Your guide to Japanese spa rituals
Japan is home to some of the oldest spa rituals in the world, and those rituals remain at the very heart of Japanese beauty today. Blessed with an abundance of natural and medicinal hot waters springing from the earth, called onsen, the Japanese have for centuries been bathing in curative waters to cleanse and rejuvenate the mind, body and spirit. Water is regarded as the symbol of life ever flowing, changing and renewing. Immersion in it allows the body to rest, restore and revive.
Spa is translated as health through water, and with the spa industry now considered one of the fastest growing in the world, its little wonder people are being drawn to Japan to immerse themselves in one of the oldest and most authentic spa experiences. In Japan there are more than 20,000 naturally occurring medicinal hot springs, most in beautiful natural settings deep in the mountains, next to rivers and lakes or even flowing into the sand or sea.
Bathing in a natural Japanese onsen is not only about partaking in an ancient ritual but also an opportunity to experience a culture deeply rooted in nature. The Japanese appreciation of bathing goes back to the Shinto period before Buddhism was introduced by the Chinese in AD 532. Shintoism is the root of Japanese spirituality, based on a joyful respect for nature. It is a way of life rather than a philosophy or religion.
Shintoism celebrates the spirit of nature, in particular the water element. The clear, flowing and endlessly renewing character of water reflects life itself. In the past, Shinto priests travelling the land would discover these temples of nature spurting from the earth, often performing ceremonies in their honour. Rivers and streams were regarded as symbols of the ever-flowing cycles of life. Waterfalls were valued as places for meditation. The sea was seen as the very source because all the nutritious foods, like seaweed and fish, derived from it. During festivals, purifying bathing rituals are still performed in the ocean today.
Daily bathing rituals have given the Japanese a reputation as the cleanest culture in history. The bath was, and is, a place where people came to meet and chat. Farmers from different villages would meet at the local hot spring and exchange stories. Men and women bathed together in an uninhibited and free-spirited manner. But in 1853, as a result of Westerners reaction to mixed bathing, the trend for separate bathing began. Today, only in remote areas do men and women still bathe together. An evening bath is an integral part of the Japanese lifestyle. There is a place in each home dedicated to washing – normally a hand-shower or faucet with running water with a bath stool, sponges, brushes and so forth close by. A relaxing soak in a deep, hot bath is essential to wellbeing. However, lack of space means some houses and apartments don’t have a shower or bath. This is why, from the streets of Tokyo to remote mountainside villages, you see men and women carrying their cypress buckets, brushes and tools down to the local communal bathing house for their daily bath. These bathing houses are renowned for their cleanliness, with towels and soaps often provided.
A ryokan is a traditional inn, often built around a thermal spring, and a stay in one is an essential part of the onsen ritual, although day visits to onsens are popular, too. There are over 8000 ryokans in Japan, most of which have been passed down from generation to generation.
The experience of staying at a ryokan is the epitome of grace and not to be missed. Your arrival will be met with gracious bows by impeccably dressed women who will usher you into a simple room with tatami mats laid in a deliberate style. The hospitality begins with a traditional, freshly brewed, locally made green tea plus a sweet cake or rice cracker and unfolds with ease from there. You’re encouraged to discard the old and embrace the new by removing your clothes and wrapping a pure cotton kimono-style dress, a yukata, around your body. Each ryokan has its signature yukata and youll see guests from different ryokans floating around in their yukatas in the streets, enjoying a stroll after a nice hot bath.
The philosophy of the ryokan is based on adherence to the principles of nature and it is created with natural materials as far as possible. The waters nearby are enriched with minerals and negative ions that help drain away all the toxins; youll find many city dwellers in them. Ryokans often provide facilities for groups, attracting companies keen to give staff a well-deserved break that combines bathing, shiatsu massage, karaoke and sake.
To dine at a ryokan is to experience food as art. It begins with a customary plum wine and develops from there with precious servings of artfully arranged items like wasabi leaves, crab salad, tofu with sea urchin, small calcium-enriched crispy fish, a purple jelly-like ball of mountain potato, stems of leafy water vegetables, tempura mountain vegetables, slices of salmon wrapped in ricepaper, miso, rice and pickles. As in the bathing experience, with each mouthful you take in the spirit of nature.
In most ryokans meals are served in the privacy of your room, though some have lovely dining facilities overlooking manicured gardens with small waterfalls. Green tea, miso soup, spinach with dashi flakes, a bowl of silky tofu and baby river fish are just some of the morning options, though coffee and croissants are often available, too.
Its customary to take a dip before retiring to bed. In the evening, expect to find your room transformed from its zen look with the installation of big, comfortable futons made of traditional Japanese fabric lying side by side on the floor. A fresh rose and haiku poem may be placed delicately on your pillow, once again illustrating the beautiful detail of Japanese hospitality.
The onsen, or hot spring
Bathing in the outdoor onsen is one of the most popular leisure activities in Japan. Its where you can submerge yourself in medicinal waters for a most enlivening experience. The onsen is regarded as a place of physical and mental rehabilitation and medical doctors often prescribe time spent in these therapeutic waters. Throughout the country, the water quality varies from spring to spring. Some thermal springs are renowned for being rich in chloride magnesium, calcium, iron and potassium while others are known for their therapeutic effects on skin, bronchial, digestive and hypertensive problems.
Water is usually classified by temperature, pH level and mineral content. Youll find the thermal springs vary in colour according to their nutrients. Iron-enriched springs are a reddish-orange colour and alkaline waters may be bright green. There are waters rich in sodium chloride that are known to aid digestion, heal wounds and help with hypertension, post-operative rehabilitation, infertility and arthritis. The simple thermal springs are thought to heal broken bones, wounds, skin conditions, neuralgia, rheumatism and fatigue. Radioactive waters are recommended for those with diabetes and chronic digestive problems.
Backdrops, too, vary from region to region. There are thermal springs found 2284 feet above sea level; others are deep in the mountains where water flows continuously, guaranteeing pristine bathing year round. Others gush out of rocks, snow, ash, caves and sand (known as sand baths). Often, rocks are placed around the healing waters to give them a natural rockpool feel. You quickly adapt to the ritual of slipping off your yukata and lowering your body into the deliciously warm water with the light from the moon and stars highlighting the steam that rises like mist above the water. The quiet ambience permeates your spirit, making bathing in these healing waters a memorable experience.
The communal bath ofuro is normally located in the basement or first floor of a ryokan. Remove your yukata and geta (wooden clogs) and take the prerequisite scrub and rub to wash away any toxins before communal bathing.
Reminiscent of a Rubens painting, the women sit in these steam-filled rooms on little bathstools and pour water from small cypress buckets over their bodies. Even at 6am youll find dedicated bathers scrubbing their skin with natural brushes and lathering themselves with green-tea-based soaps and shampoos. The bathrooms are often equipped with all the accoutrements youd find in a five-star hotel shampoo, lotions, hair bands, shower caps, toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs and brushes.
The indoor area normally has a selection of baths of varying temperatures to bathe in. The idea is to move to pools of different temperatures to keep the body continually rejuvenating. The atmosphere is one of quiet fun. Japanese women are typically portrayed as serene, but a gathering of women bathing together can be very festive. In water, they are vivacious and childlike in their enthusiasm.
Beauty is synonymous with cleanliness in Japan and nowhere is this more obvious than in the elegant bathing rituals. As I immerse myself in the mineral-enriched waters I am reminded once again of something expressed to me about the Japanese view of beauty: it is not a quality one can chase but rather one which unfolds when we open our eyes and become truly present.
- Take your dictionary as not many people seem to speak English outside Tokyo.
- Take a gift for your host. The Japanese understand the art of gift giving and a small gift from your hometown will be taken as a sign of graciousness.
Judy Chapman is author of Spa-bathing blends for your home.