A Japanese-style bath gives visitors an interesting glimpse of the country’s culture.
WHOA! The red marking on the knob indicated 40 degree C! How could one bathe at that temperature in the sweltering summer heat? (Mind you, some even bathe in 42 degree C water.) That was my first experience of a Japanese-style bath at my host’s home when I visited Japan in 1989.
The bathroom had an opaque glass door. My host’s parents had just cleaned and heated up the water in the ofuro (bathtub). Using gestures, they showed me how to take a bath.
A typical Japanese bathroom comprises two rooms: a changing room (usually equipped with a sink, a laundry machine and a chest drawers or cabinet for clean towels) and a bathroom installed with a deep bathtub, faucets for hot and cold water, a low shower head and sometimes a mirror. The toilet is normally located in an entirely separate cubicle.
Piping hot: The 40°C bathwater will give you a buzz and turn you pink.
Modern bathrooms have control panels that automatically fill the bathtub with water of a preferred temperature at a set time, and separately set the temperature of the shower. Some luxurious bathrooms have a Jacuzzi and small TV.
After leaving my clothes in the changing room, I entered the bathroom and sat on the bath stool. I adjusted the knob to lower the shower’s temperature.
Although there was a small plastic basin to collect hot water from the faucet for cleaning oneself, I preferred the shower. After shampooing my hair and soaping my body, I showered thoroughly.
When I removed the bathtub’s cover boards, steam rose from the ofuro, making the bathroom foggy. Intimidated, I gingerly tested the water with my hand. Ouch! It was 40°C. No wonder the Malaysian cartoonist, Lat, squatted on the edge of the bathtub with trepidation before soaking in it at his Japanese host’s home. Reminiscing about that illustration in his book, Lots More Lat, made me chuckle.
After soaking for just a moment, my head was buzzing as the heat permeated my body. My skin turned pink.
It was far too hot for me, so I got out. I added too much cold water from the faucet and the ofuro overflowed when I entered it again.
A typical Japanese bathroom comes with an attached changing room.
Bath salts containing minerals, herbs or natural fragrances and different colouring are sometimes mixed with the bathwater. There are bath salts with spices like ginger or chilli. Bath salts can make the bathwater viscous after a few days. Many people would rinse off after getting out of the tub. Despite not using bath salts, some people still rinse off, since the bathwater has been used by others.
Taking a hot bath at night before bedtime helps one to relax and sleep better.
After using the bathtub, be considerate and scoop out any hairs or dirt dropped into the water. Put the cover board back to keep the water warm.
Avoid gaffes such as washing your body in the bathtub. That should be done outside the bathtub first. The bathtub is only for soaking. Do not drain the water after using the bathtub which my non-Japanese friend once did. Her host was stumped to find it empty when she removed the cover board.
The bathwater is changed every two or three days, depending on its condition. To avoid wastage, the plain bathwater is used for watering plants or cleaning the bathroom. Some families use an electric pump with a hose to pump the bathwater into the washing machine for washing laundry. Clean water is used before the last spin.
Being a guest, I had the privilege of taking the ichiban-buro (first bath). The custom changed after I got married. I had to take the bath after my parents-in-law. When my sister-in-law’s family visited us, they took a bath before us, as they were guests.
Unaccustomed to sharing the bathwater with my parents-in-law, I used the shower. Unlike many Japanese parents who bathe together with their children, I bathed my son separately when he was a kid.
The apartment where we are staying now has a small squarish ofuro. A heater is connected to the tub to heat the water.
We use a timer when heating up the bathwater. Stirring the bathwater helps to distribute the heat evenly. On several occasions, the water was boiling hot because we forgot to switch off the gas heater immediately after the timer rang.
Surprisingly, several of my Japanese friends only take hot showers. Others generally soak for 10-15 minutes in the ofuro. However, one American friend takes an hour. Why? He reads in the ofuro!