Japan is a place where certain customs and rituals might seem unusual to a Westerner’s eye. One of these is the fact that many Japanese people love to take a bath at night before they sleep, rather than in the morning before they head outside. Have you ever wondered why?
As you probably already know, the Japanese love to bathe in sentos (public bath) and onsens (hot springs). Almost each and every town and village in Japan has public bathing facilities which anyone, regardless of age, can use to clean themselves and socialize. Public bathing is a common ritual which everyone who has been to Japan must have identified. Why do you think the Japanese love to go communal bathing? It is mainly for two reasons – (1) climate and (2) lack of facilities.
Climate in Japan could be really harsh as it can be extremely cold in the winter, and extremely hot and humid in the summer with temperatures going beyond 40 degrees Celsius. In addition to that, many Japanese homes used to lack facilities such as bathtubs and central heating systems which made it difficult to relax in such climatic conditions.
A sento or an onsen is usually an inn with pools and showers equipped with bathing needs (such as soap and shampoo) in a controlled temperature. You can just pay a little amount to get into a public bath and enjoy their facilities and relax for a while. And what better time to visit a public bath than in the evening when you are done with work?
Moreover, the idea of public bathing is to help people relax. A relaxed bath usually takes a bit more time than just a quick morning shower, don’t you think?
The Japanese culture has been built on many Shinto beliefs and customs. If you have visited a Shinto shrine in Japan, you may have noticed that you must wash your hands and feet first as part of a ritual purification.
Ritual purification is something Shintoism talks about as a very important tool to cleanse not only your body but also your soul. Even Zen Buddhism talks about having a clean body and soul to avoid any distractions just like you don’t want dust on your mirror.
As mentioned in ancient Japanese mythological books such as Kojiki, a night shower beneath celestial maidens is seen as something very spiritual under Shintoism. According to a legend, the moon god and the king of the night skies, Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto, was born when his father, Izanagi-no-Mikoto, was taking a bath after being enraged by the death of his wife. Some ardent Shinto believers even do “misogi,” a full body bath under a waterfall during the night.
Normally, people take a shower before going out in the morning for work. It is considered disrespectful to be untidy in the workplace not just in Western culture, but also in many others including Japanese. However, there is a difference between bathing and showering: you take a shower to wash yourself, while a bath is supposedly for relaxation.
The Japanese are known for their punctuality, and in order to reduce the amount of time it takes to get ready in morning, they prefer to relax and clean themselves well the night before. Take note, this is not a generalization, as many still like to take a quick shower in the morning even though they had a long bath the previous night. However, during harsh Japanese winter, the cold will send shivers to your spine, so the idea of a morning shower can be difficult sometimes.
There is also a famous children’s folk song entitled “Aizu Bandai San” about a guy named Ohara Shosuke-san who becomes poor by drinking, sleeping, and bathing in the morning, despite being all kind and generous. There is an old black-and-white Japanese movie from the ’40s with the same name depicting a rich guy losing his wealth due to self-obsession and gambling.
Moreover, the Japanese tend to work harder and longer in the day despite the harsh weather, thus making post-work relaxation such an integral part of their lives.
So when do you usually take a bath? In the morning or in the evening? Or are you one of those people who take a bath both in the morning and evening regardless of the season? Unusual or not, the Japanese seem to know how to relax in a better way, and there is a need to appreciate their bathing culture.