now for something REALLY mundane… taking a bath in Japan.
The Japanese are among the cleanest people I’ve ever met.
They head out to Japan’s many bubbling hot springs at every
opportunity, and they’ve turned the nightly ritual of bathing
into a fine art. They build deep, well-insulated tubs out of fragrant
cedar and then sit and soak in them for hours. How divine. I can’t
wait to try it.
Unfortunately, the Japanese also believe in discipline –
even in their most relaxing activities. They accomplish this by
turning up the heat. A Japanese bath is so hot that you have to
inch yourself in, rubbing each newly submerged area like you’ve
just banged it on the edge of the bed. Your skin actually itches
after it stops burning. Once in, you sit absolutely still, waiting
for your own body to cool down a thin, insulating layer of water
to keep you from being boiled like a turkey. You watch the clock
– the Japanese have rules for everything and you’re
supposed to stay in no less than three minutes and no more than
five. Has it only been thirty seconds? You’re kidding. You
forehead pops with sweat. You can feel your eyeballs pushing out
of their sockets. Twoandahalfminutes. That’senough. But in
order to get out you have to disturb that thin layer of insulation
you’ve built up around your body. This is like tossing yourself
into the hot pot all over again. You brace yourself. You mutter
"discipline". You then throw yourself, screaming, from
the bath. You sit under a cold shower for as long as you can stand
it, go straight to bed, and sweat all night.
But after a while a regular bath just doesn’t seem…
disciplined enough. So the last time I was in Kyoto I decided to
brave the infamous "denki furo". On the surface this looks
not unlike any other Japanese hot bath, until you actually examine
the surface. It’s chattering ominously with little standing
waves. "Denki", you see, means "electricity".
I wait until no one is looking. I casually stick one toe into the
water. Something shoots up the inside of my leg, like a case of
rabies that’s working its way into my central nervous system.
This is going to be really unpleasant. Of course, now that I’m
in Japan I don’t just have discipline, I have face, and that
means I can’t back out, even if no one is watching. I lower
myself into that furo one inch at a time, so carefully that I barely
disturb those evil little ripples.
It’s one of those times that I’m truly glad I don’t
And then, an eternity later, it’s time to get out. I wait
until there’s a momentary pause in traffic and no one is in
the room. I prepare to leap, screaming, from the tub. I leap. I
scream. Nothing happened. My legs were completely and utterly asleep.
No pins and needles. Just out like a light.
I’m glad my parents took me to Seaworld when I was little
because dolphins don’t have legs either. I get out much the
same way, beaching myself on my stomach and using my spindly arms
to flop along the ground. I leave a long, slithery trail all the
way to the shower heads. The electricity follows me like a bunch
of hungry leaches. I prop myself up against a wall and wait for
my body to come back to life. Then I put on my clothes and wobble
out into the street, looking for all the world like one of those
drunken Tokyo businessmen on the train after a sake-night with his
For my next trip I’ve decided to cross the Sahara, where
they drink their water tepid and they’ve never heard about
taking a bath.
Excerpted from Japanland © 2005 Rodale Press. To purchase, please visit japanlandonline.com