Thursday 23 December 2021

Relaxing in a Bath of Yuzu: Marking the Winter Solstice in Japan

Temperatures have dropped below zero here in Tokyo and more cold weather is expected: the word is that we're heading for a freezing cold winter with lots of snow due to the La Niña phenomenon. Not to worry though - one of my favourite Japanese things is the hot bath, which includes not only hot indoor and outdoor springs (onsen) and the local neighbourhood public bath (sentō) but even the humble domestic household bath (ofuro). Bathing etiquette is the same regardless: wash outside the bath first and then enter for a nice long soak once clean (see here for a detailed manual!). In the home this means you can re-use the same water over a number of days (you can re-heat at the touch of a button); when you do need to run a new bath (oyuhari =お湯張り) this is also done automatically: put the plug in, select the temperature and water level and wait a while (it'll tell you when's it's ready). Modern baths can be run, heated, and even cleaned by smartphone app, handy, for example, when you're on your way back from work. It's not only the toilets that are sophisticated here!

A particularly interesting custom relating to baths comes on the day of the winter solstice (tōji =冬至) when Japanese traditionally put yuzu into the hot water. Yuzu are a small yellow citrus fruit with a thick grapefruit-like pitted skin typically the size of a tangerine though they can be as big as a regular orange. The fruit itself is rather tart/sour with little pulp and lots of seeds so Japanese tend not to eat it directly: it is more commonly used as a seasoning or garnish or to make sweets, sauce, vinegar, tea (available in Starbucks!), cocktails, and jam. Ponzu sauce is a staple at the Japanese dinner table and is used as a dressing or dip for a variety of foods. The name ponzu apparently comes from the no longer used Dutch word pons meaning punch!

The tradition of floating yuzu in the bath water on the winter solstice - sometimes cut or in a cloth bag - apparently goes back to the 18th century. It is said to be both good not only for one's health - preventing colds - but also for the skin and the aroma is also very soothing and relaxing. The custom is also supposed to bring health and good fortune for the coming year as well as warding off evil (not sure about COVID-19 though). The link above has a long list of the amazing benefits of yuzu including antioxidant and microbial properties as well as cardiovascular and circulation improvement.

I tried a yuzu bath on the evening of December 22nd, a day of biting northwesterly Siberian winds, and was pleased I did. Not only is the aroma supremely relaxing - I almost fell asleep in the bath - but the skin does feel smoother afterwards and I slept remarkably well that night. However, it is not only humans that enjoy this custom: the Izu Shaboten Zoo is famous for its capybara hot bath where you can watch the giant cuddly rodents - much adored by the Japanese - soaking contentedly among the bobbing Yuzu. Merry Christmas everyone!

Attribution: Flickr user yto (Tatsuo Yamashita) - (used under CC BY 2.0 licence)

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