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Wednesday, March 17, 1999

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

When international relations get all steamed up


When asked what part of Japan they would most like to take back home, many foreigners respond by saying, "a Japanese bathtub."

I myself, on the other hand, usually answer with, "my wife."

It is also true that I am one of the great many foreigners smitten with the ofuro-style of bathing. I even know one Wisconsin farmer who fell so deeply in love with Japanese baths that, upon returning to America, he built one into his basement, using an upside down pig hut for the tub. Now, whenever he craves an ofuro, he goes whole hog.

Naturally one does not have to marry a Japanese to become enamored of Japanese baths. As a bachelor here years ago, I would drag myself home from work, fill the tub, flip on the old-style gas heater commonly used then and, while waiting merrily for the water to warm, fall asleep on the tatami. I can remember waking up many an evening to find my apartment floating in thick fog, the kind found in werewolf movies or the inner recesses of my mind. At such times I would twist off the heat and add tap water to the tub.

How getting married changed this steamy scenario is that my Japanese wife prefers the ofuro just that hot. In fact, the hotter, the better.

Sure, I had taken hot baths myself. At the local public bath which I sometimes visited, I had noted that there were three pools: hot, hotter and deep fry. I noted that very few men went in the deep fry and even fewer came out. Weighing this input, I always stuck to pool one. More than hot enough for me, thank you.

Then I married a pool three-type person. Not only did this mean coed bathing was out, it also meant nightly competition for who hit the bath first.

If I won, it meant my wife would have to reheat the entire tub, testing the water from time to time by inserting a plastic paddle. When the paddle melted on contact, she knew the water had hit her temperature.

If she won, it meant I had to either wait a week for the water to cool (which can be a long time if you are hunched naked on one of those little o- furo stools) or add to the tub a wheelbarrow of ice cubes. In fact, I used to stockpile ice expressly for this purpose.

In this competition there finally came the busy day when one of us goofed. I am happy to say it was her. In rushing to beat me, she disrobed, and doused herself with water from the tub, thinking it was her temperature, when in reality it had just been ice bombed.

From the living room I heard a scream.

I approached the bath gingerly and peeked in. Limbs shivering, teeth chattering, her body a parade of goosebumps from head to toe, she glared at me with accusing eyes.

"This is WATER!" she screamed.

But of course it was. What did she expect? Champagne?

"No, no!" she yelled. The Japanese language owns several words for water, befitting a water-blessed nation. Similar, she lectured, to the way Eskimos have a wide vocabulary for snow, or Americans for treachery!

"No one takes baths in mizu (water)!" she shouted. "They take baths in oyu (hot water)!"

To me this sounded like a phony, bogus, fake and fraudulent piece of spurious flim-flam. Was she hinting I, her loving husband, had set her up? Would I do that?

Even if it got me in the ofuro room with her?

A basin full of mizu in the face said maybe so.

But our ofuro fights (which were always clean) subsided with the birth of our two boys. For the sake of bathtime efficiency, we had to compromise on pool two-level heat.

Kids in a Japanese family often bathe with their papa, and we adopted this practice well enough, though to be honest I cannot picture myself ever crawling into a bath with my own father, even thinking back to before he passed away.

Bathing with my own kids was a blast, though, and I am sure in our nightly father-and-son type bathtub talks I taught them some of life's most significant lessons. For example, how to make fart sounds with their armpits.

Crude jokes live forever, but not so little boys. There came a time when the three of us could only get in the bath together if we used a shoe-horn. Since the boys were growing quicker than crabgrass, this left us with just three viable options: bathe separately, get a larger tub, or get a smaller father.

We selected option 1, leaving nightly ofuros a lot less interesting.

By this time, I had been acclimated to pool two-quality heat and my wife had toned down her own standards to the level of a mere scald, close enough to almost be compatible.

Did this mean, in our old age, we might try taking baths together?

That is not a story I can print here. For in all the tom-foolery that flows through this column, I do have one solemn guideline: Keep things clean.

Which, of course, is what we do in the ofuro.



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