Nothing like a long soak in warm water to calm your mind!
When I first started watching anime in sixth grade, I was confused by one thing that seemed to show up in everything I watched: Baths. Not the demons and ogres that haunted Inuyasha. Not the possibility of metal arms like in Fullmetal Alchemist. Not the sailor uniforms and strangely adorable hairstyles of Sailor Moon.
"Why did so many anime characters take baths?" I wanted to know. "And why do they seem to take them at any time?"
For example, Kagome took baths in Inuyasha whenever they came across a natural hot spring. This made sense to me, because she would obviously want to keep clean since she was traveling. But then other characters in other shows who were not traveling all over would Japan jump right on in whenever they'd come across a random hot spring. I remember being shocked that Tohru and company from Fruits Basket would go to a resort overnight purely for a bath. Why would anyone go anywhere JUST to take a bath? Shinji from Evangelion also takes baths, but at weird times. I mean, he's basically trying to save the world, right? Why take time to bathe? It seems like a quick shower would be more appropriate at such a desperate time.
I didn’t get it. I only took baths until I was around 7. I remember feeling proud to graduate up to showers, because they made me feel like a grownup. Yet in so many different anime and manga, I found that these characters, much older than myself, took baths.
As I grew older I rediscovered the charm of a good bath. Good for the muscles. Calming and relaxing. An ideal place to read a good book (unless you drop it in). And bubbles! Bubble baths are great. But I only felt they were good once in a while. And sometimes I would get too hot and kinda sweaty, which seemed to defeat the point of a bath in the first place. I still didn’t get why anime characters took baths every night – and when I learned that bathing was a big deal in Japan I was intrigued. What could possibly drive a nation to bathe almost every night?
I was recently in Japan to enjoy the cherry blossom season, relax, and de-stress from my regular routine. I’ve travelled extensively, and I've been to Japan before to sightsee, but the goal of this trip was really to soak up some new experiences and relax. And since I was taking it easy, I decided to explore a more laid-back facet of Japanese culture and do like my anime role-models.
You guessed it! I took baths. A LOT of baths.
I found a local sento (a public bath house) next to my Airbnb and went every other day. I also made a special trip with my friends to a gorgeous outdoor onsen in Hakone. And, on my last evening Japan, sequestered in the tiny hotel bathtub with a can of beer, I felt a certain sadness. I had come to look forward to these nightly baths as a time to scrub away the grime of the day and to reflect on all the amazing things I’d experienced. I'd definitely miss such times back in the States, where daily baths weren’t possible.
And why not? My bath is connected to my shower. It’s kind of gross, even though I clean regularly. It’s shallow, and hard to get into and out of without splashing water everywhere. Because it’s so shallow, only half my body can really get fully submerged at any one time. It’s just not an incredibly pleasant experience.
Compare that to Japanese bath culture. They go for depth of tub over length. Systems have been designed to automatically start a bath and control water temperature. Bathrooms are designed around the tub and accompanying shower, so the space is maximized and built in appropriate materials. And the emphasis on bathing is really on the soaking – not the cleaning of the body. That’s what the accompanying shower on the side is for.
If you aren’t familiar, Japanese bath culture dictates that the bather be completely clean before entering the bath. You disrobe, wash your body entirely with soap, give yourself a good scrub down to remove any dirt, and rinse off fully so no soap or dirt residue remains. You remove makeup, wash your hair, and bind it up and off the face so nothing trails in the water. Then, and only then, do you soak. The rules don’t stop there! If in a public bath, you don’t wear any clothing into the bath itself, no towels, nothing. You don’t bring in books, or handheld devices. You get into the bath, and you sit there.
What a concept! Sitting in a bath.
But actually, I found the act of cleaning myself almost a ritual affair. It felt good to physically remove the dust of the day. It made me feel like I was getting a clean start. And then going to soak in the tub, without the aid of a book or my phone, was novel. I had nothing to do except to chat quietly with my friends and reflect on my adventures and plans for the next day.
As I soaked, I could feel the peacefulness sinking into me. I reflected on a missed train and considered what I could do better next time we went out. I added some final mental details to a recipe I was testing out. As I shifted into the colder baths in the public sento I actually felt myself descend into a more meditative state as the cold water shocked my warmed skin. It was heaven. I always left the bath a better version of myself.
And finally I understood why some of my favorite anime characters would take time for a bath, even at the seemingly inappropriate or inopportune times. Baths are a time for thinking, a time for reflection, a time to wipe the slate clean and start over. They’re a place to let your mind wander, and embrace new ideas, turn over old concepts, and refresh your perspective of the world. Having a set time and place each day to think about myself, my choices, and my plans improved my mindfulness. I remembered to reach out to friends and family to say hello after having time to reflect on them while I was soaking. I thanked my travel companions for being willing to come along with me. We laughed and ate dinner together after the baths and recounted our favorite parts of the day.
And now I find that when I watch anime where characters take baths, I feel an echo of that relief, that peace. Not only are baths a good time to get into the minds of our favorite characters, but it’s a time for characters themselves to consider their problems and figure out their next steps.
If you want to refresh your perspective on bath culture, check out a few anime that feature bathing. See if you can kick back with the characters and relax a bit, even if you can’t sink down into a warm bath yourself. You won’t be disappointed!
Emily Bushman is the author of the Cooking with Anime column on Crunchyroll. You can follow her on Twitter at @yumpenguinsnack or on Tumblr at yumpenguinsnacks.tumblr.com. Be sure to check out her Youtube channel for anime cooking videos!