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Once you have had the experience of a real Japanese bath, the only problem is how you're going to get one built in your own home! Compared to our long, flat, ceramic troughs, Japanese baths are a marvel of engineering and water conservation!

Modern Baths
Japanese bathrooms are usually split into two sections. In the first, there is a vanity and sink where you brush your teeth, wash your hands and so on. In the second, there is a deep bath and a washing pace with separate taps.

The idea with bathing is that you soap yourself OUTSIDE the bath and wash your hair too if necessary. Sometimes there will be a hose attached to one of the taps so that you can clean yourself and other times there won't. In either case, you sit on a low plastic stool, fill a small plastic bucket with water and use that to clean yourself and tip over yourself. When you are clean, you can get into the bath water and have a nice, long soak.

Baths often have covers over them to keep the water warm although modern baths can be electronically programmed to stay at a particular temperature, to heat for a particular time or adjust the bath temperature to suit. Of course the instructions are in Japanese so you may want to make sure you know what's what before you use one or that you get someone else to set it.

Soaking in a Japanese bath is such a relaxing feeling, especially since you don't have to worry about the water going cold. They also tend to be very deep and more square than anything else so your whole body can usually fit in unless you happen to be pretty large. Some baths are made of stainless steel and feel like being in an enormous cooking pot!

Once someone has finished in the bath, the water is left in and the next person cleans himself before jumping in. Guests go first and then the rest of the family, and the bathing is usually done at night so that you can relax before bed. A great idea, especially in winter, and good for water conservation, too.

History
Bathing has always been connected with religion in Japan. Before public baths became available in the 17th century, Buddhist temples provided baths for the masses. Water was considered a method of purification, and temples still often have water at the entrance with a bamboo scoop so that you can cleanse your hands and mouth before making an offering.

When public baths first opened, they were not just used for getting clean. They were also used as gathering places for socialising. These first baths were like big pots or barrels and heated with wood, coal and other means unless they were 'onsen' or natural hot springs. Being a volcanic island, Japan has natural hot springs in many areas and today, many Japanese enjoy going to them during the holiday periods.

Between the 17th century and 1960, the public baths reached their peak in popularity and there were over 23 000 at that time. With the advent of baths within the home, the use of public baths decreased and those which remain today usually offer special theme settings, are really large or have some other particular attraction.

Whether you go to an onsen, a public bath or use a bath at a hotel or someone's house, you will soon come to see the benefits of this form of bathing. The only difficult thing is trying to do anything after your soak!