These bathing rituals from around the world are not only relaxing, they are unique cultural experiences.
Bathing has become such an integral part of our daily lives, we don’t think twice about it. For most, it would seem odd or even gross to go without showering for more than a day. It’s not just that we have grown accustomed to washing dirt off our bodies for hygienic purposes, we enjoy the ritual of bathing. A hot shower can help reduce stress, muscle fatigue, and release toxins. In short, a good soak can go a long way for the body and the mind.
From Roman thermae to Egyptian oil baths, folks have been taking dips to get closer to their gods, attract a mate, or experience bliss for centuries. Bathing motifs, like David observing Bathsheba in the bath, or Picasso’s Quatre baigneuses (Four Bathers), show us that rinsing has always been more than just a way to get clean. It’s an example of cultural ecology. We thrive as a species when we bath!
Keeping cultural traditions alive
Before we get into the different bathing traditions around the world, it’s important to note that cultural sustainability is just as vital as environmental sustainability. Places like the Korean baths or the Russian banya use a lot of water and are indeed, wasteful. That said, we need a diverse ethnography in order to maintain a healthy balance between humans and earth. Big industry is decimating our natural resources but it’s also creating a homogenous society that eeks out much of what sets us apart and makes our world beautiful.
Anthropologist and ethnobotanist, Wade Davis argues that “Earth itself can only exist because it is breathed into being by human consciousness. Now, what does that mean? It means that a young kid from the Andes who is raised to believe that that mountain is an Apu spirit that will direct his or her destiny will be a profoundly different human being and have a different relationship to that resource, or that place, than a young kid from Montana raised to believe that a mountain is a pile of rock ready to be mined. Whether it’s an abode of spirit or a pile of ore is irrelevant; what’s interesting is the metaphor that defines the relationship between the individual and the natural world.”
When you experience popular bathing rituals and traditions during your travels, you are tapping into something ancient and important. You can gain insight into the history, religion, and customs of a place. You’ll also be helping to keep that culture’s tradition alive. So go ahead, be bold and bathe on!
Bathing Rituals Around The World
An onsen is a natural hot spring found in Japan. Because Japan is a volcanically active country, natural hot springs occur throughout the country. Traditionally, onsens were featured outdoors but today, you can find them in many Ryokans & hotels. Onsens are separated by gender and you may not wear a bathing suit or clothing when entering the pools.
- Wash your body thoroughly before entering the pools
- Enter respectfully. Never splash or dive.
- Don’t wash or wring your towel when in the water.
- Wear your towel on your head when in the water.
- Use the towel for modesty when not in the water.
- Do not enter an onsen if you have tattoos. Tattoos are not common in Japan and are associated with the Yakuza.
The jjimjilbang is a large gender-segregated bathhouse with kiln saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, and more. Many of the saunas include jade or other stones inside the treatment rooms, for their healing properties. When at the bathhouse, you will be given clothing to wear (usually shorts and a t-shirt) in certain parts of the baths. However, you will be nude in the saunas and pools. Don’t even try keeping clothes on because you will get in trouble. Korean bathhouses are known for their exfoliating scrub-downs (seshin; 세신) and delicious snacks.
- Be peaceful and quiet. The Jjimjilbangs are meant to be a space for healing and tranquility.
- Wash before entering the baths
- Keep clothing on in the mixed-gender common rooms
Much like the Korean baths, the Russian Banya is often comprised of saunas, steam rooms, and plunge pools. Some banyas are separated by sex, others are not. The main experience of the banya is to sweat and detox in extreme heat. One way that is done is by getting a beating with venik. Venik is a gathering of birch or oak leaves that form sort of a swatting paddle. While you are in the sauna, you will see people lying down while someone else brushes the venik over their backs. This is a fairly intense experience but if you are open to trying it, you will find it to be simultaneously relaxing and exhilarating. You may notice several folks wearing felt hats while in the sauna. Believe it or not, these hats actually help to keep your head cool!
Eating meat and downing shots of vodka in the banya isn’t unusual. Feel free to join in on the fun but wait until after you have spent some time in the treatment rooms. Alcohol and steam don’t always mix well. Banyas are also a lot more social and noisy than most spas. They are meant to enjoy being social and having long philosophical discussions.
- Follow the locals lead. If you aren’t sure how to do something in the banya, they will be happy to show you the ropes.
- Depending on the location of the banya, you will either be nude or will wear a bathing suit.
- Keep your flip flops on, unless you are in one of the treatment rooms.
- Do not bring beauty products into the steam rooms or saunas.
- 10% gratuity for service is standard when visiting the banya.
- Close the door behind you when walking in and out of the sauna.
- If the sauna is too hot for you, move down or leave. Do not complain.
It’s coooold in Finland, so it’s no surprise that saunas would be such an integral part of their culture. In fact, Finland has five million inhabitants and over three million saunas throughout the country. They can be found everywhere from people’s backyard to the Finnish Parliment and it’s customary to go for a sweat at least once a week. The Finns use vihta, which is similar to the Russian venik for stimulation of the skin.
Finnish sauna etiquette:
- Do not wear clothing in the hot room.
- Have a shower before entering the hot room.
- In groups, women and men go to the sauna separately, but families go together.
- Getting invited to the sauna is an honor, so if you decline, have a really good reason and be polite.
- Throwing water on the rocks is fine and you can do it as often as needed.
Turkish & Morrocan Hamams
The Ottoman bathing ritual of getting a good scrub down is one you won’t want to miss! That is, if you’re not shy.
Hamams are gendered spaces and you will be covered only by a hamam towel. Women can wear bikinis in some hamams. The focus of the Hammam is water purification vs. steam. You have the option of bathing yourself or getting the traditional experience, where an attendant will wash and scrub you for about 15 minutes on a slab of marble called, göbektaşi. The scrub is done with a natural-fiber mitt called a kese. After the scrub, there is an option to get an oil massage. Once your service ends, you can relax in the cool down room before a final shower. Tea is often served and enjoyed in the hamam after your treatment.
- You are required to wash your private areas before getting a treatment. Do not do this out in the open. Face the wall to wash.
- Tipping 10-20% of your service is suggested.
- Some hamams require you to bring your own stool, sabon beldi (soap), and washcloths if you are doing the self-bathing treatment. Usually, you can also purchase these items at the hamam.
Native American Sweat Lodge
If you get invited to a Native sweat, consider it a huge honor. Native sweats are considered sacred spaces and are often used as a space for purification. Each indigenous tribe may have their own traditions and customs in the sweat. The physical structure for the sweat is usually a dome-shaped or oblong hut that’s covered with animal hide or blankets. Once in the hut, the firekeeper places hot stones in the middle of the ground, where the steam will start to generate. Sweetgrass or tobacco is placed on top as an offering. Most lodges reach 100 degrees (f) and sometimes go higher. Modesty is appreciated and participants will wear towels or robes in the sweat.
Sweat lodge etiquette (varies from tribe to tribe):
- Women should not do a ceremony when on their moon cycle.
- Women should wear a long dress or skirt that covers and men should wear shorts.
- Greet the other guests properly and show respect and compassion for each other.
- Do not wear any metal or jewelry in the lodge.
- Bring tobacco to place on the altar as an offering.
- Women enter the lodge first and must enter in a clockwise manner.
- Once the door is closed, the elders will start singing the prayer songs.
Barbecue of the body? It’s a thing. In fact, it’s an ancient beauty tradition carried out by the Sudanese. The Dukhan is a tradition that only married women participate in. The Sundanese women wrap themselves in a blanket and sit over a pit of aromatic acacia wood, that generates steam. Essentially, it’s an incense or steam bath that is used as a way to restore beauty and heal joint pain. Dukhans aren’t found in public spaces and you would have to be invited to participate in one.
A Temazcal is similar to a Native sweat lodge in many ways. It’s rooted in ritual and spiritual practice and its primary purpose are for reflection and purification. The cave-like structure is often shaped like a womb – symbolic of a place of transition. In this tradition, rubbing mud, aloe, or herbs on your body during the ceremony is encouraged. After the sweat, you can take a quick cleanse in a nearby cenote.
Icelandic Geothermal Spa
Iceland is known for their mineral-rich, geothermal spas that folks can soak in and catch epic views of the surrounding scenery. Those pictures on Instagram of dreamy, steamy blue waters…that is the Blue Lagoon. It’s Iceland’s premier geothermal spa located near Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula. The sulfuric pools are known to aid the remedy of skin conditions like psoriasis and also provide a generally relaxing atmosphere. Unlike other open-air spas, you will be required to wear a bathing suit here. There aren’t many rules for taking a dip in the geothermal spas. The main things to remember are don’t eat in the pools, don’t be loud and obnoxious, and don’t dive or splash in the waters. Other than that, it’s a fairly flexible atmosphere. Oh, and make sure you take a shower before entering!
Be a considerate bather
A general note about all of these experiences. Being nude in these settings is not of a sexual nature and is not a queue to try and pick someone up. In fact, it’s really only in America that we assign a hyper-sexuality for being nude around each other. Be respectful and modest. Do not gawk at someone or make comments about their body. Everyone is there to relax and cleanse.
There are many more bathing rituals and traditions not covered in this story. Perhaps part two is in order! In the meantime, here is a short list of other ways to get wet around the world.
Watsu– Water shiatsu is a form of aquatic therapy used for deep relaxation. The practitioner massages, cradles and stretches you in the water. It’s as amazing as it sounds.
Roman Thermae– public bathhouses throughout Italy, that are centers for bathing, reading and socializing.
Hot springs– From Arkansas to Indonesia, you can find geothermally heated pools (natural hot tubs) to soak in.
Mikveh– A Jewish tradition of submergence, usually reserved for conversion to Judaism or other important religious events, like getting married.
Misty is the owner and founder of Green Suitcase Travel. She is a consultant, travel writer, and all around travel maven. When she is not traversing the world, spreading the news about sustainable travel, she is in Tucson, Arizona enjoying the desert.