Primal Soak

—The Japanese Bath—


Westerners keen to fathom the depths of Asian psychology will inevitably find their way to the ofuro, the Japanese bath. For it is there amid the quiet mist above womb-warm waters that the alien comes to appreciate the psychological differences between East and West.

Education begins where inhibitions end. Thus it is not unusual for a Freudian-wired foreigner, ostensibly in search of "the real Japan," to draw the line of cross-cultural adventurism on the shy side of entering a sento, the neighborhood bathhouse. Reservations about dangling, drooping differences laid bare before a villageful of eyes squinted with curiosity inhibit even the most earnest of Western liberals. "Maybe next trip, thanks . . . heh, heh," exits sheepishly from the nervous grin of a Puritan in progressive garb.

Small wonder that Japanese statesmen of the Meiji era (1868–1912), eager to live up to Western definitions of civility, felt the need to end Japan's natural tradition of mixed bathing. Late 19th-century Japanese society partitioned the genders because, in their travels to Victorian Europe and America, the Meiji managers of Japan's modernization had observed that Westerners considered bathing a private, almost shameful chore. So shameful that bathing was relegated to the water closet of Judeo-Christian architecture.

Not so for Asia's most earthbound and godless of peoples. The Japanese have been twice- and even thrice-daily practitioners of the Art of Bathing
(in 110–130°F water, no less) for as long as mists have drifted through the island nation's bamboo groves. Nor was this passion for soaking borrowed from their ancient neighbors to the west along with kanji (Chinese ideograms) and Confucianism. Third-century Chinese historians commented condescendingly on the eastern "barbarians" and their preferences for female rulers, strong liquor, and personal cleanliness.

The yen for the bather's high brought on by daily chin-deep soaks in hellish water continues unabated in modern Japan. Despite dwindling numbers of neighborhood bathhouses as video parlors and aerobics studios spread like crabgrass, more homes and apartments are built with private bathing facilities (considered a luxury 30 years ago).

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for bathing Japanese-style