The Japanese Experience



Scale drawings of the Nigatsu-do at the Todai-ji temple in Nara. Built over a spring that was the principal source of water for the great religious complex, this hall also served as the bathhouse for the monks and congregation of Todai-ji. In the centre of the building is the huge metal cauldron in which bath water was heated. (Courtesy of Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan)



There is no more difficult place to live in than Japan. The work ethic is extreme, private space is severely limited and society’s expectations are excessive, so much so that often people perish from overwork, a phenomenon they call ‘karoshi’. They cannot sustain the demands of family, society and their employment. So common is ‘karoshi’ that relaxation has become almost an obsession for business people. Compact discs of water and wind sounds and soothing music, special videos of tranquil scenes, yoga and the study of ‘ki’ are some of the new and popular ways of winding down and surviving the intense pressures of daily life.

Japanese people have largely managed their cracking pace and one of the principal reasons lies in a room in their homes set aside for this purpose. It could easily be said that the Japanese bath keeps this mad Shinkansen-like society on the rails in its breakneck journey to who knows where.

When the day has ended and one is home at last with one’s family ( usually quite late at night ), a further retreat is possible, alone and deeply immersed and enveloped in a tub of steaming hot water.

No other people on earth have such a love of cleanliness, of pure water and bathing. It’s a place in which the Japanese people relax alone, yes, and take away stress too. But more. Here in privacy and solitude away from the vicissitudes of the world, one can dream and contemplate, fit the intricate pieces of the impossible jigsaw of life together and make sense of it all. It’s as if the innate love of bathing has saved them from themselves. It’s quite unlikely that they could have achieved their mega-status in the world without the humble bath.

Just as in their water purification ceremonies long gone, the pouring of water over one’s body in the somewhat complex bathing procedure and the endless soak to the chin washes away the cares of the world and one is reborn. It’s a ritual of lingering religious significance. Water is more than water.

A day’s journey to a hot spring is not uncommon, so beneficial are its waters. Many ‘relaxation tours’ are available: nothing could be more pleasurable than to soak forever in a mountain pool, even in the rain and snow, perhaps taking hot sake, donning a ‘yukata’ gown, then gazing at the river and the forest from a small teahouse before partaking of exquisite food. This is bliss.

The ultimate in relaxation for the Japanese people is a peaceful environment, natural surroundings, a beautiful garden and abundant water. Tranquility in architectural and interior design and their horizontal lines are important too.