tell you how smooth and soft the onsen makes their skin.
Important Things to Remember
With all the amazing benefits we mentioned above, you may come to the conclusion that soaking longer in these magical waters can give you more results. However, staying too long in an onsen can actually be very dangerous. If you soak for too long you will get dehydrated and you could lose your consciousness while being in the water. Therefore, it is very important that you always stick to the recommended soaking time for onsen and don’t overdo it.
It’s also important to take note of what you do after bathing. By not showering after your bath, you prevent washing off the magical components in the water and diminishing their beauty effects. As long as you don’t shower them off, the components will stick to your skin and be effective for several more hours, prolonging their effects. The only exception to this are strong sulfur or acidic springs, especially if you have sensitive skin because they could cause irritations.
When you get the chance, definitely visit a sento to get to know the people in the area, but treat yourself to a magical escape in an onsen and harness the multiple benefits of these hot springs as well.