For many people, the idea of stripping off and submerging oneself in a 45-degree bath is something that is done in a private spa setting, if at all. It’s understandable then that the idea of doing exactly that in a communal setting can be somewhat confronting. But for those game enough, heading to a Japanese Bath House is a wonderful and relaxing experience that allows you to unwind, detox and de-stress in an intimate and yet shared setting. The tradition of public bathing houses in Japan can be traced back to as far as the Nara period in Japan in the 8th century. The tradition in that time was religious, with the bathhouses being housed in temples. It wasn’t until around 300 years later that both men and women would bathe in the natural hot springs (called onsen) as a means of cleansing and relaxation in Japan. Found in Edo (present day Tokyo) and Osaka, the onsen’s heated mineral water helps to cleanse your body, while revitalizing your mind, body and soul. It’s believed that natural hot spring water is used because it contains minerals that assist in the detoxing process for your body. But when you’re in need of unwinding, Japan can sometimes be a little far away.

Currently there are two Japanese bath houses in Melbourne that emulate the traditional experience one might find in Japan. At Onsen Ma in the CBD, they believe that the ritual of a cleansing bath rejuvenates the body, which is much needed in our busy world. “There is no custom to soak in baths in order to relax in Western culture,” says owner Andrea Borazio. “Once you experience it though, you see what a great feeling it is. Bathing not only cleanses the body, it is considered to relax and refresh the kokoro (spirit).” The idea is that it’s an hour in which you can focus solely on your own body and mind, in your own little bathing sanctuary.

So, the big question is - do you really have to be totally naked? Take a deep breath, because the short answer is yes. When you arrive at the bath, you’ll be provided with a robe for after the bath, and asked to undress completely - no bathers allowed. You then scrub yourself clean using a loofa and soap at a smaller shower station, before finally submerging yourself in the hot bath. Admittedly, it takes a little getting used to, however after about 15 minutes you tend to forget that you’re not wearing anything and instead you just let yourself float away on a cloud of relaxation.

It may seem foreign and even confronting, however in Japan the idea behind being naked during the bathing ritual is to be able to achieve absolute cleanliness. A clean body won’t contaminate the water and will allow you to be totally cleansed. “The tradition behind it comes from the fact that very few people had baths in their houses in Japan; the only way to bathe was to do in a communal bath,” explains Borazio. Ofuroya owner Hiromi Masuoka adds: “You can’t have a purifying experience in water that is contaminated by the outside; so we ask everyone to be naked and clean thoroughly beforehand to make sure they can get the best out if their time with us. People may be a little shy at first but once they see that it’s fine, they come back often.”

The bathing time is a full hour - and by the end of it you feel like jelly. And yes, the baths are separated into a male and female bathing areas. There’s one large bath in each area - the size of a small backyard pool - with a sitting area on the outside of the bath for you to sit on, allowing you to dangle your legs into the water if you please.

Both Melbourne’s baths bring a slightly difference experience. Ofuroya is hidden in a tiny back street in Collingwood, and is clearly a place full of ‘regulars’. The bath room is dimly lit, featuring simple dark tiles and bamboo styled seats outside the bath, with minimal artwork, save for a few traditional screen prints hung in the relaxation area. Alternatively, Onsen Ma is slightly more ‘done up’, with the interior featuring hanging kimonos and traditional Japanese artworks.

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In addition to a hot bath, both Onsen Ma and Ofuroya provide shiatsu treatments as well, so you have the option to continue detoxing with a deep tissue massage following your bath treatment. Shiatsu works on alleviating stress through pressure points. Using the thumbs and elbows, the pressure points are slowly kneaded to move away toxins and general stress out of the area.

A Japanese bath is something everyone should experience at least once. It not only banishes stress, but improves blood flow and circulation, making your skin healthier too. Once you embrace the nakedness, lazing around in a hot bath with nothing around you but the stillness of the water is totally relaxing; a great alternative to the occasional massage or other therapies that allow you to escape the busy world for an hour.

Onsen Ma
Level 1/ 12-18 Meyers Place, Melbourne
(03) 9663 8777

Mon to Fri 9.30am – 8pm
Sat & Sun 10am -6pm

Bath/sauna $30 per person

Onsen Ma also caters for children and couples with private baths.

Ofuroya Japanese Bath House
59 Cromwell Street, Collingwood
(03) 9419 0268

Tues to Fri 11am-10pm
Sat & Sun 11am-8pm

Bath $30 Adult/ $27 Concession/ $15 Child