The closest I’ve come to meditation has been whilst bathing. At least it was a feeling I guessed was meditative, something I can’t yet say I’m familiar with despite my various and feeble attempts at meditation over the years. Sitting in a well worn cypress tub at Funaoka Onsen, Kyoto’s most famous bath house and our local scrub stop, I was ready to spend a good hour in the steam soaking off life’s minor aggravations. I’m normally able to relax into a calm state of mind with a lot of disparate background noise going on around me – traffic humming, people murmuring, shuffling footsteps, music. Sounds you associate with urban life, somewhat removed from the serenity of Murasakino in Kyoto’s north. But in place of the city hum were flowing taps, bubbling pools, the chatter and odd belly laugh of gossiping ladies and the echoed bangs of plastic oke washing buckets. Within moments I’d closed my eyes, and whatever thoughts were loitering in my mind had washed away as easily as the day’s grime. Empty-headed but cognisant, I sat there in a soporific state listening to the sounds of the watery arena until my body’s thermostat maxed out and I flopped myself over to the cold bath, continuing my ritual of waterborne mental purification.

A lot has been written about the transformative effects of bathing over the years, most notably by Leornard Koren of WET magazine and the much loved books Undesigning the Bath and How To Take a Japanese Bath, which also exists as a Japanese language edition by Suzuki Ikko. The latter is worth seeking out for its quaint guidances such as “Gingerly, ease into the steaming bath and sit quietly” and mildly unsettling illustrations by Maruo Suehiro, better known for his violent and sexualised エログロ or “erotic-grotesque” manga romps. Needless to say, there are varying attitudes towards the purpose and design of the bath since humans first decided their bodies were washable.

Bathing can mean different things to different people – one person’s luxury is someone else’s only option; one person’s way to distract the kids for half an hour is someone else’s resort spa treatment. Before my first public bath experience in Japan years ago, bath time was something that I perceived as a faux ritual heightened by the use of cheap bath salts and scented candles. People ‘allow’ themselves the occasional bath as stress relief, part of an extended pampering process, a muscle relaxant or a way to warm up in a cold home. It works pretty well for all four scenarios, but it can feel like a lot of effort (and water) to just sit around in a rapidly lukewarming tub with your head next to your toilet, staring at an overflowing laundry basket. It’s fine, but the Western style bathroom is not often conducive to a enjoyable bathing experience.

 

Public Bathhouse – Entrance / Drawing Hot Water, from Kitao Masayoshi’s series of studies Professions and Customs of the Edo Period. 

 

The Japanese public bath and the hamam environment that I experienced in Turkey are in acute contrast to our  unremarkable plumbed prison cells. These spaces manage to be atmospheric, convivial and beautifully designed whilst still being highly efficient cleaning machines. The Japanese sentō, a public bath house customers pay to use, dates back hundreds of years to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Before then baths for public use were only provided by Buddhist temples, a courtesy that originated in India and made its way to Japan in the 700s. Initially reserved for use exclusively by the temple’s priests, they eventually opened the yūya (lit. hot water shop) to the sick and needy, and after a time the wealthy classes caught on and started to build baths in their own homes. Such a luxury didn’t stretch to the middle and working classes however, so soon enough the public baths moved out of the temples and into city neighbourhoods for everyday use by the great unwashed.

Back then sentō were very different spaces; low ceilings, full wooden interiors and a lack of windows made them dark, steamy and subterranean. Water was rationed per customer as there were no running faucets. It’s quite an archaic scene to imagine when you consider the blinding fluorescent lighting and chemically treated water of many modern city sentō, but there are some still-operational baths that can take you back to the pre-plumbed days, like the 130 year old Takegawara Onsen in Oita and the similarly-aged but entirely more extravagant Dōgo Onsen in Ehime. During the late nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century when the country was swept up in the modernisation of the Meiji restoration, tiled interiors started to replace the timber floors and walls and faucets were added. Private baths in homes started to become more common, and Western influences put a stop to the once surprisingly liberal practice of mixed gender bathing.

 

Takegawara Onsen in Beppu, Oita Prefecture.

 

The decades following World War II saw the peak of sentō popularity as thousands of homes were destroyed by widespread firebombings, leaving entire communities of people without bathrooms. In the 1960s and early 1970s public bathing hit its peak, but the boom was short-lived – Japan hit its economic stride through revolutionising its manufacturing processes, and one of the ways this took effect in the average home was through the installation of Western-style baths and showers. Since then, the custom of visiting the local bath house has sadly yet predictably been in decline. With the pace of life sometimes brutally fast in Japan, people are going to choose convenience over custom.

As much as I can expound the many virtues of the public bath, it’s heartbreaking to see so many of them disappearing here in Kyoto. Mark Jarnes wrote a great piece on the diminishing interest in sentō for the Japan Times, and his interview with Teruo Shimada, the owner of Tokyo’s oldest bath house, shines a light the financial strains he and many other proprietors face.”‘It costs a fortune to construct a bath house,” he says. “It cost us around ¥100 million to renovate just one floor, which we borrowed from the bank and pay back in instalments. The cycle will need to start over again in a decade or so.'” And given that their largest customer base is the elderly, it seems like most sentō struggle to attract new customers who will come regularly – which is key to keeping these unique cultural assets in business.

I hope that in some small way my talking about, writing about and photographing of sentō while I’m here in Kyoto helps people like Shimada keep the enlightened path of washing well-trodden. And if you ever have the chance, don’t shy away from the Japanese bathhouse experience. Read the rules, grab a towel and enjoy these special places while they last.

 

References:

Mark Jarnes 2016, ‘Washed up? Tokyo’s iconic communal bath houses face an uncertain future‘, The Japan Times.