Credit: Terence Chin

For Pip Vassett, it was love at first onsen.

The founder of luxury bedding line IN BED first visited Japan in March 2016 and instantly fell in love with a country “like nowhere else on earth” populated by a culture in which “everything is done in such a thoughtful, deliberate and respectful way.

“Also, the food and shopping is damn good.”

However it was a night spent in Kyoto (after a week spent eating in Tokyo) that would prove to be the trip’s most fruitful experience, as it was there that Vassett, a stylist and former fashion director of Yen, first immersed herself in ryokan and onsen culture.

“The first ryokan and onsen I experienced was Hiiragiya Ryokan in Kyoto,” Vassett told GRAZIA. “It’s almost 200 years old and is super traditional and gorgeous – all tatami matts, cedar wood baths and impeccable service. It rained the whole time which was perfect as it meant we spent a lot of time in the Ryokan listening to the rain, reading, drinking tea and taking onsens. Heaven!”

Credit: Terence Chin
Credit: Terence Chin

For the uninitiated, onsen is one of the cornerstone tenets of Japanese culture – a deeply rooted tradition that has remained unchanged for centuries. Onsen, or hot spring baths, traditionally offer a view of the outdoors in a remote location; ryokan are the simple, elegant inns that provide accomodation and formalise the ceremony around the onsen experience, providing a space in which to eat, sleep, bathe and repeat.

It’s there, amidst the elemental, that the intimate, time honoured act of bathing comes into its own and is transformed into something entirely transcendent. It was that sense of reverence for the daily soak that Vassett says she wanted to imbue into the IN BED brand, which was founded on the principle of elevating the necessary ritual of bedtime through the use of considered materials with a luxury slant – think washed French linens dyed in a spectrum of subdued hues, cashmere and cotton throws, and objects curated to enhance that most intimate of spaces. The result is new range, Bathe IN BED, comprised of 100% organic cotton Japanese made towels made especially for Vassett in Imabari by a company whose offices and factories are all completely powered by wind.

“It was important to me that the towels were in line of that ideal of being considered and gentle. I also love the idea of bathing being turned into a sort of meditation – even if it’s just a quick shower before work, it should be a moment for reflection and self care and I wanted to create something with those ethos in mind.”

Credit: Terence Chin

Credit: Terence Chin

That ethos finds its realisation not only in the Bathe range but in The Art of Bathing, a 2016 exhibition of campaign photographs shot by Terrence Chin. It was there that Vassett says they happened upon some outdoor baths at the base of a waterfall at The Kawazu Nanadaru that proved to be especially memorably.

“They were incredible! A few outdoor baths within meters of the waterfall and a few that tunnelled into caves just beside the waterfall. They were all naturally warm from hot springs so bathing outside with the sound of the waterfalls, river and forrest was pretty magical.”

Credit: Terence Chin

As is to be expected of all things Japanese (and magical), each part of the process of public bathing is imbued with ritual. More traditional onsens won’t allow tattoos, says Vassett, due to it being a hallmark of the Yakuza – a law that’s relaxing as onsens become more financially accessible and gain popularity amongst tourists looking for the singular experience. That aside, the cardinal rules are as follows: scrub well before you soak, don’t stare, and dive in with zero inhibitions.

“Yes, you must go naked! This part’s not optional and it can be a bit confronting when you’re in a shared onsen [but] don’t worry – they’re segregated into male and female. But really, no one cares so relax – take in a small modesty towel [a tenugui, a washcloth] if you’re worried and then pop it on top of your head once you’re in the bath – it’s the done thing!”

Tile and cover image: Terence Chin