How to behave inside a tiny Japanese shower as a giant foreigner is probably not a question you ever thought you’d need to google search. But here you are. Standing face to face with a shower nozzle positioned lower than your belly button and a large square box as deep as your shoulders.
This is different.
But don’t worry. We are going to answer all your questions.
How To Shower in Japan
The Japanese are well known for their fancy hygienics. They are, after all, the nation that developed toilet seats that not only clean and dry your derriere, but keep it warm during the cold winter nights as well.
It is silly to presume that taking a shower in Japan would be any less involved.
Unlike a bidet, (also known as a washlet, or super toilet) which is a highly sophisticated elimination experience, the traditional practices involved in a Japanese shower are more antiquated than contemporary.
What is a Japanese Shower?
Bathing in Japan is about more than just cleaning the body, it’s a ritual. So a Japanese shower is more than just a box with a shower nozzle.
A bathroom in Japan consists of either two or three sections, depending on the size of the apartment and the wealth of person living there. The toilet is separated in a closed off space, redefining the word bathroom that we misuse daily in the United States. The shower and bathtub combo is either closed off as well, or connected to the sink wash room.
A Japanese shower room always includes a tub, but not simply as a combo unit we are used to in the states where you can choose one or the other. The shower and tub are separate appliances, and the Japanese bathing routine begins outside the tub itself.
Tubs are not for cleaning the body, they are for meditating and relaxing the body. This is an age old practice dating back to the golden era of public bathing at an onsen.
What is an Onsen?
Onsen is the name for a volcanic hot spring where Japanese have gathered since time immemorial to bathe. History began recording this ritual in the year 500 when Buddhism spread to Japan. Short and sweet? It’s a public bath house where one does not taint the water with dead skin, oils, or sweat.
First, you must clean the body. Then you many enter the onsen. At home, the tub is the equivalent of the onsen. It’s a mini sauna.
History of Onsen
It is recorded that Japanese hot springs were first discovered because people watched deer and other animals bathe in them!
Once the humans kicked out the animals, onsen were used as medical treatment centers for the samurai to heal the wounds. This continued for centuries until the 17th century when the onsen were opened to common people.
What to Expect at an Onsen?
To be officially declared an onsen the spring water must posses at least one of nineteen specific minerals, the water temperature must exceed 25 C/77 F, and you must enter nude and be free of any tattoos or piercings.
In ancient times, men and women would bathe together. Now this practice is all but eliminated; yes, there are some public baths where you can bathe with all genders.
Alternatively, you can rent a private onsen for couples, or a family onsen for exclusive use.
Cleansing the body takes place prior to entering the actual onsen, bath, or hot springs. All dead skin, all oils, washing of the hair, and completely cleansing the body must be completed before enjoying the meditative state of the bath.
Then, because the water is so hot, if you begin to sweat you must leave the bath and redo the cleaning process of washing the body head to toe, scrubbing the hair, and completely rinsing off every possible bubble and spec of soap before re-entering.
Japanese Shower and Shinto
Onsen have been linked closely with the religion Shinto since the onset. Shinto is the predominant religion practiced throughout the country of Japan and clearly recognized by the famous orange tori gates found from Fushimi-Inari Taisha in Kyoto to the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island.
Shintoism is rooted in the philosophy of purification and cleanliness, with water serving as a central source for achieving purity. Thus, it makes sense that onsen would be a natural extension of this religion.
How to Use Japanese Shower
By replicating the onsen practices at home, one can achieve the same level of cleanliness and clarity day to day.
There are two separate areas in a Japanese shower.
- Cleansing Area
- Bathing Area
The cleansing area is where you’ll find the shower nozzle and all cleaning products. Unlike in the west, where we often see people shower in full enclosed areas of their own (like those from GlassShowerDirect.com, for instance) here it is a part of the bath area. You stand outside the tub basin to fully lather the body and hair to remove dead skin, oils, loose hair, dirt, grime, dust, impurities, filth, and all other unwelcome bodily accumulations.
Once this is done, you may enter the tub basin and soak.
How to Shower in Japan: Video Tutorial #1
How to Shower in Japan: Video Tutorial #2
Why Am I Trying to Fit my Body in Here?
The tubs shown in the above videos are much larger than the tubs our family encountered during our month long adventure in Japan.
In our home in Kyoto the shower was 3x3x3; in Tokyo it was longer than it was wide, and far deeper than we are used to. The toilet was separated by a shower curtain.
Giant foreigners, not used to squatting, will likely find themselves in a predicament trying to get in and out of the bath. Our kids thought it was the greatest thing ever.
Reality of Showering in Japan
Because most foreigners don’t understand the concept of a Japanese shower, they will enter the shower ill prepared. They will not sit on the floor or a stool, and will leave the water running for the duration of the shower.
They might even, gasp, stand in the tub while bathing. Guilty. You don’t actually shower inside the tub. There is a drain on the floor for a reason, even if that reason isn’t readily apparent.
Because the shower nozzle is much lower, it’s also difficult to contain and/or control. Water sprays all over the room, and with soap in your eyes there is a bit of wild flailing about to find the nozzle to rinse off your eyes.
- Yes, your sink and toothbrush might be in your shower.
- Yes, maybe even your hot water heater.
- Yes, water gets everywhere.
- Yes, you are supposed to clean the tub, walls, shower, and floor each and every night.
- Yes, it’s a process.
- Yes, it’s fascinating.
What Happens Next?
Whatever you do, do not drain the bath water! Mom, dad, brother, sister will now all each use it to soak and meditate. Because you cleansed your body properly prior to entering the tub, the water is pure and can be shared without contamination.
After family bath time, the water can be used for the laundry.
After laundry time, many Japanese bathrooms have heavy duty bathroom fans that will dry your clothes as well.
The Japanese shower really expands the definition for multipurpose.
In case you are wondering, public toilets are not synonymous with public showers. This is where foreigners who call toilets bathrooms, might get confused. To make things quite clear, public toilets have placards posted above them explicitly instructing people not to shower at the sink.
► For Kids: We didn’t actually know how the bathing experience was supposed to go when we were in Japan, so we let all our kids jump in the bath together. They loved standing in the water and being covered to their shoulders in the Japanese Shower.
All joking aside this is quite a spiritual experience, and is meant to unite the body with the spirit.
► What We Learned: After learning how to properly bathe in Japan, we saw the parallels between the at home Japanese shower with each shrine we visited throughout the country. It was a wonderful and unique experience to be able to view a culture that has held strong to its roots for thousands of years.
We had similar experiences participating in public bathing at Spasis a jjimjilbang in Korea, and visiting the Blue Lagoon in Iceland! There is nothing else quite like it.
► Nap-Time Version: Everything you need to know about private bathing in Japan in a Japanese Shower and the origins and history of public bathing at an onsen.
Read about more of our adventures in Japan, visiting shrines in Kyoto and the Peace Park in Hiroshima!