Wednesday 1 September 2021

Bath time in Japan - 2

   Attempting to go native in Japan was never going to be easy. It had taken a long time to find a local family who not only had a self-contained 'furnished aparto' within their traditional Japanese wooden home, but were also prepared to rent it to a Gaijin Sensei – a foreign-devil teacher from ‘En'grand’.

Home Sweet Home

    The first-floor apartment was minimalist to say the least. It had just a low coffee table, a large wall-hanging scroll featuring a brush-painted floral arrangement, a sink with a single gas ring and a screened alcove in which to store clothes and bedding in cardboard boxes.
    My two rooms were separated by sliding paper screens, each with soft thatched tatami floors, honey - coloured timber ceilings, white walls and an 8-foot length of ill-fitting sliding wooden windows, which flooded the rooms with enough light and air to fill a stadium. All this, to an idealistic 22-year-old ‘traventurer’ to move into during the hot humidity of summer, had seemed just perfect – real cool!
    However, it was now the middle of January; for months the bitingly cold dampness of Tokyo's winter had gnawed relentlessly at my extremities. Spring seemed a long way off.
    The view through my wall of curtain-less single-glazed windows was now hidden by a set of external wooden screens - they helped dull the wind-rattled loose panes, but added as much warmth as a bulb in a fridge.

Keeping Warm

Winter scene in Roppongi Japan
    My central heating entailed being clad in a balaclava, mittens and a thick kimono, whilst sitting cross-legged at a blanket-covered low coffee table, under which a charcoal hibachi perched on a stone slab.
     This fiendish saucepan-sized device was my only form of heating; it burned smoke-choking charcoal that cooked my nuts at one end, whilst I breathed clouds of vapourised Sapporo whisky at the other – all an essential part of my frostbite prevention scheme.
    Every discomfort has its comfort; tonight was one of my thrice-weekly visits to the local ofuro bathhouse, where for two hours I would enjoy and endure its tortuous heat.
Typical shoe racks in Japanese home
    With nether-regions well thawed, I donned ‘long johns’ and wrapped a thick kimono around myself and shuffled downstairs in slippers to the Waseda family’s entrance hall. There, I scanned the dozens of pairs of assorted shoes, clogs, rubber boots and slippers kept in slatted racks, until among the mélange of footwear I found my pair of two-inch-high,wooden geta clogs.

Cold Crisp Snow

    I slid open the front door and a cold crisp silence reflected back at me: four inches of freshly fallen snow lay outside: making the house feel positively warm.
Pair of Japanese Geta
    My normal clog-clattering quarter-mile walk to the Roppongi public bathhouse was today muffled as the soft snow whispered a compressed crunch.
    My route took me along a labyrinth of unlit alleys, lined with wooden homes;  many doubled as laundries, noodle shops, bars and rice stores, their doorways glowed with the yellow light of lacquered lanterns or wooden lamps.
    A soft scrunch of snow from behind prompted me to step to one side to allow a home-delivery boy to cycle past. He precariously balanced a foot-high stack of red lacquered food trays in one hand, and trailed an aroma of steam noodles in his wake.
    The snow-blurred sound of Tokyo's traffic sharpened as I rounded the corner, I cautiously waited for a tram to rattle past before carefully clomping my way across Roppongi Road and into Yasuda Lane.
    I passed a drunken salaryman chatting happily to a telephone pole whilst relieving himself. Ahead I  saw kimono-clad families scurrying coldly to, or sauntering warmly away from, the only building with light spilling from its wide wooden doorway: the Roppongi ofuro bathhouse.
    My clogs clattered noisily on the stone entrance porch as I entered the curtained doorway marked ‘Male’ in large Japanese characters. I exchanged my clogs for a pair of communal bath slippers from the scores that lined the wall.

The Bathhouse

    The familiar Buddha-like form of Mrs Nakasoni greeted me in the wooden changing hall, she sat on her high rickety perch, overseeing both the male and female changing rooms.
    She was the cashier and collected the thirty-five yen fee, sold soap and peered owl-like through perfectly round glasses; she kept an eager eye on everyone as they undressed on their respective side of the dividing screen.
    From my vantage height of nearly six feet, I could glimpse the grass being greener on the other side.
    I left my clothes in a locker, tied the wooden key around my wrist, collected a three-legged stool and an aluminum pan from the sterilizing pool, and went through to the bathing room. As I did so, I gave Mrs Nakasoni a friendly naked smile.
Japanese public bathhouse ofuro
    A line of about twenty Japanese men were already in the white-tiled washing room, each sat before low mirrors, scooping hot water from a running channel of steaming water, each washing, lathering and scrubbing themselves clean of their day's labour; a pleasurable cleaning ritual that usually took a leisurely forty-five minutes.
    The Public Ofuro at Roppongi is used by about eighty per cent of the local community, so it was a great source of lively debate and exchange of gossip. I had been going long enough to be recognized by most people and to know that a nudge from a neighbour was a common practice to indicate they wished you to scrub their back.

Not for the Faint Hearted

    Once the cleaning ritual was achieved, it was time to enter the bathhouse proper and suffer the palpitating pleasures in the brightly lit, veritable ‘Temple to Aquarians’. 
    The steamy chamber had as its altar a cascading waterfall of scalding water that fell into a small pool, where on this particular day, the hairless head of a solitary wizen Japanese monk floated. He unblinkingly watched his small pool overflow into a larger pool where a dozen or so other heads floated, each grimacing with pleasure.
Roy being cooked in traditional farmhouse wooden Ofuro -
 just add carrots and onions, stir gently. 
    I knew better than to jump straight in. I stooped my naked body beside the slightly cooler larger pool and winced with painful bliss as I scooped its hot water over myself. Once the body temperature was high enough, I inched myself in and slowly poached for twenty minutes until parboiled. Few people ever ventured into the smaller but hotter pool. 
    As soon as the bone marrow felt pink and before the brain started to curdle, I retreated to the cool of the changing hall and the lustful gaze of Mrs Nakasoni. She always gave me a small bottle of X-Energy to drink. I never did quite fathom out what she hoped it would do for me – or her – but I hadn’t the energy or inclination to reject her kind gesture.

by Roy Romsey

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