Two women are squatting next to a bath in a beautiful wooden bathroom in Hakone, a famous onsen (spa) resort.
The windows feature artwork and the panels above them contain gorgeous displays of woodwork. A wooden ladle rests on the marble water pail in the left corner. This photo was taken by Kusakabe Kimbei, his reflection, and that of his camera, is visible above the two birds on the left window.
Few things are as integral to Japanese culture as bathing. To Japanese people it means far more than just staying clean, it is a ritual that ends the day, a way to relax, a form of entertainment, a way to communicate.
Japanese has even created a special expression, hadaka no tsukiai (裸の付き合い, naked relationship) to express the close and equal relationship of people sharing a bath completely in the nude.
The culture that has grown up around the scaldingly hot Japanese bath is extensive. There are baths inside homes, sento public baths and there is the wonderful and widespread custom of soaking in a hot spring.
During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the Japanese obsession with the bath invariable surprised visitors from abroad, who often commented on it in books and diaries, usually in glowing terms.
“A Japanese crowd,” wrote British Japanologist Basil Hall Chamberlain in 1890 (Meiji 23), “is the sweetest in the world. The charm of the Japanese system of hot bathing is proved by the fact that almost all the foreigners resident in the country adopt it.”1
But foreigners did occasionally have trouble understanding, as Chamberlain shows in a later passage2:
The custom was not unaffected by the Meiji Revolution. Mixed bathing, which had been a common and completely natural aspect of Japanese life, was seen as a sin by the prude Westerners of the time.
The Japanese authorities, eager to show that Japan was as “civilized” as the West, decided to outlaw it. Tokyo banned it as early as 1869 (Meiji 2). Apparently unsuccessfully, as it was banned again in 1870 (Meiji 3) and 1872 (Meiji 5).4 But eventually, the authorities did succeed.
These days, mixed bathing is quite rare and mostly limited to remotely located onsen.
Thankfully, the bath does still play a major role today as can be seen in the countless TV shows and magazine articles devoted to onsen resorts.
Although the daily bath may not surprise newly arrived visitors today as much as it did in Chamberlain’s time, one aspect that he mentioned does still surprise many3:
1 Chamberlain, Basil Hall (1905). Things Japanese Being Notes on Various Subjects Connected with Japan for the Use of Travellers and Others. J. Murray: 61.
2 ibid.: 61-62.
3 ibid.: 482.
4 Seidensticker, Edward (1983). Low City, High City. Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake: How the Shogun’s ancient Capital became a Great Modern City, 1867-1923. Alfred A. Knopf: 92.
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). Hakone 1880s: Two Women in Bathroom, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on January 17, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/220/two-women-in-bathroom
I have a small favor to ask
Old Photos of Japan aims to be your personal museum for Japan's visual heritage to increase our understanding of Japanese culture and society.
Finding, acquiring, scanning, restoring, researching and conserving these vintage images, and making the imagery and research freely available online, takes serious time, money and effort.
We do this without charging for access, selling user data, or running ads.
Your support helps to make this possible, and ensures that this important visual heritage of Japan will not be lost and forgotten.
If you can, please consider supporting Old Photos of Japan with a regular amount each month. Or become a volunteer.