Going with the furo

by Yuko Naito

Sitting in a tub of clear, near-scalding water up to your neck might not instantly appeal to those new to Japan who are used to stretching out in a warm sea of suds and playing with their plastic ducks. However, taking a bath that way is more than a hygienic chore for the people of these islands; it’s almost a sacred ritual, and it would be hard to find a population anywhere who take baths more frequently than the Japanese today. Although they might have some way to go before they can rival the citizens of Ancient Rome, who are believed to have shed their togas at huge and luxurious public baths at least once a day, Japanese people’s fondness for soaking themselves is one of those things that often amazes visitors to these shores.

On average, indeed, Japanese take a bath five times a week in summer and six times a week in winter, according to the results of a 1999 survey of 1,456 people by the Tokyo Gas Urban Life Research Institute. Also, 48 percent of respondents said they had a bath every day, even in the heat of summer, while in winter, 61 percent took a hot plunge every day. In comparison, because of the lack of reliable data, it’s difficult to be sure how often non-Japanese people take a bath — although it’s almost certainly less frequently. Several years ago, when the Fuji TV program “Hakkutsu Aruaru Daijiten (Encyclopedia of Living)” interviewed 100 passersby in both New York and Paris, it found that, on average, New Yorkers took a bath 2.2 times a week, while Parisians did so 2.4 times, although 12 percent of the Americans said they did not take a bath at all. Of course, this doesn’t mean people in New York and Paris are dirty, because most of them said they often had a shower instead. In practical terms, of course, having a shower is more convenient than a bath, and also takes less water, less fuel, and less investment in equipment and maintenance. Despite this, and the fact that at least 70 percent of households in this country have a shower, nearly 80 percent of Japanese still insist they prefer soaking themselves in a hot bath.

“We were surprised by this survey result. We had expected more Japanese today would prefer a shower,” says Miho Hayakawa, the Urban Life Research Institute’s chief researcher.

Among Japanese in their teens and 20s, the institute found the current trend is toward taking a shower more often than a bath — though most declared a preference for that therapeutic soak, if only they had time, Hayakawa says.

One of those bath lovers is 35-year-old Tokyo office employee, Yumi Watanabe. She says she cannot go to bed without first having a hot soak. No matter how late she gets home, and no matter how tired she is, the first thing she does when she gets in is fill her bathtub with hot water. “For me, taking a bath is an indispensable part of my daily routine, just like cleaning my teeth after a meal,” she says. “I can never be satisfied with a shower. A bath feels much better.”

Just what is it about taking a bath that makes it so special to so many?

Devotees say they can become relaxed and overcome physical fatigue quickly by taking a bath, and that a shower just doesn’t have the same effect.

This relaxing feeling can be scientifically explained. According to Michihiko Ueda, a doctor who has written many books on bathing and health, the whole body can get warm to the marrow by staying in the hot water, typically around 40 C, while a quick shower only heats the body’s surface. As a result, Ueda explains, “The blood circulation speeds up and more oxygen is carried to the internal organs. Therefore, metabolism is enhanced.

“Also, by soaking in a bath you can recover from physical fatigue more quickly, because muscles get soft and lactic acid that builds up through exertion is removed more promptly. Moreover, the floating feeling in the water greatly aids relaxation,” Ueda says. “In fact, to improve your health, it’s best to take a bath every day if possible.” If the benefits of the bath are so outstanding, why don’t more people in the world take one more frequently?

“How and how often people bathe differs greatly from culture to culture. Some races or tribes do not bathe at all throughout their lives,” says anthropologist Shuji Yoshida, who wrote “Furo to Ekusutashi (Bathing and Ecstasy)” in 1995. Although people nowadays bathe mainly as part of the process of keeping clean, Yoshida believes that taking a bath probably had many other purposes in times gone by. To many tribes of native Americans, for instance, “bathing” usually meant sweating in a small hut with a wood fire inside, or bringing in stones heated on a fire outside and then sprinkling water on them so they sizzled and steamed. Bathing in these ways was also often a part of tribal rituals.

In Central America, sweat baths called temescal have been in use since the pre-Colombian height of Mayan civilization, mainly for the treatment of physical disorders. To this day, Indian women there commonly retire to a brick-built bathhouse to relax and recuperate after childbirth.

Across the Atlantic, in Scandinavia in particular, saunas have been part of everyday life for 1,000 years, both in treating illness and for sheer pleasure. Today, of course, these sweat baths have become popular all over the world — though few other than their originators top them off with a naked romp in snow, a plunge into an icy lake or a mild beating with birch twigs.

Meanwhile, to those Ancient Roman citizens so eager to drop their togas, bathing was just one amusement at their third-century public baths, which often also housed theaters, libraries, music halls, restaurants and open spaces for sports such as wrestling and boxing.

In a similar combination of functions, when public bathhouses first opened in Japan in the Edo Period early in the 17th century, amusement and recreation was frequently combined with bathing itself. Men, for instance, could often have their backs washed by women, and sento customers were provided with a spacious second-floor resting room where they could eat sweets and play board games. Today, even though more than 90 percent of Japanese households have baths, and public baths are fewer in number every year, most people keep to the “traditional” bathing style established through the long history of public baths. So it is that washing before entering the bath is still the norm, with many family members often following each other into the same water in turn. In many houses, too, the bath is fitted with a thermostat and (to the hygiene horror of some Westerners) the same water may be kept in the tub for two or three days at close to the preferred 38-42 C temperature people find pleasant, ready for use minutes after the touch of a heat-up button. But as Yoshida says, “It’s only Japanese who bathe in such hot water, except for a native American tribe called the Nez Perce who used to soak in very hot water to torture their bodies in the belief it would bring good luck. Most Westerners bathe in water at around 33-36 C, and to them a Japanese bath must seem unbearable.”

Nonetheless, despite some concern over the detrimental effect of soaking in such hot water — and the many old people here who die in the bath — Ueda insists there is no need for healthy people to worry. He does point out, though, that the difference in temperature between the bathroom and the tub can cause big swings in blood pressure in a short time, and this may increase the chances of sudden death for old people or those suffering from circulatory ailments.

Such dire caveats apart, it is generally agreed that hot water stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, and this helps waken you up in the morning, or may make falling asleep harder, says Noboru Iwamoto, a spokesman for the bath salt and bath oil manufacturer Tsumura & Co.

So, the recipe for a good sleep, Iwamoto advises, is a long soak in a bath below 40 C, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and promotes relaxation. “But in any case, staying in the water too long is not to be recommended,” he says, “because that thickens the blood and may encourage blood clots to form which can cause serious problems such as strokes.

“So, if you feel thirsty or if your face is sweating, you should leave the bath,” he says — forgetting to mention that you should also switch off the waterproof radio, waterproof television or waterproof clock before you leave. And who knows, before long Japan’s range of customized bath equipment will probably include a floating, waterproof laptop as well . . .