I find it fascinating that Japanese Bath Houses and European Bathrooms have absolutely nothing in common!
A European bathroom is a multi functional room, one designed to use alone and leave as quickly as possible. Whereas a Japanese Bath House is entirely designed for long relaxation and the economical use of water.
Upon entering a Japanese Bath House one is immediately struck by the fact that it is divided into several distinct areas.
One area is for a toilet and this is often inclusive of a hand wash facility – often attached to the back of the toilet. This water is then used for the next toilet flush – no water is ever wasted. Many toilet seats include a heating element and some even a ‘douche’ for cleanliness.
This area is separated from all the other areas, often by a door or partition. There may then even be an ‘ante chamber’ where dressing and undressing will occur.
There is then a shower area – using a decked drainage area and this is where all the washing takes place. Hair and body washing preparatory to a bath is obligatory. A small wooden bowl will be found here and is used to splash water over ones hair and body to cleanse the soap off prior to getting into the bath. This bowl is traditionally made of ‘Hinoki’ wood and there is usually a small wooden Hinoki stool to accompany the bathroom set up and to ensure comfort in this area.
At the point one enters the bath, (usually made of wood and shoulder deep), a body is supposedly scrupulously clean and no further soap or bathing liquids are allowed in this area. The sanctity of this tradition is very strong among Japanese culture and is called ‘ofuro’ – at no time must this bath water be made dirty or cloudy. The wood used to make the bath is traditionally a Japanese Cypress, (Chamaecyparis Obtusa), a water tight material which is also used to make shrines, temples and palaces. It is a sweet smelling wood and the scent lingers over many years and it is a highly prized material.
All family members will then use the same water and immediately when there is no further use for it then it is pumped into a third area where there is a washing machine and this water is then used to wash clothing and household linens.
A soak in this bath is a Japanese daily tradition and often taken in the evenings after work. A glass of wine or sake, or even a cup of coffee will be taken while at soak and a look at the outside Japanese garden area will make a very peaceful end to the day.