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Ii Yu Da Naa~! – The Japanese Public Bath Experience

Updated on December 3, 2009

Beppu Onsen

I assumed that literature on Japanese baths (ofuros, sentos, and onsens) would be more comprehensive than it is. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of accounts on the health benefits of soaking as well as the historical base and cultural significance of why bathing became a social activity in Japan. But if it was me, I would want to read about the experience. How does it feel? What about soaking in a bath the Japanese way makes those who are apprehensive the first time, or maybe even the second time, find themselves eventually addicted? I'm curious about the tangible aspects of the experience, sights, smells, sounds, and feelings. Below is my account of going to a Japanese public bath, as I have done since my youth.

As soon as you walk into the changing room, the ambience is different. The air is warm, and slightly more humid than it was outside. The beautiful part about this space is that everyone is stripped of their facades. Even though most modern public baths have a dressing area full of lights and mirrors (at least for the women) where appearance is perfected before entering the outside world, in that space, where the air is slightly denser, each individual is raw.

I think most fear public nudity above all else. Our modern societies teach us to build walls around ourselves but in this space we are forced to tear them down, and a part of me finds that refreshing. But more importantly, nobody is looking at you, and no one is bothered by what you are doing. While the bath is a public space, on the other hand it’s a quiet and personal place. Here you attend to your overworked and underappreciated body, and spend time easing your tired mind.

When you enter the bath area with a small towel that you can use to “be modest” (if you choose), the steam immediately envelopes your body and you feel warm, deep inside. Everyone is so engrossed in themselves that it's surprisingly quiet for a public place; and the soothing sound of flowing trickling water cloaks the entire room.

Once you have soaped and cleaned yourself with the showers or faucets along the walls, it's time for the main event. The Japanese differentiate between cleaning and soaking ones body. Soaking isn't for removing dirt, it's for the body to slowdown, then reboot. The water in the tub might be too warm to just climb into; the slow approach is best, one foot at a time. The rush of water engulfing your skin and you sink deeper into the tub is thrilling. You can feel your heart rate increase and any rigidity in your body eased. Once completely submerged, it's like being wrapped up in a warm blanket.

Clusters of people may be chit chatting while enjoying their soak, teeter tottering between social and solitary, comfortable in their own skin. It's a social place unlike any other you will experience. The Japanese frequently use this phrase “Ii yu da na~,” roughly translated, “Damn, this water is great!” as they feel the pent up tension from their hectic lives dissolve into the steaming water.

When the soak is completed, whenever you decide that to be: 10 minutes, 30 minutes, or when your skin has become lobster-red and prune-like; rise from the tub of steaming water relaxed and rejuvenated. While you redress and prepare yourself to be presentable for the outside world, it may feel like you're walking on air. Emerge from the changing room to thinner lighter air, and breathe a sigh of relief that you just spent time on yourself.

So my advice is, stop being concerned about technicalities and experience one of the simplest and purest pleasures in this world. And you may just end up thinking, “Ii yu da na~!”


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    • Kori Lee F.P. profile image

      Kori Lee F.P. 8 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Love your hub. I have been to a bath house in Japan. I went in 1989 to Fujiyoshida area. Loved the experience and loved Japan.