How to put a Japanese-style bath in your garden
The Japanese tradition of onsen bathing is a ritual intended to purify body and mind.
Onsen are hot springs, and there are several towns across Japan dedicated to these mineral-rich springs, housing both public and private bathhouses. The ritual involves washing and then soaking in the healing waters, usually surrounded by a beautiful garden or overlooking stunning views.
But you don’t have to travel all the way Kusatsuthree hours north of Tokyo, or Beppufar south in Oita Prefecture, even as far as Onsen hot pools to Queenstown to live the experience. You can almost capture the serenity of these spa towns in your own backyard, with an open-air bath and good plantings.
“Planting is key,” says Wellington architect Cushla Thurston, of Solari Architects, who designed her home around an outdoor bath for her family. “Even if you don’t plan to do this for a few months or a few years, it’s good to plant as soon as possible.”
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Find a spot in your garden that is private, first, but also has a pleasant view – this could be the planting itself, but the idea is to create a sanctuary where you can feel comfortable undress and relax.
“You also want to think about shelter – you don’t want to plant it somewhere really windy. Again, planting around it can help create that shelter.”
Thurston’s bath uses the outside faucet as the water source. She has had a hot water tap installed outside and the family fills the bath with pipes that run to their bath.
If you recycle or upcycle, a cast iron tub, clawfoot tub, or freestanding tub is best, as it will hold up well to the elements.
If you have a little more cash to spend, a purpose-built cedar tub, like the one you’ll likely find at a high-end Airbnb or glamping site, like a Spa heated by wood fireor the Alpine Spas tandem bath tub could be for you.
Stoked offers several hot tub options, including an electric tub that also filters the water, meaning you don’t have to change the water for 12 months.
For a more architectural look, Stone baths have an oversized cast stone tub that comes in a range of colors from matte black to pink. They do, however, require hot water taps, outside.
For any outdoor tub, the floor should be level and able to support the weight – some tubs can be quite heavy to start with, not to mention water and a few people in it.
If you are building a deck, you will need to consider the weight and board guidelines for building a deck.
“We didn’t have a foot-on-leg bath,” says Thurston. “My husband created a frame for a standard tub and put a deck around it. It was quite heavy to put it in place, but it gave us a place to mount our faucets.
“You want to make sure you get a faucet that will look good outdoors.”
Thurston found his on Trade Me and connected it to standard brass pipe fittings.
Drainage can be into the gray water system or into the garden – but to make sure it won’t flood your neighbor’s garden or damage your lawn – consider a gravel drain pit.
“Another tip would be to consider the path to the bath,” says Thurston. “You don’t want to hurt your feet on gravel or get muddy feet walking to and from the bath.
“You should also consider small children and their safety.”
If the tub is less than 1.5 meters it will need to be fenced in while it is full. If it is over 1.5m it will still need a sturdy cover and the steps to be removable, if it stays full.
Once in place, you can add minerals like those you find in Japan, such as Okuhida Yunohana Onsen Powderwhich you can order online – it makes your bath milky, just like the spas around Mount Yakedake, where it’s made – or a Milky Bat Tabino Yadoh, from Amazon.com, which has a similar effect.
If you can’t find either, a few Epsom salts and a few drops of your favorite essential oil will do just as well.
In a traditional Onsen bath, you will wash before entering the tub, usually seated on a small wooden stool next to the tub – Paper Plane Parq Footstoolit has a nice rustic feel that suits the Onsen vibe.
Treat yourself to a scrub with soap, like Japan’s favorite Pelican Family Khaki Soapand a hand towel, and remove the foam with a small bucket or wooden cup.
Once you’re clean, all you have to do is climb up and get rid of your worries. Ganbatte kudesai!