The first and most important thing to understand about communal bathing is that baths are not swimming pools. If you understand that, much else will follow. Bathing is what you do at home, naked, in your tub, in nice fresh hot water. Communal bathing is the same, but with others.
Generally speaking, cultures that have a continuing history of communal bathing, such as East Asians, seem to do better at drawing this distinction. Sadly, the English-speaking world is largely not among them. I have visited Japan a number of times, and always enjoy their bathing facilities, so I shall mostly draw on my experiences there in this post. I shall also include sauna almost in the same breath as I speak of bathing, as the experience and culture are similar.
|lukewarm (30°)||hot (40°)|
|chlorinated recycled||untreated fresh-fed (e.g. from hot spring)|
|shower after||shower before|
Gender & Nudity
There is a trade-off between modesty, especially before the opposite sex, and the convenience and cleanliness of nudity. Naturally, different cultures will have different preferences. I am sympathetic to the view, common in Japan, that swimsuits are “dirty” and don’t belong in clean water that clean people are trying to relax in, and also make sweating in the sauna less pleasant.
In any case, the various possibilities relating to gender and nudity generally sort into a small number of approaches, to which I have given names and codes for further reference:
- swimming pool [S]: mixed, swimsuits. This is the norm for the U.S., and pretty much ubiquitous in England, even for facilities that call themselves “spa” or “public bath”.
- hippie [H]: mixed, swimsuit optional. In the U.S., this is found in certain “boutique” establishments, especially those with a New Age feel, and also at hot springs, especially the less developed ones.
- traditional [T]: gender separated, naked only (sometimes with mixed clothed areas). This is the norm in Japan, whether it’s fancy spas in Tokyo or tiny bathhouses in the country.
- nudist [N]: mixed, naked only. You might consider this a stricter version of hippie where swimsuits are not permitted, but it’s better understood as a version of traditional where there’s no gender separation. This is found occasionally in certain rural hot springs in Japan, where it is called konyoku.
- women only [Wo]: swimsuit optional. women only naked [Wn]: naked only.
- men only [Mo]: swimsuit optional. men only naked [Mn]: naked only. Leaving aside sex play establishments, these options are rare in the U.S. except as particular days. Even then, the days/times will generally be shorter than corresponding women-only times.
Traditional is best, or nudist if you’re in a mixed group. It is not uncommon in the U.S. for an establishment to have different options on different days or times: [S/Wo/Mo] and [H/Wo/Mo] are common combinations.
Facilities & Temperatures
As an Englishman, I am ashamed to say that my people have no taste in communal bathing. The last time anyone gave serious attention to communal bathing in my homeland was under the Romans.
For example, in the beautiful and promisingly-named city of Bath, the only place in Britain or Ireland where geothermal water springs naturally from the ground, you may find a modern English bathing establishment by the name of Thermae Bath Spa. Despite its grand name referring to the thermae of the Romans, it is but a mere swimming pool, or rather two swimming pools, both for some reason at the exact same lukewarm temperature of 33.5°. The city is blessed with the marvellous natural gift of 46° hot water, and yet they spend money to refrigerate it. And to think there’s a wonderful example of ancient Roman bathing technology right next door. Oh indeed, there are some saunas with pointless “aromatherapy” scents added, but they never quite get hot enough given that people have to open the door to get in and out.
Anyway, these are the kinds of facilities one might find in a proper communal bathing establishment, together with their Roman names:
- hot pool (caldarium): 40° is the perfect temperature, at which point all trace of lukewarmness is banished.
- warm pool (tepidarium): sometimes these are salted.
- cold pool (frigidarium): about 15° is good.
- hot room (laconicum): temperatures vary: Russian parilkas can go above 100°, but 80° is a more typical “hot sauna” temperature. In a Finnish sauna one can typically splash water on hot rocks for steam.
- steam room (sudatorium): these just fill with steam. Sometimes eucalyptus or some other scent is added.
- warm room: I have come across “low temperature sauna” rooms at 40°.
- cold room: like the cold pool, about 15° is good.
The human core body temperature varies through the day; 37.5° is typical for the daytime. Half an hour in a sauna will raise that by about 1°.
The Hot Spring Experience
Municipal water can be heated, of course, and this can supply a public bath such as the sento of Japan with hot water (yu). However, sometimes nature provides water heated deep underground (“geothermal”) to spring at the surface. This is known as a hot spring, or onsen in Japan. Spring water just flows and flows, if it’s not used it just drains off. (Sometimes a pipe is drilled down to a geothermal aquifer, to obtain a kind of artificial hot spring.)
You’ll be pleased to know there’s a Unicode emoji for hot springs: ♨️
For any bathing-oriented culture, hot springs are a great blessing, fully worthy of sanctification as a natural goddess as the ancient Romans did at Bath, building a temple and a bathing facility as two overlapping rectangles, with the spring itself in the intersection.
The Japanese love to bathe in hot springs, so villages grow up wherever they are found, typically in beautiful mountainous locations. Outdoor bathing pools are particularly popular; these are known as rotemburo. The ideal soaking experience is a cold clear winter’s day, with a good view of the mountains. After showering and scrubbing, one can alternate lazy sessions of soaking and sitting out.
“Après bath is a time for relaxing and cooling off. So find a comfortable spot where you can sit calmly and let magnificent thoughts fill your mind.”
— Leonard Koren, How To Take A Japanese Bath
When planning hot spring visits, you may care to pay attention to the mineral content of the waters. While I have little interest in the supposed benefits of this or that mineral, I do find the smell of sulphuric springs unpleasant, and generally prefer to avoid them.
For the full experience, stay at a hot spring inn (onsen ryokan), lounge around in a yukata (provided), and be fed the best Japanese food of your life.
The Sauna Experience
sow-na. Impress your friends.
People coming to bathe having different needs and tastes. Some people just want to relax in the heat, especially in cold weather. However, in my view the full bathing experience involves the contrast of extremes, of heat and of cold.
Finnish saunas have hot stones onto which water can be thrown as needed; the resulting heat and steam is known as löyly. Your rural cottage has a sauna heated by smoke from a wood stove underneath the stones. The original savusauna doesn’t even have a chimney, and is instead vented after filling with smoke, leaving a layer of antimicrobial soot on everything. Afterwards, plunge into a snowbank or a hole cut in the ice (avanto) and swim about for a bit.
sun → light → tree → wood → smoke → stones → steam → body
This is my (rather milder) preferred procedure where such facilities are available.
- Shower and clean yourself thoroughly. Japanese-style sit-down showers make this easier. One should be entirely clean and rinsed.
- Heat up in the hot room (dry or steam), trying to get as much heat in your body as you can. The temperature of your brain is the limiting factor: for this reason Russians and occasionally Finns wear felt or woolly hats. At some point you will find yourself walking out, almost autonomously.
- Sit out until you feel cooled off.
- Return to the hot room to heat up again.
- Plunge into the cold pool, and stay in up to your neck until you can no longer feel the cold. This is the most difficult part, but the hotter your body got earlier, the easier it will be. Feel free to pant and thrash about in the water. Dunk your head under frequently: this is actually more comfortable, as it more quickly relieves your hot brain (which is why you left the hot room).
- When you start to feel cold again, exit the pool. Loudly declare ecce homo! to all (this part is optional). Sit on the bench while you feel your vital energy streaming through your body, or lie in the warm pool.
It’s even better if you have a venik (Russian), vihta (Finnish, western) or vasta (Finnish, eastern), a loose broom of leafy twigs, usually birch, that has been thoroughly soaked in water. Once you’re hot enough in the hot room, whip yourself with it (platza) to massage the skin. Better yet, take turns with someone else on each other.
History & Folklore
Bathing was central to ancient Roman life. All classes of Romans, perhaps even slaves, bathed in the numerous small (balnae) and large (thermae) bathhouses, which consumed huge amounts of wood in their heating. Fees were low or even nonexistent, and unlike other Roman pastimes, there was no class separation within, making it a uniquely democratic institution. Some baths had separated facilities [T], others had separate times for men and women [M/W] while others were mixed [N] (or [S], it’s not clear what was worn in the baths). Naturally the last came in for a fair amount of criticism from more conservative elements of Roman society. Early Christians prided themselves on their alousia, and avoided bathing altogether as baptism was the only acceptable washing.
In Russia, according to W.F. Ryan, Christianity took hard to the bathhouse (banya), partly because mixed bathing was considered as leading to sin, not to mention that it was the one place where one would remove the cross around one’s neck. Bathhouses became magically dangerous places in folklore, where one might find an evil goblin known as a bannik, or where a wizard (koldun) would practice magic while everyone else was at church. It was traditional to bury a black hen when constructing a bathhouse, and the site of a former bathhouse (banishche) was considered cursed and left undeveloped.
In Finland, sauna is considered rather more positively, and is in any case a much stronger part of national culture and identity. As they say, “one should behave in a sauna as one would in church”. It is perhaps also a place of social levelling, the common nudity erasing social distinctions.
Some West Coast Establishments
A few places I’ve been to. Of course this does not include women-only places.
- Banya 5 (Russian) [S], Seattle WA. Haven’t been since they dropped their [Mo] days years ago. If it hasn’t changed: hot, warm (salt), and cold pools, hot room (parilka) that gets over 100°, steam room, relaxation spaces.
- Q Sauna & Spa (Korean) [T], Lynnwood WA. Formerly Bella Luna Spa, and before that New Life Fitness & Spa. Hot, warm, and cold pools, hot room and steam room, plus a bunch of themed hottish rooms in the common areas. They give you pajama-type garments. Restaurant. My go-to.
- The Gated Sanctuary [H/Wo/Mo], Snohomish WA. Outdoor hot and cold pools, indoor steam room. Small, kind of a new-agey feel.
- Doe Bay [H], Orcas Island WA. Outdoors. Nice view, but they need to sort out foot hygiene to prevent mud from the trail being tracked in.
- Common Ground [H/Wo/Mo], Portland OR. Outdoor hot pool, indoor hot room. Kinda hippie-ish feel.
- Kabuki Springs & Spa [Wo/Mo/S], San Francisco CA. Quite nice.
- Everett House [H/(Wo)], Portland OR. Hot room and steam room. Outdoor space has a (rather chlorinated) hot tub, a gas fire, and cold baths (literally bathtubs). I haven’t tried the floation tanks. Pleasant new-age feel. Can get crowded apparently, was fine when I went on a weekday afternoon.
- Löyly Northeast [S/Wo], Portland OR. Two hot rooms and a cold shower. I haven’t tried their Southeast location.
To try: Archimedes Banya [H/Wo], San Francisco CA; Breitenbush Hot Springs [H], Breitenbush OR; Harbin Hot Springs [H], near Middletown CA; Goldmyer Hot Springs [H], near North Bend WA; Scenic Hot Springs [H], near Skykomish WA.
Bathing in Anime
Two out of four of these have supernatural themes, while a third has at least a supernatural plot device. Baths are rather liminal places, after all.
- Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) is about a girl forced to work at a bathhouse for spirits so as to rescue her parents who’ve been transformed into pigs.
- Thermae Romae tells the story of an ancient Roman bath designer who gets repeatedly mysteriously transported to modern Japan and back, and tries to recreate the bathing technologies and culture he found there back in ancient Rome, with comic mixed success. Rather poorly animated TV series, also a live-action movie.
- Hanasaku Iroha is a slice of the life of running a rural hot-spring inn.
- Konohana Kitan is about a supernatural hot spring inn for fox spirits.
- W.F. Ryan, The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia
- Leonard Koren, How To Take A Japanese Bath
- Leonard Koren, Undesigning the Bath
- Alexia Brue, Cathedrals of the Flesh
- Fikret Yegül, Bathing in the Roman World
— Ashley Yakeley