by Stefanie | 08.02.22
Showering is something most of us in America do on a daily basis. It’s almost a habit - get up, shower, dress, then go about your day. It's second-nature and doesn’t get a second thought. If we’re having a particularly rough day, we occasionally treat ourselves to an evening bath, where the purpose is relaxation and restoration, rather than hygiene. But, more often than not, a morning power shower is all we get.
While the Americas, Australia and most of Western Europe get clean with daily showers, Scandinavians, Eastern Europeans, and many Asian cultures are firmly on the bathing bandwagon. Showers are used to de-funkify, but bathing is a ritual seen as a necessity rather than a luxury.
Japanese Onsen or Sento
In Japan, there are two public bathing options. The first is called onsen, which literally means hot spring. These thermal pools have been in use for hundreds of years and are considered almost sacred to the Japanese people. In fact, the word onsen is restricted by law to only refer to these hot spring pools. The second is called sento, which means public bathhouse. These facilities are newer and the water used is just heated tap water, but since they are not tied to a specific location, there are many more sento than onsen in Japan. If you are lucky enough to visit Japan and experience these hot baths, be aware that you are required to get clean before you actually bathe. The goal is to achieve tranquility and peace, not wash off the malodor of your afternoon commute.
Public bathhouses in Turkey are famous for both their amazing spa-like serenity and the beauty of their spaces. Originally intended as a place to get ready for prayer, men and women gather to clear their minds and purify their bodies. Hammam means Steam Room and getting steamy is how you start your experience; 15 minutes relaxing in a luxurious, hot, beautiful marble room before being led away to be meticulously exfoliated and washed by your very own attendant. And when we say washed, we mean you are then given the most kick-ass giant bubble massage known to (wo)man. Finally, it’s time to kick-back and relax with a cold drink or long nap. The result is unsurpassed relaxation.
If you want to combine a great steam bath and time with the besties, you might enjoy a Russian banya. The banya is a steam bath/sauna combo that is as much a social event as it is a detoxifying ritual. Groups go to a large wooden room and sprawl out on built in benches. Leave your modesty at the door because this is a no clothes/no towels kind of party. You do get to wear a special felt hat to protect your head from the heat, though, because temps in a banya are no joke. To get the circulation flowing, you and your friends will take turns smacking each other with special bath brooms called veniks. When everyone is sufficiently heated, it’s time to transition to either a cold pool or, in the far north, a jump in the snow. Friends then retreat to a communal space to enjoy tea and have deep conversations about life, work, love, etc. Cleanliness is not the focus of the banya - it's more like a social spa event.
Ah yes, the sauna. Sauna culture is one of the hallmarks of life in Finland. Most people there spend time in the hot box at least 4 times a week, since saunas are literally everywhere. In the capital of Helsinki there is a sauna in a ferris wheel and even one inside of a Burger King! You must shower before entering a sauna, though you don’t need to be as meticulous as you would at an onsen. The Finns just find it easier to sweat when the initial layer of grime is already washed off. Also, like the Russian banya, there are bath brooms made of birch twigs that sauna-goers tap along their bodies to improve circulation. A traditional Finnish sauna has a wood-burning stove inside which heats rocks on top to produce steam called löyly. The steam that comes off the rocks can get temperatures soaring to almost 180 degrees fahrenheit. Finns also like to close out their experience with a plunge into cold water followed by one final cool shower. There is no age limit for sauna use - even young children can partake. Also, fun fact, Finland has one sauna for every two citizens. We like those odds.
Whether you prefer to bathe in nature, an ornately decorated marble room, a simple wooden hut or a fast food restaurant, there are options for everyone. And for those of us stuck stateside, more and more ritualistic bathing experiences are opening all across the country. Do some digging and you may be surprised by the options nearby.
Need some inspiration? Check out a few of our US picks for a top-notch bathing and relaxation experience.
- Ten Thousand Waves in New Mexico is probably the closest you can get to an onsen in America.
- löyly is a minimalist Scandinavian-style retreat in Portland, Oregon that offers the ultimate in relaxation.
- Aire Ancient Baths has US locations in Chicago and New York. These rejuvenating, candlelit bath houses aim to reproduce the atmosphere of a Turkish hammam.
- Russian Banya is the most authentic Russian bath house in the US. Located in Dallas, TX guests can choose the full banya experience with heat temperatures of 220 degrees, or can try out the milder Finnish sauna which “only” reaches 180 degrees.