Japan from the inside out

Citron baths in Japan on the winter solstice

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 22, 2007

THE JAPANESE IMAGINATION is nearly unlimited when it comes to bathing methods. For example, today was the first day of winter, and there is a tradition that taking a bath filled with citrons (known as yuzu in Japan) on this day will prevent colds for a year.


So the local hot springs and tourism association in Mimasaka, Okayama Prefecture, put two and two together and distributed roughly 1,800 citrons for use at the bathing facilities at 30 hotels, lodging houses, and other establishments in the city’s hot springs district. Shown in the photo is the footbath at Fureai-no-Yu, with about 30 of the fruit bobbing in the spa water. Even if a citron bath won’t prevent colds for a full year, any excuse to go to a Japanese bathhouse is fine with me. The patrons in the photo certainly look as if they’re enjoying themselves.

Citrons are too difficult to peel and have too little fruit to be eaten on their own, but citron jam has become quite popular in Japan. It is sweetened and can be spread on toast like any other jam, but it can also be mixed with hot water and drunk as yuzu-cha, or citron tea.

This popularity might be due to the Korean influence. During my first trip to Busan, South Korea, about 10 years ago, I brought back a large jar of citron preserves that I bought from an old street merchant with a pushcart on the recommendation of one of the Koreans showing us around. I was traveling in a group with about 10 Japanese people, but none of them seemed to be interested.

That soon changed, however. After returning to Japan I divvied up some of the preserves with the other people in the group, all of whom loved it when drunk as yuzu-cha. In fact, they liked it so much, every one of them made it a point to buy some when we went back the next year. And my wife liked it so much, she had me buy several jars on that second trip.

The recent popularity of citron tea in Japan could very well stem from the increased travel of Japanese to South Korea, though of course that’s only speculation.

One problem with the Korean product is that it is sweetened with saccharin, the use of which is restricted in Japan. (All the Korean products I saw contained saccharin, but perhaps those using natural sweeteners are also available.)

Now, however, it’s very easy to buy naturally sweetened yuzu preserves in Japan. My wife buys it by the case and gives some away to friends and relatives, who always come back for more.

I’ve never taken a yuzu bath, because it’s not so easy to buy the fresh fruit where I live. But every year we always buy some of a large citrus fruit grown in Kumamoto called bampeiyu. Known among the scientific community as citrus grandis, among other names, they’re the color of grapefruit, slightly smaller than a bowling ball, and aren’t sour. In fact, they’re delicious.

The rinds are rather thick, and my wife always puts them in the bath water for a couple of days. Are they effective for preventing colds? I don’t know, but they do impart a nice fragrance to the bath. If you don’t mind citrus fruit rind floating in the tub, you should try it!

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