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Saturday, July 24, 2010

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The art of sweating in Japan


Visit Japan — come join the sweating masses!

Imagine 120 million people on a typical hot, humid summer's day. I've heard some tourists say that whenever they come to Japan they bring enough shirts to wear two per day. The second shirt they change into at midday. This is usually said by big burly men with beer bellies, but I can understand the sentiment. Carrying luggage up and down stairs in train stations makes you sweat like a racehorse. Then of course, there's the frothing at the mouth.

While the Japanese perspire, they don't seem to do it to the proud degree that we foreigners do. While I've always attributed our sweating and ensuing body odor to the fact that we are the more hirsute of the species, the Japanese say body odor has more to do with food — you smell like what you eat. So, Koreans smell like kimchee and Indians smell like curry. Obviously, this theory can't be true or we'd all be cannibals. We all know at least one person who just cannot pass up a good kimchee or curry.

So, what do Westerners smell like? They say we smell different because we eat meat, but stop short of saying we smell like cattle. We are merely kusai — stinky. This stinkiness is no revelation to us. We're the ones who wear deodorant whereas among the Japanese, only some do. It's humbling to go to the supermarket and be confronted with several brands of deodorant, all in 30 ml sizes.

So what do the Japanese smell like? Not much, which is more a reflection of what they don't eat rather than what they do. It's a good thing because the last thing this country needs is sweaty fish riding the bullet train. Maybe that's why Japanese people are so skinny. It's an anti-odor strategy.

And forget about using perfume to cover up your body odors. The Japanese can tell if someone is wearing perfume from three train cars away, and are quick to wrinkle their noses. It just puts them into a funk. They will likely swear the smell has clung to their nose hairs or taken up residence in their nasal membranes where they will have to inhale the offensive perfume for the rest of the day.

So why don't the Japanese seem to perspire as much as we do? I have a feeling it's because they have lived in such a humid country so long that their sweat collectively emanates from their pores and blends in with the greater moisture of the nation. How else could this country be so humid?

Our sweat, on the other hand, gushes from the pores in droplets that dribble down from the armpits. Perspiration has passionate English words to describe it, like "profuse." Sweat travels in "rivulets." Some people sweat "buckets" while others "sweat like pigs." It ain't pretty. Basically, the body is shedding tears, because it is not happy. The body feels hot, uncomfortable and exasperated.

It's a wonder that we all head to the seaside in the hot summer. You'd think the last thing we'd want to do is swim in salt water all over again. The Japanese carry little cloths to soak up the sweat from their brow, which seems like the only place they do perspire. These little cloths may be perfectly fine for them but I prefer something more absorbent, like a beach towel. Young Japanese women these days use little pieces of special paper that soak up the sweat while not taking your makeup with it. I find it easier, however, to revert to the tribal method — paint on the face with big thick brushed strokes across the cheeks. It's a hell of a lot easier and you don't have to worry that your mascara is running a marathon.

I always feel under stringent guidelines for dressing in the summertime though. Japanese women don't walk around in clothing that is so thin it is see-through, or tank tops where their bra straps might show. Unless they're under 25. Shorts? Well, if you must, but you won't find the Japanese ladies doing it. Unless they're under 25.

While I feel coolest when my skin can "breathe," the Japanese are always covered up — long sleeves and long pants are minimum cover in summertime and even these are often layered. It makes you wonder if something else isn't going on under all those clothes. I think I've discovered what it is — they're either germinating seeds for rice planting or they're hatching quail eggs. I suspect they even have some tsukemono tucked under the armpits. I mean, do you have a better explanation?

Curse Japan's humidity as you may, but the truth is that humidity is one of the best things for your skin. Keep your skin bathed in moisture and you won't have any deep wrinkles, just like the Japanese don't. This is Japan's great beauty secret. So walk around happy, knowing it would cost you thousands of dollars back home to live in a 24-hour steam bath while stuffing yourself with sashimi and konbu soups.



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