A shield against the cold is all in the bathwater


January 11, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- The cold, damp winter has officially begun in Japan, and that, oddly, has traditionally meant it is time to visit among the most damp places on earth -- an "onsen," or hot spring, to cook out the frost in scorching water.

Thousands are spread throughout Japan, but in Tokyo only a few are left. During the past 30 years, faucets and enamel baths came into homes here; the opportunity to sit naked with neighbors ceased.

But for the poor, the eccentric, the traditionalist, the occasional LTC journalist and the very, very cold, it remains a way to float through winter.

At the old bath in Azabu Juban, a district far enough from the numerous city subway lines to have missed some of Tokyo's most virulent bulldozer-style redevelopment, a hot spring has survived several centuries under a series of new roofs.

Inside, the only significant alteration since World War II is a 7-foot partition separating the bathing area of men and women, a stuffy legacy said to have been left by Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the post-World War II occupation.

A guide to Minato-ku, the surrounding city district, lists the Azabu Juban onsen as "approved by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for an effective treatment of exhaustion, rheumatism and neuralgia." The listed price is about $12.

From the outside, the Azabu onsen occupies the nondescript lower floors of a nondescript brick building. A screen opens onto a tiny, typically Japanese foyer a few inches below the rest of the interior, where shoes are left. Mine were placed to the right of several pairs of high heels, the only clue to MacArthur's legacy.

Passage through another screen puts the entrant to the right of a woman on a small raised stand who has a unique view into the male and female quarters. She looks with glazed eyes into the interior mist.

"Three hundred yen," she asks (about $3).

What about the price in the guide?

"I don't understand," she says.

Does this mean there isn't a cure for exhaustion, rheumatism, and neuralgia?

"Sorry," she says.

I pay and enter. Immediately my glasses fog. I'm lost.

In a small exterior room, middle-aged men are faintly visible through the mist stripping off multiple pairs of long underwear, standard attire from the moment summer begins to cool. Through yet another screen, and more mist, a few men sit naked on plastic stools before little pails filled from faucets, washing away. I lather up and wash down in a few minutes. The other scrubbers are still scrubbing. I wash again. They haven't budged from their stools.

I watch them carefully cleansing their toes, spending minutes on each elbow, re-lathering a frequently overlooked spot on the side of the neck, etc. Time goes slowly. They rinse, and wash again.

"It makes you young," said one sitting near me who did, in fact, sound quite young.

Finally, with bodies already a light shade of pink from de-follicled skin, the men rise and walk over to a large boiling tub of brown water. The brown, I am told, is evidence of minerals and, perhaps, of a (presumably clean) volcano puffing away below the city. It is what separates this, an onsen, from a mere public bath.

I tepidly follow. The journalist James Fallows created a furor in Japan several years ago when he reported that the Japanese got out of an onsen when he got in -- evidence of nationalistic tendencies in bathing partners. It has been suggested that foreigners tend not to clean themselves thoroughly enough. That may indeed be true in my own case. My skin is still largely intact.

I am confident, though, that if the standards ever were as strict as Mr. Fallows describes, they have changed. The evidence: recent television news clips of monkeys and bears frolicking in the open-air onsens in the north.

I dip a toe in the water, and recoil. Eggs cook at lower temperature. It takes another 20 minutes for me to slowly lower myself into the caldron. Others have plopped right in and been stewing away. Whether a result of being soundly boiled, or because of the ever-present Japanese politeness, or because of the animals with whom they may have become used to sharing their bath, no one budges. We cook together.

Ten minutes later, poached to a lobster red hue and warmed to the innermost vacuum of my soul, I exit to discover that I am indeed, at least for a moment, impervious to the damp Japanese winter.

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