April 27, 2017

Cleanliness is next to Japaneseness


Cleanliness is deeply embedded in the culture and religions of Japan. After all if "baptism" can wash away your sins, then rinse and repeat! Westerners have also noted this fact for as long as westerners have visited Japan.

In Shogun, James Clavell has his 16th century protagonist John Blackthorne (based on the real Will Adams) point it out. A few centuries later, in the mid-19th century, U.S. Consul Townsend Harris observed that "Everyone bathes every day."

Though that they did it all together in a public bath (sentou) alarmed him.

The sentou goes back a millennia. The hot spring resort (onsen) has been around for even longer. Not a few can claim that a "famous person bathed here." A private bath (o-furo) for the working man is more recent. When families could afford a gas-fired one after the war, it was a big deal.


The shower, by contrast, is a modern import. In the sentou, you soap up and rinse off with buckets of water. Outside the tub! Because you wash yourself first before getting into the tub! This is important! The tub water is for soaking, not for washing.

The bathing-at-night thing (anime and manga fans will have noted this) developed because that's when you went to the sentou. Cleaning the baths and firing up the boilers once took all day. You could spot a sentou a mile away because of the smokestacks (in a residential neighborhood).

The old-school home o-furo was a square tub with a water heater directly attached. The tub was the tank. Even today, apartments with western-style (tank) water heaters are rare. Fill the o-furo (with cold tap water), turn it on, and come back in thirty minutes.


When I lived in Osaka, the hot running water in the kitchen ran off the o-furo heater, but you couldn't shower and run the hot water at the same time. Point-of-use tankless water heaters remain ubiquitous.

Again, the bath itself is not for washing (well, except in Spirited Away, when it's required to purify a polluted river spirit) but for soaking and relaxing.

Showers are more popular now, and have taken over the wash & rinse duties. Budget o-furo are still made out of molded plastic, but as Japan has gotten wealthier, they are more and more resembling western bathtubs.

More home baths means fewer public baths. The number of sentou in Tokyo has declined from 2000 to 600 in the past 30 years. And yet ryokan and hot springs resorts have never been more popular.


Even the staid NHK doesn't shy from onsen travelogues featuring naked kids and naked butts (male only, sumo having made the male butt an inconsequential sight; on camera, women sport white bath towels).

Related posts

The public bath
Onsen
When in Rome (or Japan)

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