Ritual Bathing

Around the world, throughout history and in almost every culture there are rituals around bathing. For many the act of washing is not only external purification, but internal or spiritual as well. Even today, all the major religions in the world have a ceremony in which water is used as a symbol for spiritual purification; consider the various uses of baptism, bathing in the Ganges and the Islamic absolution ritual wudu.

In most of pre-Christian Europe and the rest of the world hot springs were sacred places. They often had temples built on or near them and became places of worship. A well-known example is Bath, England, where nearly two thousand years ago, a temple was built to Minerva near the hot springs. In the 3rd century, the Romans constructed the baths as we see them today.

St. Augustine

There is a traditional Finish saying, “Saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa,” – you should be in the sauna as in a church. However, throughout history the Church has intermittently condemned bathing. Plato and Augustine’s separation of the physical and spiritual spheres vilified the body, condemned public bathing, and severed the connection between physical and spiritual well-being. Consequently, even in the 21st century many people incorrectly associate bathhouses only with prostitution and sexual activity.

Though bathing is becoming less associated with formal religious ritual in the west, practices such as yoga, meditation, and even pastoral care are associated with the growing spa industry worldwide. Even the decor at many spas references sacred spaces. There is usually an atmosphere and etiquette that encourages a quiet, meditative environment much like the Finnish recommend. People are encouraged to speak in soft voices, leave all distractions behind, close their eyes and breathe deeply. The atmosphere is, by nature, spiritual. Whatever your views, going to a spa will undoubtedly create a deeper harmony between your mind and your body; which were the original intentions of ritual bathing.

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Spirited Away to Dogo Onsen

Hayao Miyazaki is a cornerstone of Japanese anime. His work is often compared to Walt Disney’s, but as much as I love The Little Mermaid, this comparison hardly does him  justice. Many of his stories are original, and every scene looks as though it could be framed for an exhibit. What I love about Miyazaki is that he incorporates the ideas, myths, histories, and landscapes  of Japan into his work.

One of my favorite movies by Miyazaki is called Spirited Away. The movie’s original Japanese name is Sento Chihiro. A sento is a Japanese public bath house that does not necessarily use hot spring water, but heats the water. Until the second half of the 20th century many Japanese people did not have baths in their homes, so they went to a sento to wash and refresh themselves. Though some sentos are utilitarian others are quite opulent. The more luxurious onsens and sentos often add minerals and infusions to the bath water for additional health benefits. Spirited Away is a magical story of an enchanted sento that hosts the spirits of everything from frogs to radishes; and the young, shy girl who gets trapped in service there. The narrative and the visuals are spectacular and the sento itself is the stuff of dreams.

Fortunately, the sento in Spirited Away is actually based on a real place on the island of Shikoku in Japan. It is called Dogo Onsen. I was lucky enough to visit Dogo Onsen in August of 2006 and I was surprised at how much inspiration the movie actually got from this historical landmark.

Photo: Daniel Irvine 2006

Dogo Onsen is the oldest in Japan. It has a history of about 3,000 years, and is the onsen that healed the gods and emperors of Japan. According to legend, the onsen was discovered by a white heron who put its injured leg in the water and was healed, so the heron prevails as the symbol of Dogo Onsen.

Photo: Daniel Irvine 2006

During my stay at Dogo I was able to imbibe the waters, tour of the Royal Baths reserved only for the royal family, and do this all wearing the traditional Japanese leisure wear: a yukata. Though the baths themselves are not in my top ten because they are small and crowded, the experience ranks quite high on my list. It was definitely one of my most memorable experiences in Japan, and a must for anyone who loves to watch or be Spirited Away.

Bagby Hot Springs

In Mount Hood National Forest, a day-trip southeast of Portland, you can find Bagby Hot Springs. Quite frequented by locals and travelers, it may not be the solitary pool in the wilderness that purists seek, but it is still well worth the visit. When you arrive there is a thirty-minute walk to get to the springs from the parking lot. The path follows a jewel-toned river as it winds through a mossy forest and ascends only at the very end to reach the springs.

There are two sources where the spring water bubbles up from the ground and flows though ingenious channels into the tubs at about 135 degrees F. Three huts house a number of private and communal tubs. The private tubs are huge tree trunks that have been hollowed out and are long enough to fit two comfortably. The communal soakers are big barrels. The tubs empty and refill with channels and plugs so if you get a private soaker you can be sure to have clean water, and there are buckets available to collect cold water and adjust the temperature to your liking.

Photo by Daniel Irvine 2009

There is a society, Friends of Bagby, who maintain and protect the springs, and who gratefully accept donations. However, Bagby Hot Springs are often a victim of vandalism. I was initially put off by lurking trash and graffiti and was very glad I brought my flip-flops for walking around the site. However, in the end the water was luxurious and nothing else mattered. I even took the opportunity to cold plunge once or twice in the river to refresh myself and prolong my stay.

For Dreamers and Jet-Setters

Presently, I live in a city with no hot springs, and this means that pursuing my passion always requires large financial and time commitments. So, when I have an itch to soak I pour myself a bath and read about where I could be instead. Cathedrals of the Flesh by Alexia Brue is a good memoir for the tub. It’s the story of young woman’s fore into cleansing and sweating rituals worldwide.

Brue writes about her international cleansing expedition, that takes her to Turkey, Russia, Finland, and Japan. There are beautiful descriptions of her travels, and the history and culture around bathing in these countries. Most importantly, to dreamers and would-be jet-setting bathers, she is very informative about the rules, practices, and social courtesies of bathing in the present. Brue shares her ecstasies and blunders in the baths and saunas of the world, and now, I feel that I could enjoy a Russian banya or a Turkish hamam with more grace than I might have otherwise.

If you liked Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love then you will find this book is entertaining. It has all the same adventure, passion, and personal quest elements of a globe-trotting woman on a mission, but better because it is about bathing. On the other hand, if you like to stick to facts, then consider the cultural tips and travel ideas supplementary material to Internet browsing.

Featured Onsens

Hot springs in Japan have had some high profile representation in the last decade or two with a steamy scene from the book movie Memoirs of a Geisha, as well as in the overwhelming and beautiful movie Baraka. The latter shows monkeys bathing in the hot springs of Nagano, which they regularly do in that location.

Usually, bathing is separated by species and gender. You can opt for the monkeys (I have heard), but I wouldn’t.