Communal bathing houses and hot springs are ideal for travelers looking to dive into local culture.
When I first heard about a bathhouse-cum-artwork on the Japanese island of Naoshima, I hadn’t realized that experiencing the art project would require wading into a steaming pool amid a group of strangers, all of us in the nude. For someone unaccustomed to public nudity, the mere thought was terrifying.
Yet there I was in the Naoshima Bath changing area, clutching only a tiny washcloth for a modicum of modesty. After a few deep breaths, I entered a cavernous, tiled bathing room where several women were already soaking and quietly chatting in groups of two or three. Following the instructions on an illustrated sign, I self-consciously scrubbed every inch of my body before gently easing myself into the pool. Once submerged in the hot water, however, I felt my anxiety instantly ease, as if washed away in the soothing warmth. In this newly blissed-out state, I could finally appreciate the art I’d come to see: the aquatic-themed mosaics on the wall, the intricate collages on the pool floor, and the swirling patterns painted on the skylights overhead.
That inaugural dip on Naoshima turned out to be the first of many such experiences in Japan, a country with a rich tradition of ritual washing in public bathhouses, known as sento, as well as in natural hot springs, or onsen. Over the years, I’ve soaked in communal sento at small inns where they were the only places to wash up, and in private outdoor onsen at luxurious ryokan, traditional Japanese guesthouses. I’ve simmered in a bubbling thermal pool with spectacular river views in Hakone, a resort town southwest of Tokyo, and trekked into the snowy mountains near Nagano to the natural hot springs frequented by red-faced snow monkeys.
The history of bathing culture dates back to ancient civilizations. The Greeks took ritualistic mineral baths, and the Romans considered communal bathing an integral part of daily life. Grand bathing facilities, known as thermae, constructed throughout the Roman Empire, were dual-purpose places for washing and socializing. The remains of some of those bathhouses from antiquity still stand, from the well-preserved Roman Baths in the English city of Bath to the Terme di Caracalla in Rome.
Centuries later, bathing traditions have evolved in different ways around the world. In the U.S., bathing is almost always done privately, at home. But in South Korea, for example, groups of friends will often socialize at jjimjilbang, popular 24-hour bathhouse complexes featuring hot tubs, showers, saunas, and spa facilities. And in Morocco, locals regularly visit the neighborhood hammam to be steamed, soaked, scrubbed, and caught up on the latest town gossip. More than simply a place to get clean, these locales are societal touchstones, and ideal spots for travelers to immerse themselves in the local culture.
While there are many different ways to bathe – in hot air, as in a sauna; in heated tap water, as in your bathroom – for many, the idea of communal bathing is tied to hot springs. Iceland, one of the most volcanically active places on the planet, is dotted with natural hot springs, many of which have been transformed into spalike destinations, such as the famous Blue Lagoon and the new Sky Lagoon outside Reykjavík. Far from the tourist crowds, in the northern village of Húsavík, the geothermal spa GeoSea lures bathers to its clifftop infinity pool filled with piping-hot seawater believed to have a variety of healing properties, from soothing skin conditions to easing joint pain.
Similar health benefits have been attributed to the mineral-rich water bubbling in hot springs around the world. In Tuscany, for example, the tiny village of Bagno Vignoni has long been renowned for its therapeutic geothermal springs. An early rest stop for Christian pilgrims looking to soothe their aches and pains in the Middle Ages, the village remains popular today for its restorative terme, or thermal resorts. And in Hungary, the capital of Budapest earned the nickname “City of Spas” due to its abundance of curative thermal baths, some of which date back to the Roman Empire. Many of Budapest’s spas are also architectural stunners, such as the palatial Széchenyi Baths, with its canary-yellow, neobaroque edifice and outdoor pools, where local retirees often play chess in the steaming water.
In areas without thermal springs, bathing traditions often rely on steam and heat to cleanse the body. In Istanbul, visitors to a Turkish bath, or hammam, prime their skin in a steam room, followed by a vigorous scrub and wash, often performed by an attendant. These cleansing and purification rituals, once necessary for public hygiene and religious purposes before indoor plumbing was available, remain cherished traditions for relaxation and laid-back socializing.
In Finland, another place that has been bathing in heat and steam for centuries, the sauna is considered an integral part of the national identity. In 2020, UNESCO added Finnish sauna to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – high praise for the simple ritual of sweating in a small heated room or hut. For my first Finnish sauna, I chose a bitingly cold autumn day to visit Kulttuurisauna, a minimalist public facility on the waterfront in Helsinki. After stripping down inside, I joined half a dozen women lounging on the sauna’s tiered wooden benches. Unaccustomed to the suffocating heat, I chose a spot on a low bench – the higher you sit, the hotter it gets – and winced every time someone suggested löyly, the tossing of water on heated stones to release a scorching puff of steam.
After about ten minutes, with my lungs and cheeks ablaze, I ducked out of the sauna and followed the lead of others I’d seen dashing outside and quickly dipping themselves in the ice-cold sea. The jolt of shockingly cold water on the heels of the searing heat was exhilarating. Over the next hour, I repeated the routine a couple of times until all that remained was a meditative calm like I’d never felt before. Once again, a little courage (and nudity) led me directly into foreign – but friendly – waters.
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