Bathing while watching the snow fall, clouds move across the sky, or trees being swayed in the wind is an almost unsurpassed way to relax, and one perfected in by the design of the Japanese bath. Given many of us would love that but live with many neighbors, the authors of The Japanese Bath offer us ways to have it all.
Almost all Japanese baths have a window to the outside set right near the tub. When the home has a substantial garden space, often the windows are large and able to be opened out into the garden. The bath then becomes part of the changing seasons.
A view from the bath is important, but so is privacy, especially if one cannot have the luxury of spaciousness.
To protect the view out, especially when looking into a neighbor’s yard, fences made of natural materials like cedar, redwood, and bamboo can create a visual border and a sense of protection. Better yet, planting hedges, trees, and bamboo right outside the bath window can create a softer and pleasing protective barrier–a living fence, so to speak. These fences can face various directions. The obvious direction is one parallel to the bathroom windows, directly protecting the view from the opposite side.
Another option often used in the Japanese home is to build the fence out from the side of the house. Called a sode-gaki, a sleeve fence, these low fences–only 4-5 feet high and butting out only 2-4 feet from the house–are often ornamental but can also help obstruct unwanted views.
Special Panes of Glass
Another way to allow the outside in yet retain privacy, especially when the window is not facing a garden, is to either pane the window with opaque glass or to use glass inspired by shoji screens that creates a soft boundary to the outside with its white luminescent quality. Here, it is the suggestion of the natural world that is enjoyed.
A tree placed outside, even in a container, will allow the sun to cast dark and light shadows of branches swaying in the wind on the glass–almost as though a quiet shadow play were being performed. As the novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichiro wrote in his essay “In Praise of Shadows,” “a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows–it has nothing else.”
When deciding about glass and views, try actually sitting inside the bathtub and in the washing area to see which area of the exterior truly needs to be eliminated from view. Surprisingly, a very little actually needs to be screened off in most cases. And the amount of frosting on the glass should be kept to a minimum because it is vital to allow the warmth of the light to come through–in a manner reminiscent of Japanese washi paper held up against the sun.
In extreme situations where privacy is a dire issue, one can consider lowering the line of vision out of the window all the way down to just one or two feet from the ground. Often seen in traditional Japanese homes with tatami mats, where people sit low to the ground, this type of low window creates a dramatic effect, immediately connecting the viewer to an intimate garden of rocks, moss, and lanterns.
Adapted from The Japanese Bath, by Bruce Smith and Yoshiko Yamamoto (Gibbs Smith, 2001).