The hardest part of going away to university was being in the absence of family. However, I always looked forward to the train ride that would take me home during the holiday months. Capturing the feeling of coming home, The Big Bath House is a story about critically acclaimed author Kyo Maclear’s trips to Japan where she visited family in the July and August months of her childhood. In this beautiful, heart-warming children’s book a young girl visits her family and months of time apart melts into a foamy backdrop as generations of women and girls embrace one another and care for their growing and aging bodies.
Communal bathing is a cultural practice in Japan with a long history. Communal bathing is practiced across the country at tens of thousands of onsen and sento, naturally occurring hot springs and man-made bath houses. Despite criticism and pressure from westernization to hold bodies as always private, Japan has kept its bathing culture alive and flourishing. Today, tourists flock to bath houses for relaxing, hot soaks. Although western audiences might find the nudity in The Big Bath House shocking, there is no taboo around communal bathing in Japan, only bathing etiquette. The book shares and celebrates that the puritan concepts of privacy and covering oneself at all times are not universal, illustrating another “way of being” for those not accustomed to sharing baths.
The Big Bath House is not just about bathing, however. This picture books’ centerpiece is the multigenerational love between grandmothers, mothers, aunts, cousins, nieces, and sisters. Although some may see The Big Bath House as a way of introducing the concept of communal bathing to those who do not have the tradition in their culture, I see the celebration of the bath house as a depiction of one of the many ways families care for one another and bond. Maclear writes in the author’s note, “Because of the bath house, I grew up surrounded by naked bodies of all ages, shapes, and sizes. I saw breasts of women who had nursed many babies. Large bottoms, saggy bottoms. Grandmas with gentle rolls of fat.” Books like The Big Bath House remind us not only to cherish the women in our lives, but to cherish the bodies of the women in our lives: the bodies of mothers and grandmothers that have nourished, protected, nurtured, and carried generations of people who love one another and come together no matter how many miles apart.
I’m lucky to still have a grandmother in my life. I shared The Big Bath House with her and despite her exhaustion from chemo treatments and battling illness she lit up at the sight of the book. She read the book out loud and smiled as she turned the pages, enjoying the rhymes and phrases. My mother joined us and three generations of women were wrapped in joy— I have no higher praise.