ON MY WAY TO JAPAN I stopped in Thailand. Ironically, the only indigenous sweat bath in that tropical land were the steamy streets of Bangkok. Japan was another story. Its bathing customs go back thousands of years and the Japanese passion for bathing is legendary. There seemed no limit to the originality and ingenuity these people show in their methods of cleansing themselves, including being buried in a mound of hot, powdered coffee beans or steaming lava. Some of their ancient baths resemble the modern sauna. While Turkish baths and Finnish-style saunas enjoy great popularity in Tokyo, their native sweat bathing culture co-exists and further confirmed what my research already revealed – that almost every people, at some time in their history, had devised, in one form or another, hot air or steam bathing.
In Tokyo, I visited Shigeto Saitou, director of the Japanese Sauna Party, who credits the sauna with curing his arthritis. He believes the Japanese passion for hot water bathing is inspired by the fact that Japan has the highest concentration of hot springs in the world. He described several types of Japanese bathing: in salt water, mud, waterfalls and electric baths (which I declined to try).
“Of course,” he said, “we have several types of sweatbaths too.” The mushi-buro (steam bath), kama-buro (kiln bath) resembling a kiln, ishiburo (rock bath) a cave drilled into the side of a rock formation, kara-buro (empty bath) empty of water and filled with hot air or steam, todian-buro (shelf bath) and the Zaku roguchi, known as the Pomegranate Entrance bath.
“But remember,” he cautioned, “many of these sweat baths are unknown today, even to the Japanese people.”
Bathhouse at the Todaji Temple.
While the Finnish sauna is a newcomer to Japanese baths, a strikingly similar bath existed in Japan centuries ago. Makuranososhi, a book written around the 9th century, observed: “Stones are placed inside small cottages and huts. After the stones are heated, water is poured On them to produce steam. Bamboo mats are placed around the stones so people may sit near the steam.”
When I asked Saitou where I might find any of these ancient sweat baths, he said I wouldn’t find them in Tokyo, but must visit Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, where many historic structures are preserved, including a kama-buro and a few temple baths.
Kyoto, home of hundreds of Buddhist temples, is only a few hours from Tokyo by the amazing bullet train. The kama-buro is located just north of Kyoto, near the Takano River. Here, in the small town of Yasi, which means “arrow in the back,” the 40th Emperor of Japan, Temmu, received a stray arrow in his back during a riot 1300 years ago. He healed his wound in the kama-buro. Although the Emperor’s bath no longer exists, a new, hundred-year-old kama-buro displays a plaque describing the riot, the healing, and the use of the bath itself: “To heat the kama-buro, attendants place green pine wood in the center of the floor. The wood is ignited and allowed to burn as long as the bather desires. The fire is extinguished and rubble is raked out. Then, with the smoke purged, a straw mat is sprinkled with salt water and placed on the floor as a place to sit. After sitting for a while, the whole body becomes warm and jewel-like, as the sweat seeps out. It is a kind of steam bath. The kama-buro has a beneficial effect on injury and skin diseases, stomach problems, arthritis and rheumatism.”
A poem by Yosai Aotani, a classical scholar in the Meiji period (1868-1910), is inscribed near the bottom of the plaque:
When one crawls into the kama-buro
It is just like night,
Then one sees the white daylight as the softening steam
reaches the lungs and stomach.
Sweat is released in streams and the power of this kiln bath equals hundreds of medicines.
No one at the ryokan, a Japanese inn nearby, could tell me when this bath was last used. The ryokan, however, offered another kama-buro, heated and ready for use. I undressed in the bathing room beside a small, colorful rock garden and a sunken tub. All the amenities of a modern bathroom were there, including showers. The kama-buro itself stood in the center of the room resembling its ancestor outside except it had a high wooden door instead of a low-cut slot. Both baths had thick clay walls that arched two meters above a stone foundation. A smiling mask hung above the door of the indoor kama-buro. Its serene expression made me suspect it was the “sage of the sweat bath.’
A kama-buro in Kyoto.
And its sage.
I entered naked and sat on the bamboo mat, stifling a sneeze in the salty atmosphere. Though I had no wound to heal, I luxuriated in the heat emanating from the thick walls, much like the old Finnish smoke sauna.
I later learned that this district once had an abundance of kama-buros, until the major restoration of the last century, with one in every house. Now, sadly, the only two left are those I just described.
History of Japanese Baths
The kama-buro was inspired by the ishi-buro, or rock bath, also known as the ana-buro, or cave bath, back in the tenth century. I found numerous references to these baths around the inland sea where caves are chiseled in solid rock. The opening is usually small, but the interior is scooped out to accommodate a dozen or so people. Dried ferns and green wood are burned inside. When the fire has heated the cave, three men, dressed like firemen, move in to rake out the ashes, and lay down straw mats soaked with seawater. Then they exit, closing off the entrance behind them. The bathers usually wait a half hour until the heat has spread evenly through the cave. If they entered too soon, the ceiling would be far too hot, and the floor not hot enough.
Japanese bathhouse as seen by a 19th century German visitor.
The following rules come from a sign posted on an ishi-buro built in 1780 near Nagasaki:
1. No noise allowed. One must be quiet.
2. Watch out for fire danger.
3. Those with venereal disease, epilepsy or leprosy are not allowed.
4. No sleeping in the bath.
5. No urinating in the bath.
6. No eating in the bath.
7. No drinking, sex or lust in the bath.
8. No acupuncture 3 to 4 days after bathing in the ishi-buro.
The sign also recommended the bath be used once every ten days.
In southwest Kyoto, by the Sennyu-Ji temple, I found a kara-buro, the empty bath, which is another type of mushi-buro, or steam bath. (Mushi-buro is a term which applies to many different forms of sweat baths.) The kara-buro was popular back in the 8th century. Although there are no physical remains of the originals, there are any references to them in scrawled writings on temple walls. The later version I visited was already in decline and seemed destined to join its forebears in extinction.
In the 14th century.
The kara-buro is constructed from elegant and substantial wood. In front, two heavy curved members meet at the apex of the small roof, giving the simple facade the appearance of having wings. Below, a small pair of sliding doors allows bathers to crawl inside. Steam is piped in through its slatted floor. I wasn’t able to enjoy the kara-buro since it hadn’t been used for years.
The proximity of the kara-buro to the temples indicates the importance of cleanliness and purification in the Buddhist faith. To pray before Buddha, the reverent must be clean and smell natural. When priests and monks bathe, they follow a strict discipline of 25 commandments. Bathing is not only synonymous with ablution and purification, but it also brings sevenfold luck, prevents or cures the seven diseases of the skin.
Shintoism, Japan’s second religion, also teaches that one must bathe in order to become one with God. An alternative method of purification is to wipe smoke over special places on the body, which, I should think, would send me scurrying to the nearest tub.
The todana-buro, the shelf or closet bath, was found in rural Japan where there were no hot springs and limited supplies of water or fuel. Its construction and procedures were so like the kara-buro, I suspect the name difference may be merely a dialect variation. Out of necessity, the pleasures of fully soaking in hot water were replaced by bathing in the economical steam of the todana-buro. Drawings show bathers using buckets of water from a trough to rinse their bodies.
Sketches of Japanese Manners & Customs 1867.
The zakurogushi-buro, Pomegranate Entrance bath, a name with a most circuitous history, results from the poetic nature of the Japanese language. To enter this bath, bathers were forced to stoop very low to worm through a narrow slit in the bottom, rather than open sliding doors allowing steam to escape as in the todana-buro and kara-buro. Now-if you will suffer a rather complicated explanation-the Japanese word for “to stoop” sounds much like their word for “mirror,” and one of their solvents to clean mirrors was the vinegar from pomegranates. Through this convoluted progression, from pomegranate to vinegar to “mirror” to “stoop’, the Japanese arrived at the name zakurogushi-buro, Pomegranate Entrance bath. This was either a later development of the sweat bath or a regional variation.
Japanese bathing cubicle.
Japanese bathing never suffered quite the opposition that the Reformation imposed on bathing in Europe. Nevertheless, attitudes did vary from time to time and minor conflicts arose. One era would enjoy unrestricted bathing, men and women together in public bath houses, giving way to licentious behavior which, in turn, provoked a reaction resulting in rules and restrictions. Though Japanese men and women have been bathing separately for the last 100 years, their enthusiasm remains undiminished.
The following list of bathing suggestions was found inscribed on a 17th century calendar. It appears to respond to a particularly debauched period in Japanese bathing. (I matched the old Japanese New Year to the contemporary Western New Year in making the translation. Nevertheless, inconsistencies do occur, such as the first day of autumn occurring on July 25.)
LESSON FOR LONG LIFE
New Year’s Eve: Wash armpits with urine and your body odor will disappear.
January 1: Bathe with the leaves from five different kinds of trees – peach, willow and mulberry are recommended.
January 8: A good day to bathe, but watch out for danger in the bath house.
January 10: Bathing today will cure any disease.
February 6: A good day for bathing and a good time to wash your hair. (Washing hair was a special ritual. A woman had to ask her parents’ permission.)
June 1-27: On the first day of Autumn, one should not bathe because it is bad for the skin.
August 3-7: You will live long and be wise if you wash your hair during these days.
October 1: If you bathe at the first crow of the rooster, you will live a long life.
November 11: Don’t bathe.
November 15: If you bathe after midnight, your worries will vanish.
The ancient sweat bath is now only a small part of Japanese bathing habits. Curiously, the Finnish sauna seems to be replacing the traditional forms of sweat bathing, lost to so many modern Japanese. Hot water bathing, of course, is still very popular in Japan and the practice has become ritual, both at home and in public bath houses. I visited several public baths and found them to be the least expensive social activity, (and one of the most enjoyable.) I was sorry to learn, however, that many public baths are closing down as more and more people, in these times of prosperity, are able to afford private bathrooms. Japanese emulation of Western-style bathing has lessened the social importance of the bath house and its popularity.
Cover of the Japanese Sauna – How to Health, 1973.