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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Strip down and soak up some Japanese culture


GETTING WET: Adventures in the Japanese Bath, by Eric Talmadge. Tokyo: Kodansha, 255 pp., 2,400 yen (cloth).

In the last few years we have seen books about cod, salt and potatoes, and the authors of these tomes appear to have employed a roughly similar method. Settle on a topic, learn everything -- and I do mean everything -- about it, and then weave all the facts and factoids, tidbits and anecdotes into a narrative that will keep readers plowing through more pages than they had ever imagined could be written about cod, salt or potatoes.

Most readers who pick up these books will not share the authors' obsessions with their topics, so to draw them in the writers must be skillful indeed. Eric Talmadge, who is obsessed with the Japanese bath, is such a writer, but also working in his favor is that, at least for the hedonists among us, bathing will always be more engaging than cod.

"I am stark naked," Talmadge writes, "immersed up to my chin in an outdoor pool of smelly, near-scalding water with a half-dozen equally exposed, wrinkly old men."

Those who are not devotees of the Japanese bath may find Talmadge's predicament odd, or even alarming, but he is, he goes on to note, enjoying himself. That sitting in hot smelly water can be pleasurable, and more than just pleasurable for many Japanese, is the situation he sets out to elucidate.

In the best tradition of these sorts of books Talmadge moves freely between his own adventures and encounters in the bath and the odd morsels he gleans from magazines, the Internet and interviews.

Early on, for example, we get a science lesson in which we learn that not just any puddle of smelly hot water qualifies as an onsen (hot spring). To make the grade it must contain "any of about eighteen substances or gases, ranging from strontium (used to put the red color in flares and fireworks) to hydro-arsenic acid." We learn that, while there does seem to be empirical backing for the health benefits of sitting in onsen, these benefits only kick in after one has spent a few weeks immersing oneself regularly.

Onsen, though, are about more than just the water. The proprietor of one onsen resort points out over a gourmet dinner that "this is what hot spring culture is really about. It's a party culture. It's a social affair. It's about pleasure."

This is true of all Japan's many and varied bathing establishments, but is perhaps most clearly the case at the sort of Japanese baths where one gets naked, as it were, with intent: soaplands.

As Talmadge notes, there is always an "unspoken undertone of sex at hot springs resorts." Given the "party culture" typical of onsen, a party at which many of the guests will spend the bulk of their time bare, how could it be otherwise?

At soaplands, however, the sex comes out of the shadows. There's nothing remarkable about prostitution; it is commonplace the world over. What is intriguing is that, in common with other kinds of Japanese baths, "the Soapland concept plays heavily on the Japanese penchant for cleanliness. Soap girls are paid not just to satisfy their client's (sic) sexual desires, but to free them of all their dirtiness."

To free us of all our dirtiness: This is something people everywhere have always desired and have sought in countless ways. That this desire for purification is at the center of many religions helps us understand how, in Japan, a bath is seldom just a bath.

The mass of facts Talmadge has gathered -- many more than are hinted at here -- are, taken together, a primer on Japanese bathing that is not only informative but -- and this is what keeps us turning the pages -- fun to read. Dip into "Getting Wet" today.



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