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February 5, 2013
For centuries, Japanese enjoyed the country’s thousands of outdoor hot springs, so it’s no surprise deep soaking became popular indoors, too. Relaxing in steaming neck-high water marks the end of each day for many families, a custom catching on in the West as homeowners ask their architects for spa features such as soaking tubs and wet-proofed floors to maximize bathroom space and create a haven for relaxation.

Tubs are traditionally made of Hinoki - used for centuries to build Shinto temples. Its American cousin is Port Orford Cedar, and both woods are prized for their antiseptic properties – sushi chefs use them for chopping boards. Both also release a wonderful lemon ginger scent in a cloud of relaxing steam as the tub fills. Hinoki oil is a staple of aromatherapy and some people say it helps congestion and asthma. Other popular woods are sweet-smelling Alaskan Yellow Cedar and Western Red Cedar, as well as sustainably-harvested teak, a dark wood with a neutral scent.

Red Cedar tub by Zen BathWorks
This owner created an enclosed garden to enjoy his soaking tub, enhancing the feel of a private sanctuary by carefully placing a mirror that reflects a lantern and path. Zen BathWorks in Alaska (formerly Sea Otter Works) made this Red Cedar tub, and sometimes has popular sizes ready to ship. Notice the drain to capture water flowing over the top. Photo courtesy of: Zen BathWorks
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Port Orford Cedar tub by Zen BathWorks
On an organic beef ranch in Wyoming, Lynn Morrison and her architect James Cline, specified a two-person wide tub of Port Orford Cedar, canted to 5 degrees at the ends and long enough to recline. Lynn likes to relax as she gazes at the plains outside. “I love the lemony scent that fills the room when the tub is full of hot water,” she says. The tub is from Zen BathWorks, which also sells acrylic soaking tubs. Photo courtesy of: Zen BathWorks
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Hinoki Tub by Bartok Design Japan
Deep in the Italian countryside a few hours from Rome, a fashion advertising couple left their frenetic life in Milan and remodeled a trio of 15-century buildings into a Japanese-style inn and center for Japanese culture. Their giant Hinoki tub from Bartok Design in Japan was carefully positioned to take advantage of seasonal views through the sliding windows. “The images and scents were extraordinary,” said one Italian visitor to the center who took a soak, “I revisit them in my mind every day.” Photo courtesy of: Bartok Design and WabiSabi Culture Japanese Center
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Wood tub by Bartok Design

Japanese showers are usually set low down so the bather can sit on a stool and scrub, then pour cedar buckets of hot water over their heads for a refreshing rinse. This homeowner in Venice, California mounted a handheld shower head on the wall for added flexibility. The drain is under the removable cedar floor slats, keeping the room design uncluttered. Wood tubs are cleaned with a simple rinse and last for decades, as the antiseptic properties of cedar guard against mold and rot.

This ofuro was designed by Santiago Ortiz and fabricated by Bartok Design.

Courtesy of 
Art Gray
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Wooden tub by Bartok Design
This family in Switzerland asked for a removable seat when they ordered an extra thick tub from Bartok Design, owned by an Italian architect who uses cedar from the Kiso valley, one of the few sources of Hinoki. Soaking tubs are usually smaller than conventional tubs as the bather sits with knees to chest, says owner Iacopo Torrini, but since most tubs are made to order, customers outside Japan often specify longer tubs to stretch out. Photo courtesy of: Bartok Design
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Wooden tub by Zen BathWorks
Tubs can be partly sunk for easier access, as in this tub from Zen BathWorks. The river rocks at the base hide a linear drain, but tubs can also have a regular overflow or drain onto a wet-proofed bathroom floor, says Bill Finlay, of Zen BathWorks. Jennifer Aniston bought a Port Orford Cedar tub from him when she turned the “his” part of the bathroom she shared with Brad Pitt into a spa after the couple split up. Bill says many customers site their tub, known as an ofuro in Japanese, to enjoy a view. Photo courtesy of: Zen BathWorks
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Hinoki Tub by Roberts Hot Tubs
Grace Boyd’s favorite room has a stunning view of Puget Sound reflected in the Hinoki tub she had custom-sized by Roberts Hot Tubs. The clean lines of soaking tubs “work well in conventional bathrooms,” says Roberts’ Andrew Harris, “no need to make the whole room Japanese-style.” Grace echoed the grey of the sea and sky in the sinks and the silvery pebbles around the tub. After 32 years in West Seattle, she asked architect Mark Travers to build her a new house in the same spot- she couldn’t bear to lose her view. Tubs are popping up in real estate listings as a selling point; new owners can have an existing tub sanded to reveal a fresh layer of pristine scented wood. Photo courtesy of: Roberts Hot Tubs
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Teak tub by Roberts Hot Tubs
Close to Lake Tahoe, Roberts Hot Tubs built this teak tub to take advantage of stunning views, positioning it next to a two-sided fireplace. The drain is hidden under river rocks. Teak is a good choice for an outdoor tub as it withstands the elements. Roberts Hot Tubs prices ofuros from $5895, says Andrew Harris, and they take 60-90 days to build – they can even include jets. Other manufacturers have similar prices and lead times for a made-to-measure tub. Photo courtesy of: Roberts Hot Tubs
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Japanese soaking tub by Roberts Hot Tubs
A soaking tub satisfies both “bath people” and “shower people” as bathers wash outside the tub, then soak in clean, deep hot water. The owner of this penthouse asked Roberts Hot Tubs for a teak tub next to his shower. Soaking tubs can have straight or sloping sides and can be any shape. They use more water than regular tubs, but since bathers soak when clean, it’s common to add a re-circulating heater and filter. Tub makers offer wooden lids to keep the water hot - in Japan the same water is typically used by the whole family. Photo courtesy of: Roberts Hot Tubs
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Cedar tub by Zen BathWorks
Zen BathWorks strengthened this large tub with an apron that doubles as a cup rest. The room’s walls are wood-clad to reduce visual clutter and the tub rim is indented to direct water towards a floor drain shared by a shower. Soaking tubs are often smaller than conventional tubs as the bather sits with knees to chest-great if you have a small bathroom but want a tub. Sides can be sloped or straight and wood with knots generally costs less than straight-grained planks. If you’re curious about cedar’s scent, the bars sold in hardware stores for use as a moth-repellent give a general idea. Photo courtesy of: Zen BathWorks
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Red Cedar tub by Zen BathWorks
This owner created an enclosed garden to enjoy his soaking tub, enhancing the feel of a private sanctuary by carefully placing a mirror that reflects a lantern and path. Zen BathWorks in Alaska (formerly Sea Otter Works) made this Red Cedar tub, and sometimes has popular sizes ready to ship. Notice the drain to capture water flowing over the top. Photo courtesy of: Zen BathWorks

Q & A with Bill Finlay of Zen BathWorks, based in Haines, Alaska

Jennifer Aniston chose a tub from his company when she remodeled her house, and Bill recently sent one to Virgin Group chairman, Sir Richard Branson. Other manufacturers report increasing sales to celebrity clients and regular homeowners alike, and ofuro makers are experienced at shipping worldwide and providing design and installation information.

Why should I think about getting an ofuro?

The ofuro is the perfect balance of simplicity, beauty, aromatic wood and deep hot water! 

How are Japanese soaking tubs, ofuros, different from American tubs?

They are much deeper which lets you sit naturally upright, so the tub doesn't need to be very long.  The traditional tub is made with beautiful Hinoki wood, which fills the room with a lovely lemony aroma with every bath.

How did you get into the bathtub business?

A client asked me to build an ofuro many years ago, so I made a trip to Japan to learn about them.

How much is a tub and can I customize it?

The price range is $5 to $10 K, and we do a lot of custom work.  We offer consulting services to help with the design process.

What are important questions to ask a tub maker?

Ask how the tub is made and about the guarantee.  Avoid solid-wood planked designs.  We use our proprietary engineered wood panels that are designed to remain stable in a bathtub.  Our tubs are guaranteed.

How do I know which wood to choose?

Hinoki makes a perfect tub.  Light tan in color. Teak is a beautiful mocha color, very durable, with a neutral aroma.  Western Red Cedar is a colorful reddish brown, with a pleasant sweet cedar aroma

How do I keep a wooden tub clean?

We have made the ofuro user-friendly!  All it takes is a quick rinse after each use.

How long does it take to make and do you have some in stock?

Our lead-time is 5 to 7 weeks.  We try to have some stock on hand.

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