I Love Yu

The Japanese have a worldwide reputation as hard workers, but something that I love about them is their ability to relax. The most perfect example of this is the Japanese bath.

I’ve been an aficionado of baths ever since my teens, when I got into the habit (which I still enjoy) of settling into the tub with a good book and soaking the evening away. I made quite a ritual of it, starting out in an empty tub with my back against the cold metal, then letting the hot water — as hot as I could stand — slowly rise around me, feeling it creep up my dry skin as I read my book, reading on and on until the water cooled off, and then draining it away and staying right where I was, still reading, until I was comfortably dry. Not only was it a very sensual experience, but I made my way through a good chunk of the Fairfax County Public Library in the process. It was just one of the advantages of growing up in a home without television.

That’s why I’m such a know-it-all today.

The Japanese also appreciate a good bath. In fact, bathing is so highly thought of that it is often a community experience. Families bathe together, co-workers bathe together, friends go off on vacations that revolve around bathing, and neighborhood baths are still common. Based on my own experiences here, I’ve divided Japanese baths into three categories: functional, fancy, and fabulous.

1. FUNCTIONAL: Neighborhood Baths

You can find a neighborhood bath by wandering around a residential section of a city until you spot an industrial smokestack that looks out of place among the houses and apartment blocks. This will either be a bath or a garbage incinerator. The local bath in my old neighborhood in Kawaguchi was a bit of both; it was heated in part by burning scrapwood. Admission is cheap — usually around 300 yen.

Upon entering, men go to one side and women to the other. Often the two sides are divided by a wall that doesn’t quite reach the ceiling, so that one bath attendant, usually an extremely old person, can keep an eye on both sides at once from a slightly elevated seat. On each side, in addition to a giant tile tub, there are rows of very low mirrors along the walls, with a faucet beneath each mirror. Squatting on tiny stools in front of the mirrors, bathers wash themselves off before getting into the nearby tub. (Since everyone bathes together in the same large basin, it would be very poor etiquette to get in while still dirty.) Usually, the water faucets are augmented with a shower head on the end of a hose; if not, you’ll just have to dump water over yourself with a plastic bucket. This is usually more fun anyway, and it’s always an option.

Once clean, ease into the tub and stew your tired muscles and bones for as long as you like.

2. FANCY: Healthy Lands

The neighborhood bath usually has only one tub. More elaborate bath complexes can be found in most large towns or suburban areas. These complexes are a bit more expensive, but they have a numerous specialized tubs for you to soak in. Usually the water in each tub is infused with a substance — herb, mineral, or gas — that is said to have medicinal properties. This is why they are sometimes referred to as “healthy lands.” Here are two examples.

A. Yuami no Land

When I lived in Chiba several years ago I became a regular customer at an establishment called Yuami no Land, which had a swirling hot bath, a still hot bath, a sauna, and a cold bath. In addition, there was a bubbling “radon bath” in a separately ventilated room that resembled a greenhouse. Finally, there was a rotenburo, which is what really hooked me on the place.

A rotenburo is simply an outdoor or open-air bath. It is the greatest achievement of Japanese culture. A long soak in a good rotenburo is the most relaxing experience I’ve ever known. Whole resorts have been built around nicely-situated rotenburos, such as the one I visited on an office trip to the shore of the Izu Peninsula a few years ago. Soaking together with my fellow employees, I watched the sun sinking over Izu Bay, throwing the shadows of jagged rocks across the waves.

But a rotenburo doesn’t have to be situated in legendary surroundings to be effective. Last fall, when the stress of life had gotten me down, I took a vacation to the Tohoku (northern Honshu). A cold rain was falling when I arrived in the small city of Tsuruoka, a town that shuts down after dark. I spent my first night at a hotel that had a rotenburo on the roof. As the rain beat on my head, arms, and shoulders, I stretched out the rest of my body beneath the hot, swirling water and contemplated the Halloween-colored lights of Mister Donut, the brightest spot in town, nine stories below and four blocks away. All of my tensions dissolved.

But it was the rotenburo at Yuami no Land that first got me hooked. It was in an alley between the bath house and a clothing store, but the alley had been paved with stones and screened off with bamboo. The bath itself was built of volcanic rock, and it had a teabag the size of a throw pillow floating in it. This teabag was full of herbs that gave the water a green color and a spicy fragrance. In the evenings, I enjoyed moving from the sauna to the shocking chill of the cold bath, and then into the rotenburo where my skin would tingle as my cold-constricted capillaries came back to life in the warm water. I would do this again and again as the sky above the alley got darker and the stars came out. Sometimes a breeze would find its way down the alley, and sometimes not. When I was thoroughly cooked, I would stumble off to my favorite ramen shop for some hot noodles and cold beer and then just barely make it home in time to collapse onto my futon for some of the soundest sleep I have ever known. Ahhhhhhh…..

B. Yu Yu Land

A visit to Yuami no Land costs about 1000 yen these days. In the town of Kawagoe, my current home, there is a more elaborate and expensive bath complex called Yu Yu Land. Admission is 1700 yen, which is more than even I am normally willing to pay for a bath, but in the name of research I recently checked it out.

For that price, I won’t be going back, but it was immediately apparent that the owners of the place had made the effort to set up a first-class bath. The decor is vaguely Roman, with fluted columns along the walls and fancy molding on the ceiling. There were six different waters to soak in, along with a sauna, steam room, and showers. One of the showers, off by itself in a cylindrical stall, was called a “Body Shower.” I thought that every shower was a body shower, but this one was different. In addition to the large showerhead high on the wall, there were fifty smaller nozzles lower down that simultaneously hit one’s torso from fifty different angles. It would have been pretty exciting if only the water pressure hadn’t been divided by fifty also. Oh, well.

The main reason I go to a bath is to soak, though, so that’s exactly what I did, starting out in the “High Power Bath.” This is a large circular bath a meter deep. In the center there is a thick, tile-covered column from which numerous powerful jets of water burst out into the tub. There was a sign posted above this bath announcing that the “water of the day” was aloe. The water had a faint, pleasant scent, and was colored blue. Bright blue. Two Thousand Flushes blue. I got in anyway and enjoyed the jets for a while.

The next bath was fairly large, but it was set off in an alcove by itself, with slate walls and red brick columns. The bath itself was made of cedar, and the water flowing into it was filtered through a box of rocks. There was a rather detailed sign explaining the supposed health benefits of these rocks, but I couldn’t read enough of it to know any more than that it was someone in ancient China who first thought of the idea.

There was also a radon bath, with bubbles of that alarming gas percolating up from a grate in the floor of the tub. Why these are so popular in Japan I’ll never know, but I’ve always avoided them like the plague. Today, though, in the name of journalism, I finally settled in for a soak. I sniffed some of the bubbles, but there was no odor. I looked at an ominous sign that said something about “washing your body thoroughly” on the way into or out of this bath. After about two minutes all I felt was nervous, so I got out again.

Nearby was a bath with which I felt more at home. I’m a longtime fan of the chef Paul Prudhomme, and this was a herb bath that looked and smelled just like one of those rich vegetable stocks that are the basis of so many of his recipes. It was dark brown in color and earthy in smell — very heavy on celery. A canvas bag full of vegetable matter was tethered to one corner, and a sign on the wall explained the contents. Judging by the heavy use of furigana, the herbs therein were as unfamiliar to most Japanese as they were to me.

There was also a waterfall bath in which I sat to have my shoulders beaten by warm water falling quite heavily from the ceiling. All of these baths were warm or hot, averaging about 41 degrees C (106 degrees F) according to the digital thermometers on the walls.

The last bath was called, innocently enough, the “Water Bath.” This is more descriptive than it sounds. In Japanese, water is “mizu” and hot water is “yu.” They are completely different words, and I’ve met a very small minority of Japanese people who regard them as completely different concepts. These folks get all flustered when I talk about “hot water” — even in English. To them this term is a very basic contradiction, like “iron feathers.” People normally bathe in yu, but it is pleasant to immerse oneself in mizu now and then just for contrast. The mizu in this particular tub was 16 degrees C (60 degrees F).

Normally, I like cold baths. I like the shock of getting in, and I like slowly getting used to it. I like to watch goosebumps appear on my thighs. I like it when my body gets so cold that I can feel the air moving in and out of my lungs just by noticing the temperature difference. But I don’t like bathing at 16 degrees C. That’s just too damn cold, even for me.

3. FABULOUS: Hot Spring Resorts

The next step up from a local bath complex is a full-blown resort built around an onsen (hot spring). There are literally hundreds of these resorts in Japan, and some of them are quite famous. Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma Prefecture is one of them. It’s a ski-and-soak town in the mountains, about two and a half hours north of Tokyo by car. A Japanese friend of mine, who is also a bath fan, drove me up there one Sunday in March.

We went to two of the town’s many baths. The first one was Otaki-no-Yu, a name which means “Hot Water from the Big Falls.” It was a large modern complex situated along the banks of a steaming creek. Admission was only 800 yen. Because it was Sunday there were probably fifty men in the bath (and presumably as many women on their side), but the place was so large that it didn’t seem very crowded. There was a sauna with an accompanying cold bath, and also a very large indoor hot bath fed by the spring. The indoor area had glass walls giving a view of a terrace which had several more baths. One side of the terrace sloped down to the creek while the other was a hillside on which a large artificial waterfall had been built. On the highest level of the terrace there was a rock-lined oval rotenburo fed by very hot water that boiled directly out of the earth. It could probably seat more than a dozen people with elbow room to spare, but there were never more than four or five in it at a time. At one end of this bath was a two-foot waterfall that spilled into a second, kidney-shaped rotenburo that was almost as large. In this one the water was not quite as hot. This bath fed yet another waterfall that led into a third rotenburo. This one, where my friend and I spent most of our time, was in a deep and winding rocky trench about four feet wide and about 35 feet long. The water here was no longer hot, but still very warm. We had perfect rotenburo weather — cool and breezy, with a bright blue sky dappled with puffy white clouds. We sat athwart this artificial river with our feet on the boulders for a very long time, talking about this and that. “Goku-raku,” my friend taught me. “Perfect bliss.”

Otaki-no-Yu also had a basement area that was open to men or women for alternating two-hour periods throughout the day. The women had it when we arrived, but after it opened to men we went down to check it out. The floor was made of tiles that looked like, and may in fact have been, the tops of wooden posts driven into the ground. Sunk directly into this floor were six square or rectangular tubs of varying sizes and varying temperatures. In the dimness of this underground room, one of them had water that seemed to glow, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight that slanted down through the steam from a single window high on the wall. Away from the window, there was a spot where you could sit on the floor beneath a thin stream of water falling from the ceiling. Nearby, there were two old-fashioned steam boxes. There was a hole in the top of each box for the occupant’s head to poke through, and they had slanted fronts that opened up like cellar doors. They were built entirely of cedar wood. When we got into them we discovered that they had been built with the Japanese physique of a previous generation in mind. We both had to scrunch up to fit inside, but the cedar gave the steam a nice smell.

After Otaki-no-Yu we walked through town to central plaza called Yubatake, or “Field of Hot Water.” The Japanese have many words for “field” and this one implies a cultivated field. This is appropriate since Yubatake is where they “harvest” the hot water for many of the town’s baths. There is a large boiling spring at one end of it in which all of the rocks are coated with yellow sulfur. From this area some of the water runs down a gradual rocky slope, giving off steam and killing everything it touches. There is no plant life among these rocks, not even a speck of moss. Most of the water, though, goes into a chain of old wooden filtration boxes that are elevated a few feet above the rocky ground. This series of boxes runs for about the length of a city block, and then all of the water is dumped over the edge of a ten-foot cliff into a large rocky pool where — voila! — there is no visual evidence of sulfur in the water. Olfactory evidence remains. The fall keeps the pool churning, and there is steam billowing off of it constantly. This hellish landscape, about 100 meters long and perhaps 15 wide, is encircled by a balustraded sidewalk with park benches and gazebos.

We browsed the surrounding souvenir shops and had lunch in a restaurant nearby. My lunch included an “onsen tamago,” an egg that had been cooked in the spring. Perhaps because the water is not quite boiling, the egg cooks very slowly, with the strange result of a nearly-solid yolk floating in a runny white that resembles semen. You’re supposed to crack the egg into a cup and flavor it with a dash of sweetened soy sauce. It’s not bad, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for another one.

After lunch, we headed for a second onsen on the other side of town, Sai-no-Kawara. This name means “Underworld Riverbed” and the area we had to walk through to get there did resemble a riverbed somewhat. It was a steep-sided green valley with a floor of lifeless rock. Scattered across it were several hot springs of various dull colors, each with its own name. The one called Oni-no-Chadama (“Devil’s Kettle”) supposedly makes a gurgling noise that stops when you walk near it, and then starts up when you walk away. I think that the trampling feet of countless tourists have worn it out. We couldn’t hear a thing, no matter how far away we got.
Sai-no-Kawara onsen itself is much simpler than Otaki-no-Yu, but more impressive even so. It has only one bath, but this is a giant rotenburo the size of a lake. It is probably 40 feet wide at its widest, and nearly 150 feet long. It curves along the hillside, so it is impossible to see the whole thing at one time. There’s a small island in the middle to sit on. The bath is about thigh-deep and the bottom is paved with flagstones. The temperature ranges from warm at the locker-room side to absolutely scalding at the far end where the spring feeds in. Once again we had perfect rotenburo weather, even though conditions had changed drastically while we were having lunch. Snow was falling heavily, and a cold wind was blowing. We went as far toward the hot end as we dared, and alternated between sitting down to boil ourselves and then standing up to let the wind dry our freshly poached skin as we leaned against the boulders of the hillside.

The wind was often fierce, and then we would just stay in the water up to our necks and watch the branches of trees as they thrashed around on the valley walls.

We were at it for nearly two hours. Goku-raku, nee.

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