saunas, steam rooms, hot springs – spa culture takes on various forms
throughout the world, and learning to relax like a local is a top attraction in
many destinations. But as entwined as bathhouse culture has become with many
modern day societies, the seemingly omnipresent practice of using heat to
release toxins is actually tens of thousands of years old, dating back to the
Neolithic Age when nomadic tribes would find relief from the bitter cold by
soaking in the various natural hot springs they stumbled upon around the world.
One of the
world’s earliest known public baths was built in the Indus Valley around 2500
BC in the lost city of Mohenjo-daro. Called the
“Great Bath”, this large pool constructed of baked brick was excavated in
the early 1900s by archaeologists in present-day Pakistan. Anthropologists
say it may have been used as a temple, since bathing and cleanliness may
have been linked to religious beliefs.
around 300 BC, the practice of public bathing was adopted by the Romans, and
the bath became a vital part of society, visited by rich and poor. For many
it was the only place to rinse off after a long week of manual labour and at
the time, crowds of men and women bathed naked together, as the bath was a primary place to
gather and socialize.
tradition of the public bath has since spread around the world, adapting to
evolving cultures and social norms with differing customs and etiquette for
baths, called hammams, were likely derived in part from Roman and Byzantine
baths -- an export of the Roman Empire that extended to Turkey in the 7th
Century. The concept was predicated on having places of extreme cleanliness,
where purifying the body went hand-in-hand with purifying the soul. Popularized around 600 AD, hammams were also spaces where
major life events were celebrated, and bathing rituals were incorporated into
weddings and births.
is still a common gathering place for socializing and relaxing today. Upon
entering, visitors may be given a towel, a pair of sandals and an abrasive
mitt, a keşe --
meant for exfoliating the skin. The hammam typically consists of three main areas: a hot steam room with a large
marble stone at the centre, where bathers lay as attendants scrub them and
administer massages; a warm room for bathing; and a cool room for resting.
Areas are typically gender-separated and nudity is optional.
historic hammam worth visiting is Istanbul's Cagaloglu Hamami, a palatial marble bathhouse that was built in 1741.
Early historical accounts place the Russian banya, or
bathhouse, in a central societal role by the 900s. In Slavic mythology, there
was even a banya spirit, named Bannik, who was believed to hide under bathhouse benches, only to reveal himself if a
visitor was disrespectful or misbehaved -- in which case, Bannik would throw
boiling water or hot rocks at the disruptive bather.
Russian history, the banya has been enjoyed by all classes. Villagers who did
manual labour used to visit a public bathhouse, often the only place to wash
off, while wealthy Russians would sometimes indulge in private banyas.
Bathhouses were also visited as a spiritual experience, often on Sundays, a tradition that continues today.
The act of bathers hitting themselves with bunches of birch twigs called veniki, for example, is with the intended purpose of opening pores and increasing
circulationas well as an act of self-flagellation.
banyas are gender separated and nudity is optional. They typically include a
cold plunge pool and a hot steam room with wooden benches at varying heights --
the higher you go, the hotter the steam gets.
One of the
oldest banyas in Moscow (and one of the most famous) is Sanduny
Banya, built in 1806. It’s a large complex today, with
swimming pools, a fitness centre, a beauty salon and a restaurant.
are natural hot springs, born from the country’s plentiful volcanic activity,
and the practice of soaking in these thermal baths for healing, spirituality
and rejuvenation stems back to when Buddhism spread to Japan in the 500s. Some
evidence suggests that Buddhist monks had a hand in
founding some of
the earliest spa-like spots around the country.
Japan’s onsen are based around natural formations, some have been around for
thousands of years. One such place is Dogo Onsen, located on the island of Shikoku,
believed to have been in use for at least 3,000 years. Mentions of the onsen
have been found in texts from early Japanese history, illustrating it as the
great leveller, welcoming gods, emperors and
There is a certain cultural protocol to keep in mind when visiting a Japanese
hot spring resort (nudity is required, for example). Before taking the plunge,
refer to this guide to onsen etiquette.
is also mandatory in jimjilbangs, or Korean bathhouses, which are always
separated by gender. Jimjilbangs are a family affair in South Korea, with
everyone from children to the elderly joining in on the pastime.
of this tradition could be linked to the country’s natural hot springs, some of
which have been in use for more than a thousand years. Today, many jimjilbangs
are open 24-hours and offer lodging for the night, perfect for weary
travellers. Also unique to Korea are the materials used in the saunas, steam
rooms and hot tubs. For instance, jade may be used in the sauna to relieve
joint pain and stress, while baked clay may be used to promote detoxification.
Body scrubs are also very common, using a mitt similar to the Turkish kese, but
with milk and water to moisturize the skin while promoting circulation.
One of the
more famous jimjilbangs in Seoul is the massive Dragon Hill Spa, a seven-storey spa featuring a seawater bath, a salt room, saunas,
baths, a swimming pool, a fitness centre, gardens, a food court, a nail salon,
a golf course, an internet cafe and a movie theatre. The primary draw is the
main sauna, heated by charcoal and infused with an oak aroma.
Native American sweat lodge
accounts of sweat lodges in Native American culture appear in writings by
European settlers from
the 1600s, and according to anthropologist Raymond A Bucko, author of The
Lakota Ritual of the Sweat Lodge, sweat lodges have not changed significantly
since that time. Participants in the sweat ritual gather inside a dome-shaped hut
or tent, where a pile of heated rocks lies in the middle. A sweat leader tends
to the rocks and may pour water on top to fill the lodge with steam. He also
leads the group in prayer and song. During the ceremony, offerings such as
tobacco may be made to the spirits.
bathhouses, sweat lodge rituals can last up to several hours. There are often
multiple 30-minute rounds, with breaks in-between to let the outside air in and
American sweat experience, a ceremony expressly and wholly focused on the
spiritual, pushes both the body and the mind to its limits. Suffering for the
sake of moral strengthening is one important theme that permeates throughout
the sweat lodge, Bucko explained in his book.
are ubiquitous in Finland, a country with around two million saunas, or approximately one sauna for
every two or three people. Nearly all Finns “take a sauna” at least once a week
(even those in incarceration) and many families own portable
saunas to take on camping trips. “Sauna” is even a Finnish word, meaning a hot steam bath -- the steam for which is
created by pouring water over heated stones.
the origins of the Finnish sauna are murky, Finland’s cold climate likely
contributed to the creation of this heat-filled structure. According to the
documentary Steam of Life”, a film focused on Finland’s spa obsession, some of the first saunas
were heated huts that also served as homes. In addition to bathing, saunas
would have been used for chores requiring high heat, such as curing meats, and
practices requiring sterile environments, such as preparing to bury the dead.
traditional Finnish sauna -- which dates back to at least the 12th
Century - is a smoke sauna, heated by a wood stove with no
chimney. After soaking
in the heat, many locals will head outside to roll around in the snow or jump into a hole in a frozen-over
lake, since going
from hot to cold is thought to stimulate blood circulation.
public sauna still in use in Finland is the Rajaportin Sauna, a smoke sauna dating back to 1906 and located
in the southern city of Tampere. To stay in Finland and not take a sauna would
be like visiting Ancient Rome and not stopping at the local bathhouse. What
better place to experience this age-old tradition than a historic spa that
helped shape the customs of today?