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Looking for Sento – Special Edition (2014.6.6) The history of the Bath ①

Origin As Steam Baths

Bathing as a way of refreshing oneself and cleansing both body and mind is an ancient tradition. When Buddhism became established in Japan during the Nara era ( 710 – 784 ) temples began to have hot baths for the  monks to bathe and receive medical treatment. When Todaiji temple was constructed a large bath house “yuya” was built at the same time.  Before long, baths as alms offerings at temples for charity and medicinal purposes became common.

Myoshinji temple akechiburo (constructed during the Edo-era)

Myoshinji temple akechiburo (constructed during the Edo-era)

Bathrooms rebuilt during the Edo period (1603-1868) are still found in Hokkeji temple, which also has a legend that Empress Koumei (701- 760) aimed to offer treatment to a thousand patients there. Bathrooms remain at Kyoto’s Shokokuji and Tofukuji temples while the Akechi bathroom in Myoshinji temple is open to the public. The entrances to the interiors of these temple bathrooms are designed in a Karahafu style (1), which may be the origin of the current bathhouse style of entrance roof.

 Yase kiln-bath (reconstructed during the Meiji-era)

Yase kiln-bath (reconstructed during the Meiji-era)

Although we call them hot baths, in those days steam baths were commonplace, where vapour from boiled water was sent under or around the bathrooms. Furoshiki (2) were used to prevent scalding from the steam passing through the slatted wooden drainboards. Grime on the skin was washed away with hot water. As the popularity of bathhouses spread furoshiki began to be used to wrap clothes taken off prior to bathing. Yukatabira, the single-layer absorbent bathrobes at first worn when bathing, later began to be worn outside the bathhouse and called yukata.

Todaiji Temple yuya

Todaiji Temple yuya

In the Setouchi area bathing inside rooms created within naturally-occurring caverns “muro” was popular from ancient times. Pine needles and Japanese laurel was burned, then after the ashes were removed straw mats were placed on the ground and splashed with salt water. People bathed in the steam / vapour that appeared inside the rooms. In some areas, people scattered sweet flag (Acorus calamus), ferns or seagrass on the floor in the hope of medicinal or nutritional effects. The physicist Terada Torahiko stated that the Japanese word “furo” for bath is derived from these places.

In Yase near Ohara in Kyoto there are the remains of a kiln-shaped bath. It is said the kiln-bath dates back to the Hakuho period ( c. 650-710 ) and was rebuilt during the Meiji period. The bath has a floor size equivalent to six tatami mats (9.9 square metres). People can enjoy a modernised version of the bath at 「Furusato」 in the Yase district. Bathhouses where people immersed themselves in bathtubs only became popular during the Edo period.

Myoshinji akechiburo
Tel: 075-463-3121
Open: 9:15AM~3:40PM
*Viewing fee is charged

Yase kamaburo
Access: Furusato
Tel: 075-791-4126
*Free of charge

Text and photographs: Akira Fuse
Translation: Ai Mitobe, Language Volunteer Co-talk (LVC)

Note ―
(1)Karahafu-style ― a karahafu is similar to the chidorihafu, but the apex of the triangle is rounded and the sides are curved making it more decorative. It looks a bit like a recurve bow shape.
(2)Furoshiki ― a cloth wrapper