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Why doesn't New Zealand have a bathing culture?

The Cagaloglu hamam in Istanbul, built in 1741. Photo/Alamy

Public bathhouses are popular in other countries, so why don't we have any?

The man who takes my hand looks like Gene Hackman with a hangover. He leads me into a steamy room where a dozen wet men recline on a large, circular marble slab.

“Lie down, effendi,” he says, and what happens next is a sodden blur. Water cascades in panfuls, foam blooms in sudsy piles, and I’m scrubbed silly with a loofah until I resemble a newly peeled prawn.

Several years later, I am sitting in a small pool, maybe half the size of a tennis court, in a mountain village near Kyoto in Japan, with two dozen complete strangers. In contrast to the Turkish hamam, the atmosphere is almost eerily calm. Two men sitting side by side might exchange a word, but there is nothing that could be called a conversation, much less a display of mouthy volubility.

We are all naked. We were naked in the hamam, too, actually, though the Turks, with strategic modesty, deployed a small towel as they walked around; the men in the public bathhouse that the Japanese call an onsen are more likely to carry the folded towel on their head to keep it dry.

The two experiences, on opposite sides of Asia, were among the more pleasurable of my travels, and both set me wondering why public bathing is not part of our cultural fabric. We go swimming in summer, at the beach or in lakes and rivers, and we grimly grind out lengths in marked lanes as part of a fitness regime.

But bathing – spoken in the right way, the very word sounds like a sigh of contentment – in warm water in public for no other reason than the pleasure of it seems never to have caught on.

Pohutukawa Rina (c1935), by artist Evelyn Page. Image/courtesy of Ara Artwork Collection, Ara Institute of Canterbury

It was once, and for a long time, most popular as a curative regimen. “Taking the waters” heated by geothermal activity made the central North Island, notably Te Aroha and Rotorua, a sought-after destination nationally and internationally.

The intending bather could seek advice in guidebooks that provided precise mineral analysis of any pool at any spring. In 1900, in How to Take the Baths and Drinking Water at Rotorua and Te Aroha, one James Muir, who announced himself as the hydropathic specialist by appointment to the Te Aroha Hot Springs Domain Board, offered such minute analyses as well as “splendid advice as to how to take Turkish baths properly and what hydrotherapy is”.

His book included testimonials from others in the medical profession. Typical was the view of Dr WB Hunter, of Matlock Bath, a spa town in Derbyshire, who pronounced that bathing “has for its aim and ideal the endurance of the greatest possible temperature for the longest possible time”, but warned that “excessive heat could cause congestion of the brain and, in some cases, apoplexy [which we call a stroke]”.

Nonetheless, he concluded it “augments the various secretions of the body” and was “most efficacious in the treatment of sciatica, rheumatism and lumbago”.

Similar claims were made for the Priest’s Bath, which the Maori called Pupunitanga, now part of the Polynesian Spa in Rotorua. The acidic waters, Muir wrote, “[act] as a stimulant to the liver and in most cases the flow of bile into the intestines is increased”.

The faintly medieval tone of these encomiums raises both chuckles and suspicions today, long after the development of antibacterial and later antibiotic drugs sounded the death knell of hydrotherapy as the state of the curative art. One of Muir’s successors lamented in the 1930s that hydrotherapy had “suffered a long eclipse at the hands of her younger sister pharmacy [and] lost that lead which seniority entitled her to”.

Modern medicine looks askance at extravagant claims for the therapeutic properties of a hot bath. A 2013 study by the National Institutes of Health in the US is typical, concluding only that there is “some evidence to suggest” it reduces the pain experienced by patients with rheumatoid arthritis, but the long-term benefit is unknown and more study is needed. More than 100 years after Muir, the outlook doesn’t look too flash.

A Hitler Youth poster. Photo/Getty Images

So, why does bathing – as distinct from swimming – for the sheer pleasure of it not make it onto our cultural map? We might take a dip if we’re visiting Rotovegas, but in the big cities, you can’t find a sauna or a hot tub that is not part of a fitness centre or an establishment where people go for sexual reasons.

Our traditional prudery about nakedness might provide some explanation, although I’m picking it lies deeper than that. The Japanese temperament is famously reserved, as are the cultures of northern Europe, yet in those places nakedness in (single-sex) public bathhouses is unremarkable.

Associate Professor Caroline Daley, a social historian at the University of Auckland who has researched the history of the body in our culture (notably in her 2003 book Leisure and Pleasure), locates the sauna culture in what she describes as “a very Germanic sensibility”.

“The development of hygiene, sun worship, naturism, eurythmy [a system of therapeutic expressive movement associated with Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner] … all those things are tied in with a particular sensibility about the body that has to do with being a good citizen. New Zealand doesn’t have that and we don’t have that many people who come from that tradition.”

Daley reports that the first Labour Government sponsored a visit to Germany in 1937 to study “the organisation and activity of the Hitler Youth Movement, particularly as to the state control of the physical training of young people”. Unsurprisingly, interest dimmed shortly after.

Still, and as if to underline Daley’s point, after writing a piece about my experience in the Istanbul hamam, I was contacted by a young German man keen to talk to me about how we might go about establishing what he called “a bathing culture in New Zealand”. At the time of writing, we had made no progress. But I’ve spent some excellent evenings in his backyard sauna, naked as a baby, and neither of us so much as turned a hair.

This article was first published in the March 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.