For the Japanese community, taking a bath is more than just a mandatory activity to maintain proper hygiene. It is so intertwined with the Japanese culture that many foreign travelers include a trip to the local public bath house in their respective itineraries.
These establishments are more often filled by the locals than the tourists, which is not that surprising since the idea of bathing with other people does not exactly sound that appealing. However, tourists should not be so quick in dismissing the activity.
For those who simply cannot imagine themselves sharing a bath with other people, many hotels and ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) have rooms which come with their own bath tubs that basically serve as smaller and more private versions of the bath house.
The Japanese Culture of Bathing and the Ofuro (Small Japanese Bathtub)
From rivers, to hot springs, to waterfalls, there is virtually no place in Japan where water does not flow.
In line with the native religion of Japan known as Shinto, the community practices a great sense of respect towards nature, even when disasters strike. Nearly all the elements that make up the universe are paid proper tribute by the Japanese people through the different aspects of their culture.
When it comes to water, one of the prime examples of Japan’s appreciation for it is the act of bathing. During ancient times, taking a bath actually served as a ritual for cleansing oneself of all his impurities and darkness. According to the beliefs of the locals, the clearness and constant flow of water help in drawing out all the bad things within a person, be it an illness, an emotion, or a horrible thought.
Furthermore, the ritual also made use of a particular bathtub known as the ofuro, which is still being used in modern Japan. The term’s use of the respectful honorific prefix “o-” represents just how important the act of bathing was and is to the Japanese community. Some people also use the term to refer to the activity itself to emphasize the sense of unity behind the cultural tradition.
The Ofuro – Properties, Common Dimensions, Etc.
The properties of the ofuro have not really undergone any drastic changes since it was developed. Many apartments, houses, and ryokans in Japan still feature the relatively small, wooden, steep-sided bathtub. There are, of course, other variations of the ofuro that make use of other, more modern materials but the designs barely stray that far away from each other.
Compared to the standard Western bathtubs, the ofuro has a deeper structure that is usually measured to be 25 inches, give or take a few differences. Furthermore, its sides are usually constructed to be strictly square than sloped. In terms of the drainage designed to prevent the tub from overflowing, ofuros typically do not have this feature built in.
As previously discussed, the ritual of bathing is not particularly meant for hygienic purposes. As such, it is common practice that a person initially take a quick shower to rinse away any dirt on him.
Bathing basically focuses on providing the individual with a relaxing, almost therapeutic experience believed to cleanse oneself of different impurities and improve blood flow. In line with this, wood is the preferred choice for ofuros for its natural minerals that are extracted by the hot water and provide the bather with several health benefits. For the same reason, there are also some traditional ofuros that make use of cast iron.
Given the typically small size of Japanese bathrooms, space is maximized by implementing a design similar to the simple walk-in shower, but with an ofuro built on one corner or side. To compensate for the completely wet area of the bathroom, many modern facilities provide proper heating through overhead air conditioners.
For the purposes of improving blood circulation and warming up one’s body, the water of the ofuro is kept hot, typically within the range of 38 – 42 degrees Celsius.
Modern versions of the ofuro usually make use of acrylic and feature different systems that are responsible for filtering and reheating the water. A separate water heater, either an electric or a gas-fired type, is also often included in the design of modern ofuros.
Luxurious ofuros also exist and are constructed using expensive types of wood such as hinoki.
Different Japanese Bathtub Designs with Heaters, Covers/Lids, Showers, Etc.
At present, many manufacturers offer a wide array of bathtubs that carry the basic design of the ofuro, among many other added features:
Step-down bathtubs offer a somewhat luxurious feel to any bathroom. Combined with the wooden and other standard properties of the ofuro, the step-down version closely resembles a spa or the hot springs of Japan. The dimensions of it, however, rarely follow the depth and squareness of the traditional ofuro.
Step-up bathtubs, on the other hand, provide a more charming and homey ambiance that makes the bathing experience feel more private. These types often maintain the wooden material of the ofuro and simply differ with the traditional version in terms of dimension and aesthetics. A couple of steps are often added to the frame of the bathtub for users to easily step inside.
Covered or lidded bathtubs, as implied, feature some sort of cover to keep the inside of the ofuro clean. Variations of the lid include foldable plastics, one-piece lids, and stretchable fabrics. This added feature to the ofuro has been highly appreciated by the majority for its ability to keep the water as clean as possible when not in use.
State-of-the-art bathtubs refer to ofuros that have built-in re-circulation, reheating, or overflow draining systems. Other than their use of wooden materials and standard dimensions of the ofuro, these type of bathtub is considered to be more Western than Japanese. Nonetheless, its convenience has made it become quite popular with many households of Japan.
Tiled bathtubs offer users with a smoother, more comfortable surface to sit on compared to the wooden or stainless steel ofuros. These tubs are basically similar to the acrylic ones but feature a more aesthetically pleasing exterior. Some manufacturers incorporate the typical appearance of the ofuro by framing the whole tub with some kind of wood.
How to Create a Custom-Made Japanese Bathtub
Given the simple design of the ofuro, any person can create his own to fit his needs and preferences. Some of the things that should be noted when planning the design of a custom-made ofuro include:
Type of Wood
As discussed, ofuros are often made of wood for the various health benefits its minerals provide to the user. As such, it is important that not just any kind of wood be used to make an ofuro. Furthermore, there are certain types of wood that can better withstand long periods of time being exposed to moisture than others. Choosing the wrong kind may shorten the life of the ofuro and ultimately make it useless.
One of the best types of wood to go for when constructing a traditional Japanese bathtub is cedar. This wood is significantly tougher than other kinds and will keep the ofuro in mint condition even after years of use.
Size of the Bathtub
Although there is a standard set of dimensions for the ofuro, there is no need to limit one’s custom bathtub to fit this range. This is especially true for people coming from other countries who may be significantly taller or shorter than the Japanese.
It is important to design the bathtub in such a way that one can have enough room to stretch his legs while sitting or to fully submerge his body. As such, deciding on the size of the tub should always be overestimated to avoid ending up with an uncomfortable ofuro to bathe in.
The structure of the ofuro should be well-thought out to ensure that all of its sides accurately come together as a whole. It is highly recommended that waterproof sealant be applied to each piece of the tub, particularly to its floor, seams, and joints, before attaching them to one another. Experts recommend using silicon for this process.
As for the plumbing aspect of the ofuro construction, it may be best to call a licensed professional to save oneself the trouble of figuring out one’s piping and drainage system. For those who want to keep things traditional, only one hole at the bottom of the ofuro is needed for draining the water.
Some of the things one must point out when discussing with the plumber include:
Hot and cold water
High-flow plumbing system
Built-in water filter
Finally, for those who already have a distinctly styled bathroom, decorating the exterior of the ofuro is not a problem. Staining or painting the surfaces of the bathtub will not create any changes to its functionality and is an easy solution to making it look more aesthetically pleasing.
Alternatively, the whole ofuro may be concealed by a separate frame that blends in well with one’s existing bathroom décor.
If the ofuro will be used outdoors, it is highly recommended that the wood be treated to protect it from acquiring possible weather damages.
Japanese Bathtubs for Sale
Of course, one can also choose to simply order or purchase a Japanese bathtub from a respectable supplier to avoid all the hassle. A lot of manufacturers outside of Japan also produce a wide array of ofuros that range from traditional to eccentric styles.
The sites listed below are sure to have at least one kind of ofuro to satisfy one’s preferences:
Zen Bathworks (http://www.zenbathworks.com/)
Zen Bathworks is an Alaskan company that takes relaxation quite seriously. Their large collection consists of soaking tubs, saunas, natural hot tubs, and other high-quality products that are guaranteed to provide nothing but a pleasant bathing experience.
Bartok Design Co. (http://bartokdesign.com/)
Bartok Design Co. is a Japan-based company that is owned and operated by an Italian Architect named Iacopo Torrini. Torrini has been living in Japan for nearly twenty years and has developed a great passion for traditional Japanese architecture. His life and work experience in Japan has exposed him to the wonders of using natural materials, which is basically what his company is built on.
Roberts Hot Tubs (http://rhtubs.com/)
Roberts Hot Tubs, or RHTubs, has been in the business of building and renovating homes since 1976. The company is based in Canada but offers a wide array of products inspired by different cultures. Among the various tubs in existence, the ofuro has found a special place in the company’s heart for its simple but effective design.
Grassroots Modern (http://grassrootsmodern.com/)
Grassroots Modern is not exactly a manufacturer of bathtubs. The company focuses on helping professional and non-professional designers turn their concepts into reality by introducing them to the many options available in the market.
Modern Bathroom (http://www.modernbathroom.com/)
Modern Bathroom, as its name suggests, primarily focuses on creating contemporary sinks, tubs, and other bathroom products. Their version of the ofuro is best described to be a freestanding, stone soaking tub that comes in an oval or round shape.
Rejuvenation House Parts (https://www.rejuvenation.com/)
Rejuvenation House Parts is a home construction, décor, and renovation company based in Portland. It has been a part of the industry since the year 1977 and is easily one of the best companies to bet on. Their extensive collection of bathtubs includes a stunning ofuro made from hinoki wood.
Are Japanese Bathtubs Cleaner than Western Bathtubs?
The issue of which is cleaner when it comes to Japanese and Western bathtubs is not really a question that revolves around the tubs themselves but more on how they are used and maintained. For the Japanese community, washing oneself prior to entering the bath has become a bit of a habit brought about by the requirements of their ancient bathing ritual.
In that sense, other countries may have their own set of rules when it comes to how certain things should and should not be done. As such, deciding which one offers a cleaner experience is all relative.
However, there is one common thing shared between the bathing practices of the Western and the Japanese – recycling the used water for other purposes. In Japan, people normally live their ofuros filled overnight as not to waste the relatively clean water. A lot of Japanese families maximize this water the following day by using it to wash their clothes.
Similarly, families in the West which consist of several members often make use of the same bath without draining and refilling the tub with new water. This also serves as a perfect example of how Western groups are comfortable bathing in the water that has already been used by another person they share a close relationship with – something that contradicts the standards of the Japanese bathing ritual.