Japanese Water Therapies: Traditional Uses of Hydrotherapy for Healing

Hydrotherapies, including the private home bath and group bathing in mountain springs, spas, and communal baths known as sentos, play a central role in everyday Japanese traditions of health and healing. In Japanese cultures, water is also an essential component of certain purification rites associated with the Shinto religion and it is used in preparation for the traditional tea ceremonies or chanoyu.

Japanese Bathing

In the Japanese style of home bathing, the body is washed before entering the bath, using water drawn from the bath or from a small tap situated near the tub. This water is poured over the body from a jug or small bucket.

Soap is lathered over the body and the skin is rubbed vigorously with coarse towels to remove dead skin cells and soften the skin. This form of self-massage also invigorates circulation in the extremities. Afterwards, water is poured over the body to remove all traces of soap. Because the water used in the bath remains clean, it can be used for more than one person.

Seasonal Herb Baths

On special days or to celebrate new seasons, herbal ingredients may be added to the bath for medicinal and aromatic effects. For instance, in December on the winter's solstice or toji, which is the shortest day of the year, citron baths are popular. Also, eating pumpkin and bathing in water containing slices of fresh lemon are said to protect against colds all winter. Finely chopped ginger tied in muslin may also be added to the winter bath to increase circulation. Mandarin orange peels are added to the bath in autumn as aromatic and digestive aids.

On the 5th of May, a festival for young boys known as kodomo no hi is celebrated in which people bath in shobuyu, which is a bath laden with the festival’s flower, the shobu. This aromatic bath clears phlegm and aids digestion and is symbolic for the shobu fighting spirit. On the 3rd of March, a festival for girls known as kodomo no matsuri or hina matsuri (Doll’s Day) is dedicated to a Shinto goddess and celebrated with the traditional bath.

Purification Rites

At the entrance to religious shrines, an ablution basin of water is available for washing the hands and rinsing the mouth before entering the sacred space. In the taki-gyo or waterfall practice, people don white garments and stand under mountain waterfalls while chanting sacred texts. The invigorating force of the water cleanses both the body and mind and activates subtle energy centers.

Traditional Tea Ceremonies

To prepare for traditional tea ceremonies water is sprinkled over the teahouse entrance for purification. Each guest performs ritual cleansing from a basin of water before entering. During the tea ceremony itself, special water tea obtained from sacred places with renowned healing properties is used.

Herbal Therapies

Japanese herbal medicine was adapted from the Chinese in the 5th century. Due to changing thoughts on Chinese influences, Japanese herbal medicine declined until the 19th century when it was reinstated as a part of mainstream interest. During the second half of the twentieth century this revival in Japanese herbal medicine centered around the form training of kanpo. Kanpo, which means “the way of Han” refers to the Han dynasty period Chinese text the Shang han lun, known as the Shokanron in Japan.

Kanpo herbal preparations are used as teas or tonics to correct imbalances or weak areas of the body. Kanpo preparations can contain from two to thirty separate ingredients of plant, mineral, or animal origin. The most common kanpo ingredients include roots, bark, leaves, flowers, and fruits.

Focus of Japanese Healing

The Japanese word for health, kenko, is derived from two Chinese characters, ken which means human or upright and ko which expresses a relaxed serene manner. Thus, health in Japan embodies uprightness and correct living rooted in the laws of nature and the development of inner calm. The focus in Japanese healing is bringing one’s life into balance and in harmony with the laws of nature, starting with the home environment, daily habits, lifestyle and relationships with the community. There is also an emphasis on cleanliness and purity. Therefore, bathing, both at home and in outdoor bath spas or onsen, is essential for health promotion and healing.