The ofuro is integral to Japanese culture. Unlike baths in the west, the ofuro is not used for washing, but to warm and relax oneself.
Ofuro are short and deep, maybe three feet long or so, and about 2 feet deep. Every house and hotel room has one. In homes, it shares a room with a shower separate from the toilet. One uses the shower to wash oneself thoroughly before entering the tub. The water in the ofuro is left in the tub for subsequent bathers, so keeping it free of soap, hair, or any other contaminants is essential. Even after the last person has used the ofuro, the bath water may be retained for washing clothes the following day.
The small shower/ofuro room is a wet room. Water may be splashed all over it while people shower, and the ofuro may overflow without a problem. This is why Japanese visitors to the US, particularly students, have to be instructed to close the shower door or curtain with care and to be careful not to let the bath overflow.
The ofuro can be hot. The most common temperature setting I saw was 42 degrees C (107 degrees F). Every evening, wherever we were staying, our hosts would ask us, “Do you want ofuro tonight?” and we almost always answered, “Yes!” Typically, our hosts would push a button on a remote control in the kitchen, and the ofuro would be filled automatically to the right depth and heated to the preset temperature. Nice!
The first time I came to Japan 19 years ago, the shower in the ofuro perplexed me. After figuring out the unfamiliar knobs (one sets the hot/cold mix and is seldom turned thereafter, one turns on the water, and a third switches between the faucet and the shower head), I had to figure out how to use the shower head. As in the US, it is usually on a hose with an adjustable height. But I could never get it high enough for myself. At over 6 feet tall, I understood things would always be on the short side for me. But even at top height, the shower head never was more than maybe four feet off the floor: too low for even my diminutive hosts. It wasn’t until I attended a public bath that I figured it out: you’re supposed to sit down when you shower.
You will usually see a washbowl and a little stool in the ofuro. Seat yourself on the stool and either use the shower or scoop water out of the tub to rinse and wash yourself. Once you’re thoroughly clean, enter the tub and just relax. No clothes should ever be worn in the tub, and don’t let your towel or washcloth penetrate the water. Some people will place the cloth on the edge of the bath as a headrest. Others may place it on top of their heads while bathing.
In the old days, ofuro were made of wood and heated by a wood fire. Most of the ofuro I saw were made of plastic or stainless steel. Large public baths (Sentoo) and hot springs (Onsen) I visited were tiled.
My mother remembers having to maintain the fire for the family ofuro as a grade-school girl. She did this while at the same time cooking dinner (also on a wood stove!) for her large family. It was a challenging balancing act. If the fire wasn’t hot enough, the ofuro would be too cold. If it was too hot, a lot of cold water had to be added to cool it down. This raised the water level in the tub, and caused a lot of water to overflow when people got in. Too often, someone would complain either about the ofuro not being perfect or the food not being cooked just right. Can you imagine even an adult trying to accomplish these two tasks simultaneously today?
The experience of the ofuro very much reminds me of a Finnish sauna. Neither is considered a luxury, but rather a necessity even in a small apartment. Both are relaxing, stimulate the circulation, and really make you feel clean and warm. If space (and money) were no object, I would want one of each in my home.
Japanese Bathing Etiquette (for ryokans and guest houses)