Bathing Together and the Search for Skinship


Soaking in a hot tub in the privacy of your own home is a wonderful thing.  In the words of Sylvia Plath, “There must be quite a few things a hot bath won't cure, but I don't know many of them.” Interestingly, when that act is moved into a public bathing space, it takes on new meaning with unintended outcomes. The world over, people find pleasure in bathing together.  Pleasure in cleansing, connecting, and contemplating. 

Consider the Russian banya, Nordic sauna, Native American sweat lodges and especially the Japanese sentō and onsen. In each version of the public bath, customs vary: bathing attire versus naked, dry versus wet, mixed gender versus segregated. Yet, each shares an important association: By bathing together, we become equal. The Japanese even have a special “English” term for this value: skinship. We believe this is at the core of why this practice matters most. When we strip down to nothing, clean and then soak in warm soothing waters, we share a special kinship otherwise lost in our private pursuits. As the Japanese have discovered, without clothing, social strata disappear. When we are naked, we are all alike. 

In the English-speaking world, we covet efficiency and privacy. For a brief moment, in the conservation-minded 1970s, Americans deviated from this norm as we were instructed by the cheeky stickers and signs encouraged everyone to “shower with a friend.” However, our puritan sensibilities sexualized the message, diminishing the serious call to action and sexualizing the act of bathing.  

Americans have never embraced the act of public bathing.  As a result, most of us in North America never get to experience skinship. Yet, there is hope. A generation ago, few American shoppers were familiar with the joys of farmers markets. In 1996, fewer than 2,000 operated in the United States. Today, these civic institutions are ubiquitous, with more than 10,000 operating in towns big and small. These new markets, developed around an historic practice, are known around the world as “American-style farmers markets.” This is because the uniquely American reinvention of the ancient mechanism for commerce brings with it specific intentions: to invite farmers and their products into cities whilst animating public spaces.

Does the reinvention of the public market clear a path for the endangered art of bathing together? Might we reinvent the public bath in the same way we have reinvented the public market? After many years of studying public markets, we have come to recognize their many benefits.  A study of the public baths may uncover similar benefits that warrant the case for ancient art of public bathing. 

A history of bathing.Public bath houses have served many purposes, throughout history, including hygiene, pleasure, religion, socializing, and commerce. Public bathing, and public bathing houses, are found as early as 2600-1900 BCE, in the ruins in of the Indus Valley Civilization in present-day Pakistan. The small bath was housed inside a larger—more elaborate—building and was used for public bathing. It is in the sixth century B.C. that public bathing became more of a ritual.  Indoor flowing water basins and pools were used for cleaning, as well as lounging. The ancient Romans took public bathing to new heights.  The new elaborate public baths, called thermae, were important public works that provided facilities for bathing, socializing, physical exercise, and learning. Interestingly, the thermae were egalitarian and open to all for no charge or a small fee.

Moving on in time, the Turkish baths in the Ottoman Empire, known as hammam, were places where people gathered for bathing, ritual practices, and socializing. In Finland, the sauna’s earliest versions are believed to be from 7000 BC. One of the first written mentions of what is believed to be the sauna customs of the forefathers of the Finns was written by the Nestor the Chronicler in 1112. He told of "hot wooden saunas in which naked bathers beat themselves with branches and finally pour cold water over themselves". 
In Japan, the act of public bathing dates to the Shinto practice of Misogi, a ritual purification by washing the entire body. In the 6th to 8th centuries, the Japanese absorbed the religion of Buddhism, which strongly influenced the country’s bathing culture. Blending the Buddhist principles of purity with the Misogi, temples often included a bathhouse (yuya) for the monks. Eventually, these baths opened to the public, for anyone to use for free. In Edo (modern Tokyo), the first public bath, or sentō, was established in 1591. These early steam baths were built into natural caves or stone vaults and were used by men, women, and children, at the same time. 
The rise of Christianity in Western Europe, which fostered changing ideas about public morals, brought an end to mixed-gender bathing. While public baths were still used, it was primarily for the poor to attend to their hygiene.  In the Middle Ages, changes in etiquette and medical thoughts led people to abandon the bathing house in favor of cleaning themselves in private.  
During the Reformation in Scandinavia the popularity of saunas expanded to other countries because the European bath houses were being destroyed. By the time of the Reformation, when in the rest of Europe bathing was something ordinary people did rarely (annually) or not at all, Finns were cleaning themselves in saunas at least once a week.
In Japan, mixed-sex baths were abolished in the mid-19th century, on hygienic and moral grounds (perhaps as a concession to outraged Western visitors).  While the sentōs transitioned to single-sex designation, the use and popularity continued.
During the mid-19th century in England, large public baths, modeled on those of ancient Roman and the Ottoman Empires, were revived in Great Britain. The first modern public baths were opened in Liverpool in 1829 and the first known warm fresh-water public wash house was opened in May 1842. In 1844, it was decided that the working-class members of society should have the opportunity to access baths, to address public health problems. In 1846, the Public Baths and Wash Houses Act was approved, empowering local authorities to construct public swimming baths out of its own funds. During the following 150 years, over 600 Turkish baths opened.
Luxury and the revolution of everyday life.With the advent of modern plumbing and the influence of more puritanical ideals, the public bathing houses that served working class and poor people in Great Britain and North America, have disappeared.  While access to hot, running water inside one’s home has greatly improved many things, we have lost the social connections that were built inside the walls of public bathing halls.  However, throughout many parts of the world, you can still find public bath houses in use and firmly ingrained in modern culture. 

As we have seen throughout history, public baths have served multiple purposes - hygiene, socializing, religious and cultural rituals.  Perhaps the best modern-day example of that mixed use is In Japan, where there are two types of public baths: The onsen and the sentō. The onsen generally refers to a bath warmed by natural geothermal springs; whereas the sentōis heated by wood or natural gas. Wildly popular in the 17th century, the onsen has had its rise and fall and rise again as fashion, social mores, and concern for fires, public health and entertainment have waxed and waned. Today, the onsen remains a popular, special outing, much as we may make a special day or weekend at the spa. The natural heat source combines with healing minerals in the water to keep the onsen a treasured institution in Japanese life. 

By contrast, the sentō has and continues to fight for its existence in a land now bestowed with extraordinary plumbing devices for the home. Consider the bidet toilet seats designed with warmth and sound effects. While every home may not have these high-tech toilets, most have indoor plumbing and bathing spaces, albeit very small.  No longer is the daily or weekly trip to the sentōnecessary for most. As a result, the associations of largely independent, family-run bathhouses have organized loyalty schemes, offer additional entertainment and food, and in some cases, expanded to a super sentō experience (akin to a theme park). Unfortunately, these desperate measures are doing little to stem the demise of the neighborhood sentō.  The Economist reports that fewer than 600 remain (circa 2017) — a far cry from its 1960s peak of 2,700 (according to the Japan Sentō Association). 

While these once-ubiquitous public bathing houses disappear, the questions surrounding their preservation are threefold: What purposes do they serve? What value do they add? Who benefits? 

An industry responds.In October 2018, we visited Tokyo’s Kamata neighborhood to meet the president of the local chapter of the Japan Sentō Association, Mr. Takashi Watanabe. In this quiet, simple neighborhood, famous for its history as birthplace of Japanese cinema. Mr. Watanabe manages his family’s sentō. Despite declines, Kamata enjoys the highest concentration of bathhouses in all of Japan. His is one of 39. Within five kilometers, there were once eight. Today, only his remains. 

Like most things in Japan, the sentō experience is steep in ritual. To the first-timer, it can be rather overwhelming. Mr. Watanabe took me on a tour of his sentō, which follows the same protocols as most others.  At the entrance, men enter on one side; women on the other. The bathing area is separated by a wall that extends almost to the ceiling. As a result, men and women can hear but not see one another. Undress in the locker room, and enter into the bathing area barefooted, with a bucket of cleaning supplies and the all-important washcloth (Japanese washcloths are worthy of their own discussion). Whilst sitting atop a small plastic stool (undoubtedly wooden, in the past), clean thoroughly using a system of water buckets and faucets to wet, lather, and rinse.  Once you have thoroughly cleaned your body, including brushing your teeth, clean, enter into the soaking tubs of varying degrees of heat, situated beneath the mural. Most bathing rooms are adorned with murals, often Mount Fuji.

Mr. Watanabe confirms that the sentō is an industry in decline. His grown children express little interest in continuing the operation, which he admits takes considerable work. Being the proprietor of a sentō requires several skills from customer service to heating up the water. Mr. Watanabe heats his water with odd scraps of lumber, which his customers insist yields a softer water, as compared to natural gas. 

He describes with great passion the value of the Association: To temper costs for water and fuel, and to serve as a brain trust to garner customer loyalty (through punch cards and an elder bus that makes sentō stops).

Happiness, health and social inclusion. By Mr. Watanabe’s calculations, most of the customers are older and mostly men.  On average, their normal visit lasts for two hours. While 98 percent of households have baths, his customers still value the experience of a big, social bath where they engage in conversation, visit old friends, and make new ones. They also value the meditative quality to the room, where they can relax. Eye contact is kept to a minimum, which makes the experience oddly private and public, at the same time. 

A three-year study by the Japanese University of Chiba supports the premise that public baths are good for social, emotional, and physical health: Elderly who bathe daily are 28% less likely to need medical attention than those who bathe only twice each week. Moreover, the Ministry of Social Welfare contends that the sentō provides the elderly with moderate exercise and social stimulation -- so much so that the Ministry calls for greater investments in the sentō as a form of preventative health for seniors. 

This joy is felt far beyond Japan.Writing for The New York Times Magazine, author Dan Kois dives into the Icelandic love for communal pools. He learns that they are “a key to Icelandic well-being.” Quoting the Mayor of the capitol Reykjavik, Dagur Eggertsson, he goes further to claim the importance of the public pools or sundlaugs in that they “Serve as the communal heart of Iceland, sacred places whose affordability and ubiquity are viewed as a kind of civil right.” 


What is especially interesting about Iceland is that the public pools are a recent development. Hot springs have been enjoyed for centuries; however, it is only in the last 30 years that the Icelandic government got involved, capitalizing on the abundance of geothermal power to replace its dependence upon imported fossil fuels. Today, life is fueled by geothermal energy. This includes the 120 public pools that serve every neighborhood and small town. Most are outdoors and operate year-round, providing a social space for families to swim, gossip and enjoy social life. The communal baths take on even greater importance in the long winters when frigid temperatures, snow and darkness lead to isolation and depression. Ironically, the most famous, the Blue Lagoon, is not only man-made, but its waters are discharged by the nearby geothermal power plant. While Blue Lagoon may provide locals and visitors with a memorable outing with full-on spa experiences, it is the neighborhood pools that shape everyday civic life. 

I believe that Iceland, Japan, Finland, Russia, Korea (and several other countries) are onto something. Public baths need not be ancient institutions or elitist day spaces cloaked in lavender and soft music (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Every community should have a public bath and we have the ability to invent new ones. Consider public markets in North America. Our history of markets is not long and vast. If coalitions of farmers, consumers and neighborhoods can rally to reinvent markets, can we do the same with bathhouses? 

Learning to love to bathe together. With Japan’s aging population, there are small efforts in place to promote the use of public baths. Loyalty schemes and senior transport are a good start, but what about the next generations? Can they, too, learn to love the sentōas a component of daily life? Innovations, like the “super sentō” and the “theme park sentō,” may lure families and bachelor parties for the occasional outing. However, these strategies place the sentōin direct competition with the onsen as a special event destination. Rather than compete with the onsen’s natural springs, would it not be preferable to carve out a different niche is people’s everyday lives? 

For the sentō to have a future in Japan, it has to cultivate new fans. But first, in this day and age of digital entertainment, how do we get young people to put down their devices and and physically walk through the sentō’s doors. Meet Mr. Kauyuki Takahashi, an innovative leader who is taking on this challenge.  I met Mr. Takahashi on my visit to Kamata Town. Mr. Takahashi is a filmmaker and director of the Kinema Future Center.  His 2015 film, Mirai Shutter, addresses emotional and social isolation in Japanese life. The sentōplay an important role in this film, which it has been screened many bath houses throughout the nation.  His hope is to drive home the point that the sentōplays a constructive role connecting people to one another. 

Mr. Takahashi and others are creating new strategies to promote the sentōexperience.  Currently, Takahashi is collaborating with partners in tourism and community development to orchestrate walking tours of sentōs for the young and curious. Tour tickets include a coupon to visit the sentōof their choice. Social entrepreneurs, as part of the AirBnB Experience, are linking the sentō with music and food: Disco sentō.

New strategies — tours, films and disco experiences — may prove effective to introduce a new generation to skinship.  However, the ultimate challenge is to change behavior beyond the initial point of contact. Of course, this is the challenge for any brick and mortar enterprise. Lives are busy, time is crucial, and public bathing is slow and inefficient). 

Ponder the challenges of the sentō and one cannot help but think of how hard public markets — with their demands for slow shopping and human interaction — are winning a place in shoppers’ lives. How have public markets achieved their success? Programmatic techniques, akin to tours and events, play a role to attract newcomers. However, the lasting impact comes from delivering the one thing others cannot: social capital. This is what earns the repeat visits and customer loyalty. In this regard, public markets are highly efficient delivery mechanisms for social trust. So, too, are public baths.  

Does skinship exist in America? Prior to European conquest, sweat lodges housed important purification rites in several First Nations. Interest in sweat lodges continues to this day within Native American circles and beyond. In big cities with robust 19th century infrastructure, bathhouses brought hygiene to the working poor. Today, these functional institutions are largely forgotten. However, scan the map of North America and, in all likelihood, you will still find bathhouses adjacent to geothermal hotspots. From Arkansas to West Virginia, bathhouses once thrived and attracted those seeking the healing powers of hot springs (most notably, Hot Springs, Arkansas and Banff in the Canadian Rockies). While hotels and spa facilities continue to attract visitors for the luxurious experience of thermal baths, these remain expensive and special experiences. 

Popular institutions that provide social and physical health amenities in today’s America are health clubs, including large gyms, specialized exercise spaces, and yoga studios . Although physical activity is the focus of these institutions, the social experience is equally as important: organized classes, round robins of squash, and the oh-so-popular juice bar. As with the sentō, privacy is balanced with social interaction. There are social mores one must not break: wiping up sweat after using equipment, getting to close to others, etc. In today’s culture, these spaces provide people with health-based activities as well as the opportunity for connection and kinship. 

Is it possible for the gym culture to translate into a bathing culture?  While they meet many of the same needs, health and connection, there is one big difference.  Gyms thrive on performance and self-motivated activity, while bathing requires us to ponder, meditate, and soak. That might be, perhaps, the greatest obstacle - the decision to stop.  Of course, with a new focus on mindfulness, i.e. being in the moment, public baths just might have a chance.

In America, public bathing can be found is in immigrant communities: the Korean spas in Los Angeles, California and Queens, New York; or the Russian banyas in Brooklyn. While they generally serve their own immigrant communities, a growing number of curious bathing suit-clad consumers are seeking these institutions out for the experience, for the joy of soaking amidst an otherwise manic existence. In John Schwartz’s excellent 2017 article about his Russian Brooklyn banya experience in The New York Times, he gives ample attention to the food as he does to the regulars who value downtime torn between dry heat, steam, ice baths and whirlpool warmth. 

As a recent transplant to Brooklyn, south Brooklyn to be more precise, I have discovered the pleasure and benefits of the local banya.  My favorite is the Brooklyn Banya. Owned by a trailblazing woman, it manages to attract outsiders beyond the Russian clientele. It purports to be "the people's banya." Moving from the hot jacuzzi to the Turkish wet steam room to a few minutes in the dry heat (I can only take so much), my mind and body become relaxed.  However, sitting in the restaurant area, eating some borscht or sipping hot tea with cherry preserves, watching the old couples, young families, groups of men out together, my spirits are lifted and I feel part of a community.  Of course, deep in New York winters, I find the banya the only way to warm up from the inside out. 

For too much of our hectic lives, we cut corners. Efficiency rules: from granola bars to quick showers. Just as the food movement has encouraged people to garden, purchase, and cook with new ingredients, we have the ability to embrace the skinship that is found in the calming ritual of public bathing. Social change demands that we fight for that which is right in the world, to replace that which is wrong. It also demands that we begin to grow islands of that future we seek today. Be that island, soaking in a public bath.  


This essay was co-written with Bonnie Goldblum of Bonnie's Beauty Salon.

Photo Captions:

  1. Hondo-san in his newly renovated sentō in Ota District, Tokyo 
  2. Hotel sentō in the Tsuwano Hotel in Shimane prefecture
  3. In Budapest, the Rudas Bath House in Kerület features traditional 16th century Turkish baths and sauna, with chess in the outdoor bath a favorite 
  4. Icelandic public baths provide year-round physical and social health opportunities in every town and neighborhood, utilizing the geothermal assets of the island.
  5. Sentō owner Mr. Watanabe stokes the fire to heat the water with scraps of lumber in the Kamata neighborhood of Tokyo.
© 2019 Richard McCarthy and Bonnie Goldblum

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