Japan from the inside out


Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 3, 2011

EVERYONE associates saunas with the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, particularly Finland, and the bathing culture with the Japanese. But when baths in private dwellings became commonplace in Japan after in the postwar period, many of the sento, or bathhouses, installed saunas to attract customers. Now a good public bath in Japan combines the best of both worlds.

Less well known, however, is that the Japanese have had saunas of their own for quite some time — in fact, since at least the 8th century. That’s when the Empress Komyo, a devout Buddhist, had the Hokkei-ji temple built in Nara as a convent with a bath and a steam sauna. It’s a big enough deal to have been designated an important tangible cultural asset of the nation.

The sauna in its current form dates from the Edo period, and consists of two chambers of 2.5 square meters walled with Japanese cypress. Water is boiled in an adjoining room and passed through the floor. After the temple was repaired in 2003, the priests have opened the temple’s sauna to the public once a year. This summer, 30 people showed up to sweat out the sinfulness. No temperature readings were provided for the interior heat, but the 30-minute limit for individual bathers is about twice as long as I stay in a modern sauna. Then again, a young female grad student from Kyoto compared her perspiration volume to the flow after a hot yoga practice (such as Bikram yoga), so it must get steamy enough.

The Empress Komyo had several temples built, including at least three others in Nara. She is also said to have employed the same sauna mechanism for 1,000 people in a bath. Hey, cleanliness is next to godliness, right?

Special Buddhist memorial services are held every 50 years on the anniversary of a person’s death, and here’s a video of bugaku (Court music and dance) being performed at Hokke-ji in May 2010 to commemorate the 1,250th year of the empress’s death. Because it is associated with the Imperial Court, bugaku is more closely connected with Shinto than with Buddhism, but this is Japan — the world champs at mixing and matching.

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One Response to “Steamin’”

  1. toadold said

    About four decades ago, I was trying to learn a sequence of martial art moves “in the manner of the snake.” You had to make the moves s l o w l y. It was much more exhausting than making them quickly. Every error was magnified. All of your small stabilizing muscles would start quivering and it was hard to hold your balance when all of your weight was on or mostly on one foot. I wouldn’t want to meet any of those dancers if they were ticked off at me. Just watching how long they had to hold their arms out straight to display the sleeves made me feel very tired.

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