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A Brief History of Japanese Bathing Culture

While the pleasure of taking a bath unites people across the globe, Japanese bathing culture has a charm of its own, which can be appreciated easily. Join us as we look back at a culture that began in Japan in conjunction with Buddhist traditions.
Did you know?

The history of bathing in Japan dates from the 6th century. From the outset, the custom was believed to not only wash the body, but also cleanse the spirit and improve one’s health. That understanding continues in present day Japan.


From the 6th Century to the latter half of the 16th Century

Buddhism and Bathing

Our story begins in the 6th century with the introduction to Japan of Buddhist purification rituals. In Buddhism, the casting aside of all impurities is an important act of devotion for followers and is considered a virtue. Indeed, it is said that many temples in this era had baths for the purpose of purification.

Furthermore, it was thought that, by bathing, one casts off the seven ailments and takes the seven blessings outlined in Buddhist teaching. Many visitors made the trip to temples for this sole purpose. At this point it is also likely that some people started to visit temples simply to enjoy taking a bath.

Old and Contemporary Baths

Nowadays a bath can be considered anywhere you can bathe in water, but a traditional Japanese furo bath was more like a modern day sauna or steam room; the body was cleansed mostly via heat and steam. At this time bathers would often take a change of clothes wrapped in fabric, which is the origin of furoshiki, the traditional art of wrapping objects so they can be carried. However, this style of bathing was a great luxury at the time: a pursuit rather than a necessity. The warrior class and commoners alike would usually wash in a washtub or by using water from a pail.

From the Edo Period to the Meiji Period

Bathing Culture in Edo Bathhouses

Bathing culture changed in the Edo Period (1603-1868) as sento (bathhouses) brought bathing to commoners’ daily life. Baths in this period were predominantly focused on steaming waters, with the bather often only soaking the lower part of his legs in water or enjoying other partial bathing. Only the most elite noblemen in the warrior class were able to enjoy the luxury of a bath in their own homes.

But this period also brought suefuro, the first bath in which bathers could submerge up to the shoulders. These baths were mainly pots heated by firewood, and include some memorable designs such as the goemon-buro (cauldron bath) and the teppo-buro (piped bath).

Edo period bathhouses allowed mixed bathing and shocked Commodore Perry on the opening of Japan to the West!

入浴の歴史_1Mixed bathing with men and women sharing the same bath was commonplace in Edo period bathhouses and considered completely natural at the time. In some periods of Japanese history such as the Kansei edicts of 1790 and the reforms of Tenpo in 1830, mixed bathing was briefly banned as an affront to public morals but, by and large, it continued until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Indeed, when Commodore Matthew Perry and his black ships visited Japan between 1853 and 1854 he recorded his puzzlement at the practice of mixed bathing, which differed so greatly from his own culture.

From the Showa Period to the Present

From the sentō to the home

In the Showa period (1926-1989) more buildings with internal baths were built, and home baths became the new norm, especially during the period of rapid economic growth in the second half of the period.

In recent years, the bath has become a more and more important part of the Japanese home. Its position as the place to soak away the stresses of modern life has been cemented. Even older homes have been renovated to include large baths and, in the process, baths have gradually taken a larger physical and cultural place in Japanese life.


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