Monday, September 25, 2006

Shocking Baths

After a long week of walking around Kyoto, Wayne and I decided we really deserved a good long soak in a hot bath. Without an onsen, a natural hot spring close by, we chose a sento, a public bath in the vicinity.

On our way we got quite lost due to misreading the guidebook map and wandered around the warren created by narrow Japanese streets. The cold rain fell steadily and was threatening to become sleet. That hot bath was becoming more and more appealing.

Once found, the building itself was rather non-descript and the entry a little cold as we removed our shoes. We had already inserted our umbrella into the specially made umbrella locker but were having trouble fitting Wayne’s large gaijin shoes into a shoe locker. Eventually we were able to get the shoes each into a different locker if we turned the shoe at just the right angle. We turned in opposite directions and made our way to the segregated baths.

The locker room was on the bottom floor and luckily a little warmer than the entry. The floor was tatami matting and the room contained old coin-operated hairdryers and massage chairs. Hopping onto the scale in the room I was a little shocked at how much weight I’d gained from sampling all the delicious, warming Japanese winter food and snacks despite trudging from one temple to the next, day after day.

Undressed, I felt vulnerable with nothing covering my ample flesh except a small hand towel held strategically in front of me. I stepped into the elevator. This was my first time to be in an elevator naked. The ride upwards was a little thrilling and a little embarrassing at the same time.

I glanced around me at the first bathing floor, saw a number of baths, some bubbling, some still and rows of showers mounted at belly button height in front of mirrors. After collecting a cheap looking stool and bowl from a pile at the wall, I chose a shower in the corner, took out my shower gel and began the obligatory ritual of scrubbing from head to toe before entering the shared pools of water.

So as to not have to walk too far exposed, I approached the closest bath. As I tentatively dipped my left foot in, my flesh was seared from the heat, I could almost feel capillaries breaking. I took a deep breath and slowly let the rest of my body follow my foot into the blistering water. I waded towards the bubbling jets and decided that once the burning pain eased off, it was actually quite nice. I relaxed there for a while and began thinking about exploring the other baths.

Next to me was an innocent looking, small rectangular bath. It had no steam rising from it unlike many of the others so I thought it might be cold. I dipped my hand in, and to my surprise, my hand shot straight out of its own accord. The reaction was so fast I wasn’t sure what had happened. I was confused. Maybe it was really cold, I didn’t really know as no sensation had actually registered in my brain. This time, with more determination I broke the surface of the still water with my hand. Again, albeit a little slower, my hand shot out. I was shocked. Literally! I had heard about these baths, but believed them to be a Japanese urban myth. It was an electric bath!

I sat there for a while looking into the deceiving water. How could a person bathe in electricity? All my life I’d been warned of the dangers of mixing water and electric power, and yet right next to me was a pool of water writhing with live, possibly deadly energy. No warning signs! Nothing! Nervous to be even too close to this bath, I hopped out to explore the other baths on the other side of the room and upstairs.

There I found nothing terribly unusual; an iron-rich bath that looked liked a pool of soy sauce occupied by a wrinkled woman eating Japanese oranges; a couple of hard showers rigged up like waterfalls; a rooftop rock bath in a garden of imitation bamboo with a view of the grey clouds; a sweltering sauna with a TV screen showing an over-acted Japanese soap opera and an ice cold bath.

I returned to the showers to wash away the salty sweat from the sauna. As I sat on the low chair, in the reflection of the mirror I saw an old hunched over Japanese woman, whose drooping breasts appeared to have supplied many a feed for children long ago. She was headed toward the electric bath! I wanted to yell out, I wanted to warn her, but before I could decipher the Japanese required in my head, she had already descended the stairs and was waist deep in the water. All sense of public bath etiquette flew out the window as I whipped around and stared directly at her. A serene look had come over her face. She slowly opened her eyes and returned my gaze.

“Isn’t it dangerous” I asked incredulously in Japanese.

“Not at all” she assured me. “It feels really good on my hips.”

She gave me a benevolent smile and suggested I try the bath on the other side of her. Almost like a good grand-daughter, I did.

While I sat there with jets manipulating my flesh from every angle, I noted a pink egg timer that the woman had set next to her. “How long can you stay in that bath”, I asked.

“About three to five minutes” she told me.

We both sat relaxed as the sand worked its way down through the timer, needing nothing more than smiles for communication.

The last grain of sand fell on the bottom heap and the woman nodded her head slightly to me as she climbed out of the bath. I was now on my own.

“If an old woman like that could survive the bath, then surely so could I”, I told myself.

It took a few minutes to build up the courage and I checked that there was no-one hidden in the thick steam to witness any embarrassing behaviour if I couldn’t.

Tentatively, I edged towards the inert bath. “Still time to back out”, I thought. I continued on, took a deep breath and dipped my toe into the water. Nothing. No reaction. Once again, I was confused.

I worked my way down the steps and stood in the centre of the bath. Quickly I jumped back as I had felt the current working on my thighs. Though not visible, there seemed to be currents at either side of the tub in the middle. They were set out in such a way that only a localized area was affected at any one time. I worked my way back until I felt a tingling sensation on my leg. It was like a bad case of pins and needles. Not too painful, but still strange. I raised one leg to place my tired calves in front of the current and watched in amazement as my muscles tensed of their own accord. A little braver now, I explored the sensation over different parts of my body and brought my body closer to the outlet to increase the strength. I sat on the ledge to have the electricity work its debatable magic on my lower back. As I relaxed my forearms dipped into the water. The effect of all the muscles curling up made me feel strangely helpless and out of control, so I vowed to keep them out of the water from then on.

I’m not sure if I managed a whole three minutes in the bath, but nevertheless I felt proud of myself, I felt brave, I felt like I had overcome a fear. I showered and took the final naked elevator ride back to locker room to dress and once again confront the cold wet Japanese streets ready for another adventure.

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