Japanese soaking tub with view of garden

Your Guide to The Art of Japanese Bathing

Posted by Kendra Nickerson on

If you’ve been with us for a while, you already know that our wood fired hot tub design is inspired by a Japanese soaking tub, or ofuro.  One of the many reasons why we went in this design direction is the compelling art of Japanese bathing.

In Japan, soaking in a tub at home, wellness spa (onsen), or public bath (sento) is a deeply rooted cultural tradition that has been followed for centuries. This daily ritual, often practiced in the evening, is considered to be both a healthy habit and one of life’s greatest pleasures—a form of relaxation, rejuvenation, and contemplation. 

historical ofuro or Japanese hot bath

Image: Ofuro c. 1910 via Old Tokyo by Steve Sundberg

In North America, bathing is typically synonymous with washing the body. In Japan, bathing is akin to cleansing the spirit. The body is scrubbed before entering a tub of very hot water with the intent of taking a long therapeutic soak. Often aromatic herbs or mineral salts are added to the water, the latter being preferred for health, skin, and purification benefits. The desired outcome after soaking is a sense of whole-body lightness that comes from washing away the spiritual and physical dirt of the day.

private outdoor onsen in Japan
Image: Private outdoor onsen in Japan via Unsplash - Romeo A

The atmosphere of a Japanese bath is intended to be peaceful and harmonious. Outdoor Japanese bathing experiences—such as onsen natural mineral hot springs—often emphasize running water features and picturesque landscapes that help bathers to feel at one with the natural surroundings. 

The art of ofuro is about engaging all of the senses. The sound of the water, the smell of the fragrant wood, the sensation of the hot water and tub itself, and the sight of the steam rising all come together to create a sensory experience that is deeply relaxing and meditative.

traditional Japanese bath or ofuro Image: Bath by Wasou Japanese Design

What is a Japanese Soaking Tub? 

A Japanese soaking tub or ofuro is a compact bathtub traditionally crafted from the fragrant wood hinoki, or Japanese cypress. Prized for its durability as a building material for temples, its beautiful grain, as well as its powerful restorative effects from its scent and antibacterial properties, hinoki feels reminiscent of Western red cedar.

The ofuro tub design is:

  • Small in size, fitting one to two people
  • Deep, so the water goes up to the neck
  • Straight-sided so the bather is seated upright
  • Rectangular or oval in shape

japanese soaking tub partially outdoors

Image: Pinterest

Modern ofuro tubs are constructed from a wider range of materials, but still retain the original design intent of keeping the body fully immersed in the hot water to receive its healing properties.

hot tub bathing ritual - stirring hot water

The Ofuro Ritual

Apart from the design, another essential difference in Japanese bathing and ofuro is the importance of ritual. The act of preparing the bath, lighting incense or candles, taking time to pause, and being present in the moment are all part of the experience.

By embracing this ritualistic approach, you entirely immerse yourself in the ofuro experience and reap the full mental and physical benefits of the ancient practice.

This ritual is followed whether the bather is at home, on vacation, or at a local bathhouse. While ofuro may seem like a simple concept, it is a powerful one that has the potential to shift one's physical, mental, and emotional well being. Through practising the art of Japanese bathing, we can learn to slow down, be present, and cultivate a sense of inner calm and balance in our busy lives.

wood fired hot tub in nature

How to Have a Japanese-Style Bath

Follow these steps to create your own ofuro-inspired soaking ritual.

1 / Prepare

Gather your bath kit supplies such as soap, mineral salts, towel, and fill the tub. The water should be very hot, at least 104° F or 40° C. Go hotter than you may be accustomed to for an authentic soak. Stir the water with a wood paddle to ensure it’s evenly heated throughout. Add fragrant herbs or mineral salts if desired.

2 / Cleanse 

Wash the body before entering the bath. Traditionally the bather sits on a small stool or bench while scrubbing. Cleansing beforehand not only allows for a more restorative bathing experience and helps the body adjust to the temperature of the water, but is also considerate to fellow bathers whether they’re in the same household (where the tub water is reused) or at a communal bath.

brass hand shower for bathing

Image: GOODLAND Brass Hand Shower

3 / Rinse

The traditional way to rinse off involves scooping water from the ofuro with a bowl or bucket and pouring it over your body. The modern method utilizes a handheld shower head, often installed beside the soaking tub. Your body must be thoroughly cleansed before entering the bath.

4 / Soak & Do Nothing

In the words of Leonard Koren, one of the legends of bath culture, now is the time to “Gingerly ease into the steaming bath . . .doing nothing except sit quietly and enjoying the moment.”*

Experience the sensation and stillness of the bath. Commune with nature outside your window or surrounding you. Soak naked, even in outdoor or communal baths.

cooling off after hot soak in tub

6 / Cool Off, Rinse & Repeat

If you break a sweat, step out of the bath and rinse to help the body cool off. Take a moment, much like you would during the Nordic Cycle (hot cold water therapy), as the heat gets the body’s energy flowing.

Usually a second soak is taken after cooling off.  If using mineral salts or bathing at mineral-rich hot springs, sit outside of the hot water to cool down instead of rinsing off, so you can allow the minerals to sink into the skin.

7 / After Bathing

Once dried off, put on clean, comfortable clothes and relax in your favourite way, possibly with a tea and snack, or a great book. Otherwise, head to bed for a restful sleep.

outdoor japanese soaking tub - rotenburo

Image: Rotenburo at Shima Onsen Ryokan from Kashiwaya

Bathing Outdoors

Seeking a hot soak outdoors is a deeply rooted national passion in Japan that involves visiting one of the 3,000 onsen, ryokan (inns featuring onsen), and rotenburo (open-air onsen) throughout the country. The ideal getaway is a therapeutic, mineral-rich hot springs bath in a natural setting such as a forest or mountainous area with friends or family. An “onsen trip” is on everyone’s vacation list for the year.

japanese mineral bath onsen

Image: healing milky waters of Shirahone Onsen near Nagano, Japan via Alo Japan

Each thermal spring is considered for its location, surroundings, minerality—such as sulphur, sodium and iron—and its renowned healing properties for various ailments. 

Higher-end ryokan can offer different types of onsen on site such as a private open-air hot tub connected to your room, an outdoor shared hot spring, and an indoor shared onsen with breathtaking views of nature.

japanese soaking tub at ryokan

Image: Aoni Inn Ryokan bath; photo by Koji Nishikawa via Japan Experience

In addition to traditional outdoor soaking experiences, there are modern facilities known as super sento that are located in urban areas. While not heated by natural hot springs, these public bathhouses are more affordable than onsen and still offer relaxation, warmth, as well as socialization and community. 

Even the indoor areas of some bathhouses are sometimes decorated with large-scale murals of beautiful landscapes to replicate the restorative experience of bathing outdoors in nature.

Japanese public bathhouse with mural of nature Image: Sento (public bathhouse); photo by Soyoung Han via unsplash

In almost all bathing situations, people bathe fully nude but may use a small towel, usually the size of a washcloth, to cover themselves while moving around the bathing area and to wipe away perspiration.

soaking outdoors in a tub

An integral part of Japanese culture, soaking outdoors provides a welcome opportunity to relax, unwind, connect with others, and experience the healing powers of nature.

The team at GOODLAND hopes this serves as a valuable guide for anyone looking to explore the ancient practice around ofuro, or the art of Japanese bathing. The next time you find yourself in need of a spiritual cleansing or relaxation, you know what to do—create your own bathing ritual around a long hot soak in an ofuro-style bath outdoors, and experience the many benefits of this time-honored tradition.

*Source: Leonard Koren's classic little handbook, “How to Take a Japanese Bath”.  If you’re intrigued by the art of Japanese bathing, we highly recommend seeking out a copy!

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