When I Lived In Japan, Going To A Bathhouse Was My Favorite Way To Relax. Here’s How You Can Do It At Home

We Americans get a lot of things right, but we’ve done bathing dirty. It’s time for us to repent from our bathing sins and wash ourselves clean – like the Japanese.

By Alicia Bittle7 min read
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Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock

First you shower, then you bathe. Who wants to soak for 30 minutes to an hour in a tub full of their own grime? Americans, that’s who. It’s nasty, and we need to change, but that’s not all we need to fix.

During the several years I lived in Japan, one of my favorite pastimes was soaking in onsens. Now that I’m back in the U.S., however, I no longer have access to these wonderful bathhouses. That hasn't stopped me from treating myself to the onsen experience within the comfort of my own home, though. Besides being a luxurious form of self-care and relaxation, taking onsen baths can benefit your health as well. Here's how to do it. 

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What’s an Onsen, Anyway?

In Japan, an onsen is a public bathhouse supplied by geothermal spring water. And yes, in order to partake, you are naked. And no, you can’t wear a bathing suit or towel (I made sure, myself). So while I’m not asking you to take your bathing habits public, I am telling you to mineralize your own bath. And then soak. And just take your time.

Despite the initial uncomfortable feelings that accompany not only being stark naked in front of multiple strangers, but also having to shower while sitting on a stool (that other naked people have also sat on) so near to the floor you might as well be squatting, with a convenient, thoughtfully placed mirror in front of you that shows, well, everything, and then soaking in front of these strangers, onsens became near and dear to me. 

The Japanese have designed most of these bathing spaces with the tranquility of the natural world in mind. Dark wood accents, windows that frame majestic, panoramic views, and river stone are commonplace in even the most basic of onsens. My favorite pool belonged to Ryokan Shiragiku (an onsen hotel), where my husband and I slept on tatami (straw) flooring and were served traditional Japanese food and tea in our room for dinner. 

The onsen itself was split down the middle, with half of the pool housed indoors, showcasing high cedar rafters you could barely make out through the billowing towers of steam that wafted off the surface of the spring water, and the other half outdoors, which featured a light blue bathing pool with a small island in the middle that a large bonsai tree called home. The entirety of the pool was surrounded by green vegetation and volcanic rock. It was a slice of paradise.   

While you may not be able to recreate 100% of the Japanese onsen ambiance in your own bathroom, you can still regularly treat yourself to a spa-like experience and fill your own tub with all of the same life-giving minerals that onsen springwater has. All it requires is a little prep work.

Setting the Mood

Essential oils have been gaining traction in mainstream medical society. While previously regarded as “snake oil” by the medical establishment, many clinicians and scientists today are waking up to what humanity has known all along – plants contain powerful medicine. The Cleveland Clinic, for example, recognizes lavender’s potent ability to: support sleep by increasing melatonin levels, reduce pain and inflammation, improve mood by lifting anxiety and depression, relieve menstrual pain, act as an antiviral and antimicrobial, and reduce colic in babies. I personally love to mix patchouli oil with my lavender as it affects the body similarly, and its musky, earthy aroma is just as intoxicating as it is grounding. It complements the sometimes overpowering floral notes of lavender well. 

When it comes to deciding how you’d like to incorporate essential oils into your bath time routine, you have two choices: you can either diffuse them or put them directly into the tub with you (after the water is done churning as the turbulence of the water will cause the oil to aerosolize). 

Putting the oil into the water with you will obviously grant you the most benefits, but if you have a sensitive nervous system or sensitive skin, you may want to start out by diffusing them to make sure they’re well tolerated. Additionally, if you are worried about your skin, you can always do a “patch test” on your inner wrist to see if you react to that particular oil.   

Next, there are two ways to choose which essential oils to use during your bath. Essentially, you can go for effect or for the smell. Personally, I recommend a middle-of-the-road approach for a very particular reason that may or may not stem from personal experience: It doesn't matter how “calming” geranium oil is supposed to be, or how good it supposedly is for your skin, if it smells like old pickles that got left in the sun for too long to you, it's not going to be a good experience. So here are some of my favorite scents with brief descriptions of how they smell, grouped by the effect they should have on your body (calming or energizing). After you find a scent you think you might like, just google that plant to see if its more specific effects would suit you and your health goals.

For my personal favorite calming oils, we have: patchouli (very earthy and musky, think yoga studio), frankincense (musk with a brightness similar to pine sap), sandalwood (musk paired with vanilla and a day at the beach), cedar wood (spicy yet earthy at the same time), Doterra’s Balance blend (smells like you’re deep in the woods and someone, somewhere, is burning incense), tea tree (tangy, bright, and crisp with the barest hint of musk), eucalyptus (medicinally tangy and sweet, like tree sap), and Doterra’s Console blend (a musky, comforting aroma with light, sweet floral notes from ylang ylang and rose).

For my personal favorite energizing oils, we have: Doterra’s On Guard blend (think chai spice with a splash of orange), wild orange (smells exactly like orange Fanta), bergamot (kinda like toned down lemon/lime with a hint of bitter), and grapefruit (exactly like you’d expect).

Though Doterra is certainly a reliable brand to purchase from, their oils tend to be on the expensive side due to the way their business is structured. Fortunately, there are many other brands available today that have not only stood the test of time but provide third-party Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry testing as well. This testing, along with certifications such as “USDA organic,” is important because essential oils are not monitored through the FDA (not necessarily a bad thing as the FDA’s practices are sometimes questionable, but just something to be aware of). I'd recommend reading up on how to choose the essential oil brand that's right for you here. I personally like Plant Therapy as not only do they have all of the testing and certifications listed above (plus some), they also have “kid safe” versions of particular oil blends due to the fact that certain oils (like clove) can cause sensitization over time. 

Dry Brushing

Not only does dry brushing gently polish your skin by sloughing off dead skin cells, but it also boosts lymphatic and blood circulation, which results in increased skin, organ, and nervous system health. Dry brushing before getting all hot and steamy is extremely potent due to the fact that you're stimulating two detox pathways sequentially in a way that works with your natural biology. 

First, by brushing your skin, you're unclogging pores, allowing sweat, oil, and toxins to exit freely during your sweat sesh (yes, your bath water should be hot enough to make you sweat). Secondly, by dry brushing, you’re causing the lymph beneath to circulate. 

The lymphatic system is a passive one, so it requires outside pressure to circulate (this is the opposite of our circulatory system which circulates throughout our body effortlessly and constantly, due to the pumping action of our heart). By brushing, we are able to stimulate one of the largest detox pathways of the body, just beneath one of the largest detox organs, the skin! Finally, the light abrasion from dry brushing causes blood to fill the capillaries within the skin, bringing with it healing agents as well as toxins. 

When we step into the shower, and later the bath (which will stimulate even more detoxification), our skin is already primed to do what it does best – keep the good stuff in and push the bad stuff out.

My favorite dry brush is this one from Primally Pure, as it’s made from naturally antimicrobial bamboo and boar bristle. (Side note: If you also want to give your hair a treat on these nights, you can use Primally Pure’s beard oil in your hair and use the dry brush to distribute the oil from hair follicle to tip.) Back in the day (think medieval paintings of princesses with long, flowing locks), most brushes were actually made with boar bristle as it’s naturally porous like our own hair, but coarser, so it picks up natural and applied oil and distributes it really well. I discovered the beard oil trick by accident, as I got some for my husband, discovered that it smelled amazing, and put it in my ponytail to see if it’d give me nice smelling hair for the rest of the day. Not only did it do that, but also, my hair has literally never been more lustrous or silky soft. So, since then, I’ve been using it about once a week as a deep conditioner. You can find the oil in the specific scent I use here. Just be warned, you’ll probably find their luxurious blend of argan, jojoba, macadamia nut, and essential oils just as intoxicating as I do and become slightly addicted, just as I am.

Neti Pot

Now comes the hard sell. I know putting warm saline water in your nose, letting it flow through your sinuses and out the other nostril seems like probably the least appealing way a girl can choose to spend her time, but let me tell you this: If you suffer from allergies, regular sinus infections, colds, sinuses that feel too wet/dry, or simply more congestion than you’d like that has no particular cause, using a neti pot may just solve all of your problems. Best results are achieved when you can do this 2-3 times a week, but if one time per week is all you can stomach, I understand. 

This is the neti pot from Baraka I use. It's ceramic (because plastic is bad for you), lead-free, glazed with food-grade ceramic glaze, and made in the U.S. Baraka also makes salt/essential oil mixes. 

Choosing a Facemask

There are literally hundreds of different facemasks on the market to choose from. So to narrow it down, pick a skin issue you'd like to tackle and start your search from there. 

I, personally, am loving bakuchiol right now due to its anti-aging properties. In some studies, it has been found to be just as effective as retinol at reducing and preventing fine lines, and as a pregnant, soon-to-be breastfeeding, 30-year-old woman, this is exciting for me. Mainly due to the fact that retinol is contraindicated for nursing/pregnant mothers and that bakuchiol is also touted to reduce and prevent hyperpigmentation, which again, as a pregnant/breastfeeding mother, I'm prone to due to hormone fluctuations. This is the facemask I’m currently using, and though the smell of geranium is a tad overpowering for me, the difference in my skin during the weeks I mask, versus the weeks I don't, is evident.

Fortifying Your Water

Finally, the main event. As I said earlier, onsen water is pumped up from the earth and is therefore heavily mineralized. In fact, different regions in Japan (sometimes even different onsens within the same region) offer different medicinal properties due to the different types of rock the geothermal water steeps in. 

While we may not be able to get all the benefits that geothermal spring water can bestow in our own bathtub, we can still reap worthwhile benefits by mineralizing our own water at home. This brings us to our first choice: magnesium chloride or magnesium sulfate?

Magnesium is responsible for a myriad of functions in the human body. Without it, we’d literally die, and unfortunately, the vast majority of us are actually deficient. It keeps our heart beating, soothes sore muscles, cures restless leg syndrome, gives us better sleep, and can even halt premature labor in its tracks. Unfortunately, scientific studies detailing how much magnesium is absorbed into the body by soaking in it are lacking. This isn't to say that magnesium baths are useless however, it just means that Big Pharma believes there are more financially lucrative “cure-alls” out there that it wants to investigate instead. 

Magnesium chloride (magnesium flakes) and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) are the two options we have for how to add magnesium to our baths. Both are detoxifying agents with a host of health benefits, and both can be either created synthetically or mined. Atomically, the only difference between the two is chlorine vs sulfur and oxygen. Financially, the difference is that Epsom salt is generally less expensive. And biologically, it's thought that magnesium flakes are more easily absorbed by the body and easier on individuals with sensitive systems. So really, what it boils down to is, what's best for you? I personally use the brand Ancient Minerals, and rotate back and forth between its flakes + sulfur and regular flakes. I like it because this magnesium chloride is mined and not synthetically created, so it's more natural, just like an onsen.

Other things you can add to your bath water are baking soda (boosts the detoxification power of magnesium and helps cure all sorts of skin conditions as well as yeast infections), shea butter bubble bath (after my baths, my skin would sometimes itch, but after adding this, I no longer have that problem), and a bathtime tea soak (this can literally be organic lavender, rose petals, or juniper berries you harvested from your backyard, or a sachet prepared by a brand you trust).

After you’ve cleansed yourself from the inside out and showered, it’s finally time to fill the bath with water and whatever goodies you feel would suit you best. Just a single hot bath alone has been proven to reduce low-grade inflammation and improve glucose metabolism. Many hot baths taken throughout the week have been shown to keep chronic inflammation at bay. With that in mind, just imagine what could happen once you add minerals like magnesium, sulfur, and sodium bicarbonate to the water! It’s essentially like having a health spa in your own home. 

Closing Thoughts

Geothermal spring water has been revered for thousands of years due to its ability to miraculously cure humans of their ailments. Myths, legends, true stories, entire towns, and destination vacation spots have been built around these healing waters, worldwide. And while we may not have the ability to regularly visit these locales, we can bring them (at least in part) to us, in our very own bathtubs. 

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