Bathing has become such an integral part of our daily lives; we don’t think twice about it. For most, it would seem odd or even gross to go without showering for more than a day. It’s not just that we have grown accustomed to washing dirt off our bodies for hygienic purposes, we enjoy the ritual of bathing. A hot shower can help reduce stress, muscle fatigue, and release toxins. In short, a good soak can go a long way for the body and the mind. Before we get into the different bathing traditions around the world, it’s important to note that cultural sustainability is just as vital as environmental sustainability. Places like the Korean baths or the Russian banya use a lot of water and are indeed, wasteful. That said, we need a diverse ethnography in order to maintain a healthy balance between humans and earth. Big industry is decimating our natural resources but it’s also creating a homogenous society that eeks out much of what sets us apart and makes our world beautiful. When you experience popular bathing rituals and traditions during your travels, you are tapping into something ancient and important. You can gain insight into the history, religion, and customs of a place. You’ll also be helping to keep that culture’s tradition alive. So go ahead, be bold and bathe on!
Turkey: For the Turks, bathing is a semi-religious ritual in which purifying the body goes hand-in-hand with purifying the soul. Mohammed himself enthusiastically endorsed sweat baths around 600 AD, and hamams (as Turkish baths are known) are a kind of annex to the mosque, often featuring elaborate domes and ornate architectural elements that emphasize an atmosphere of sanctity and reflection. The centerpiece of the hamam is a hot stone slab where bathers loosen up and undergo a five-step purifying ritual: the warming of the body, an extremely vigorous massage, the scraping of skin and hair, soaping, and finally, relaxation.
Iceland: Iceland is known for their mineral-rich, geothermal spas that folks can soak in and catch epic views of the surrounding scenery. Those pictures on Instagram of dreamy, steamy blue waters…that is the Blue Lagoon. It’s Iceland’s premier geothermal spa located near Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula. The sulfuric pools are known to aid the remedy of skin conditions like psoriasis and also provide a generally relaxing atmosphere. Unlike other open-air spas, you will be required to wear a bathing suit here. There aren’t many rules for taking a dip in the geothermal spas. The main things to remember are don’t eat in the pools, don’t be loud and obnoxious, and don’t dive or splash in the waters. Other than that, it’s a fairly flexible atmosphere. Oh, and make sure you take a shower before entering!
Korea: The jjimjilbang is a large gender-segregated bathhouse with kiln saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, and more. Many of the saunas include jade or other stones inside the treatment rooms, for their healing properties. When at the bathhouse, you will be given clothing to wear (usually shorts and a t-shirt) in certain parts of the baths. However, you will be nude in the saunas and pools. Don’t even try keeping clothes on because you will get in trouble. Korean bathhouses are known for their exfoliating scrub-downs (seshin; 세신) and delicious snacks.
Japan: Japan’s storied bathing culture originates in its topography. The country’s 25,000 natural hot springs, called onsen, led to bathing customs that go back thousands of years. Soaking, steaming, dry heat—the same attention, care, and consideration applied to food, tea, and transportation are brought to bathing, which is treated as a leisurely, meditative, and sensual daily ritual, generally taking place in the evening before dinner. This respect for the rituals of bathing is seen in Japanese homes, which have dedicated rooms exclusively for bathing (toilets are separate). A typical bathing room has a deep cypress tub; a window for contemplation of nature; a handheld, wall mounted “shower”; and wooden buckets and stools. Japanese bathing is unique in that the bather is clean before dipping a toe in the tub. The bathing ritual begins with a soapy scrub while sitting on a wooden stool to rinse away dirt, followed by immersion in the tub for a leisurely soak to open pores, followed by another rinse and a final, longer soak.