Public baths in Japan have been used as a way to relieve the stress of daily life for more than 1,000 years. The natural hot springs, known as Onsen, are known worldwide. My daughter and I attended one in Osaka. It was a multi-level building with various themes for the spas, saunas and baths as well as a dining and relaxation area. The European themed floor included Roman, Mediterranean and Nordic styles of bathing.
Onsens, built over mineral rich spring water heated by natural volcanic activity, often claim restorative properties from purifying the skin to easing arthritis. In the ancient times they claimed to have the healing power of animals and ancient gods. Traditional cedar-wood tubs with beautiful views of the Japanese countryside and a calming atmosphere are an absolute haven for self-care and self-healing.
There are also Sento, public baths which rely on regular, filtered water which is found in every neighbourhood and requires complete nudity.
Sentos have a more practical aspect to them. Originally they were used by monks when Buddhism was first introduced to Japan in 6th century. They were then opened up to help people with various illnesses and eventually to the rest of the public. The number of these Sento slowly grew and finally their existence became an essential part of daily life of Japanese during the Edo period (1603-1868). Using artificially heated tap water, Sento are often brighter, tiled spaces with colourful murals and lower entry prices than the Onsen.
They were like coffee houses in Europe. They became a community centre. Everybody came with their own body imperfections and nobody cared. Children are brought to the Sento as soon as they can walk to be introduced to this rare world where nudity is neither celebrated nor shamed. Simply accepted. With no swimsuits or T-shirts to cover shy bodies, in the Sento every shape and size, every scar and stretch mark is on full display.
The number of Sentos are now in decline because of drastic life style changes. They are not the Instagram world, but real life. They are a reminder of what we all need when we’re constantly being crushed with the perfection of the social media world. Here you have a chance to unwind after work or connect with nature. These bathhouses still offer something a standard apartment bath cannot. One is never alone. One is part of the family of humanity.
Based on article by Lily Crossley-Baxter