Torii Kiyonaga ‘鳥居 清長’ (1752 – 1815) Bathhouse Women
Edo period block print of the renowned Arima Onsen ‘有馬温泉’ in Hyogo, West Japan.
The Land of the Rising Sun sits precariously above a little over a hundred active volcanoes, and thanks to this, it is also blessed with some of the world’s best hot springs. With over three thousand hot springs in the country, Japan’s onsen culture is steeped in the Japanese way of living.
An onsen ‘温泉’ (literally meaning ‘hot spring’) is a natural hot spring that can be found all throughout the island nation. For centuries, the onsen has formed an integral part of Japanese culture, even appearing in two of Japan’s most ancient texts - the Kojiki and Man'yōshū. While the culture of bathing is not wholly exclusive to Japan - what makes Japan’s own hot spring culture so uniquely Japanese lies in its Buddhist roots. It is said that Buddhist monks were some of the earliest to discover their healing properties whilst on their travels, and they would seek out the divine waters to help rejuvenate and cleanse the soul. Whereas bathing culture in the West is enjoyed as a form of recreation or medical treatment, the Japanese onsen culture is deeply rooted in the spiritual practice of purifying the body and soul.
An Edo period document ranking the onsen of Japan by popularity through the East (Tokyo area) and West (Kyoto area).
Typically associated with the onsen is the use of Hinoki wood. As one of the most famed native trees in Japan, Hinoki is revered for its natural anti-microbial qualities, natural citrus scent and durability that is said to last more than a thousand years. Hinoki is also highly regarded as a sacred wood in Shinto religion as it is believed to have cleansing qualities. Since ancient times, Hinoki has been used in the building of palaces, shrines and temples, as well as traditional Japanese baths due to its strong resistance to humidity and rot.
The Hinoki bath ‘oke’ (bath bowl) and bathing stool is a classic design that is built on seven hundred years of traditional woodworking methods. In Japanese bathing culture, a bath bowl and stool is used to wash and rinse off the body just before entering the bath. This is just one of many cultural rituals that form the Japanese bathing etiquette.
Today, Japan’s onsen is one of the most popular tourist attractions for many travelling to Japan. While some may find the intricate politics of the Japanese onsen rather daunting (let alone the prospect of communally sharing a bath in the nude), navigating through the strict code of etiquette is part of the Japanese way of life and it should be embraced as part of the unique cultural experience.