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The Japanese Bath - お風呂 ofuro

Have you ever wondered if people clean themselves differently in other countries? Probably not. I didn’t either until my first trip to Japan.

 

The process of washing one’s body is kind of different here in Japan. So different that it needs some detailed explaining. Let’s start with a picture from Panasonic’s website (yes, Panasonic, the company that made those transistor radios way back then). They make just about everything for the Japanese domestic market.

 

An example of a unit bath sold by Panasonic Japan

The photo on the left shows a furoba 風呂場. Furo means bath, and ba means space, so … ‘bath space.’ The Japanese bath has been an integral part of Japanese culture for more than a thousand years, and is a result of Japan’s plentiful hot springs.

Note: Japan probably has the most hot springs in the world, and it’s a huge part of the tourist industry here. Just do a search for onsen (温泉 in Japanese)、and you’ll see what I mean.

Is it starting to get a little complicated? Isn’t a hot spring a place where you go to relax? Like a spa? Yes it is, and that is what a Japanese bath different than say, an American shower.  In the US, taking a shower emphasizes getting clean. The bath is usually thought of as a place for mom to relax when she’s had a lot of stress, or a place for a woman to soak in bath salts and feel all nice smelling and girly. But for the Japanese, men, women, and children, soaking in the bath is the priority, and washing one’s body is just something that needs to be done before. For Japanese, soaking in the bath is a daily habit that relaxes the body, the mind and provides some rare and precious ‘me’ time.

Let’s look at the technical side of the Japanese bath.

Taking a Japanese bath is a two step process. First, you wash your body, then you get in the bath. Why wash your body first? Because you keep the bath water in the tub for a few days at a time. The cleaner you are when you soak in the tub, the longer the bath water stays clean and can be reused. But doesn’t the bath water get cold? Yes, unless you have access to hot springs water. This is where it gets confusing again.

There are basically two types of baths: ones that get hot water from hot springs, and ones that get hot water from a water heater. In a home with access to a hot spring, you just empty the water after every bath and refill it with fresh hot water (but you still wash yourself off before getting in – weird, huh?). Most homes have a water heater that recirculates the bath water through a water heater at the push of a button. A control panel full of options manages the bath. You can see a typical control panel like this one from Rinnai Corp. in the photo below:

Bath controller from Rinnai Corp.

 

The reason you see two units in the photo above is because there’s usually another control panel outside the bath, maybe in the kitchen or living room, so you can prepare the bath without having to go to the bath space. With most models, you can call from one control panel to the other – “Hey! I forgot my towel.” or “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

The photo on the right shows a typical bath water heater with one pipe bringing cold water into the heater, another pipe sending hot water out, and a gas line.

 

So that’s the difference between how Americans think of taking a shower and how Japanese think of taking a bath. Did you remember all of that?

Good! Now you’re an expert of the Japanese ofuro! Don’t worry if you didn’t. Just remember that if you go to Japan, the most important thing is to clean yourself off before you get in the bath.

 

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