Years ago, on the flight over from the United States to Japan I began reading Alexia Brue’s Cathedrals of the Flesh: My Search for the Perfect Bath, which I’d recommend to anyone. If you know me, you’d know that I, too, have traveled the globe seeking out bath options of various kinds, enjoying sampling local soaks, trying the town barber, and swilling the local martinis as assiduously as a cat pushing a glass from a table. You will immediately understand my affection for this small, witty book. Hot water? Hey, I’m in it.
Maybe my own quest began as long ago as high school, when we would cut class – in California they say “ditch class” – to go up to the thermal seeps in the rocky gorges above Palm Springs. Sitting in a beat-up claw footed tub wedged in the sandstone with nekkid girls is good Zen training, if I recall rightly with my declining faculties.
Thinking About Shaving Brushes
In fact, bringing to mind useful things from the bath, after pretty fair field trials, George Trumper’s “traveler’s shaving brush” is definitely a find. I’m not exactly sure why I cluster this gadget with this memory, except that it goes so well with soaking and showering.
It’s a badger bristle thing, which screws apart, in the grandest Victorian “what-what, I say!” fashion. While on the move, you can protect the brush part by sliding and twisting it into the threaded grip. Trumper’s small shop, filled with men’s bath gear, is on Curzon Street in the London theatre district. So, if you do a “twofer” play in London, it’s easy to stop in before curtain time and get a few gizmos with the cash you save.
If you want a decent shaving kit but with minimum weight and bulk, this gadget is a useful item. However, I might point out that much more cheaply and, really, doing about the same job (on Amazon and no doubt elsewhere) there are synthetic-bristle brushes in pretty snazzy aluminum tubes, very convenient for travel if you like traditional lather shaves. These are much more economical. Since the real hazard is forgetting this stuff on some martini-sodden morning at a mildewed hotel room, why travel with a nice brush?
Back to Banyas, Hamam, Sauna, and Onsen
Anyway, Alexia Brue wrote about visiting cavernous banya’s in Moscow, hamam in Istanbul, sauna in Finland and so on finishing her book talking about the hot baths in Japan.
Public baths used to be popular in Japan. Onsen(regulated by the government according to mineral content and temperature) are natural springs and generally rural. Sento, which do not involve spring water, are set in the city. Urban onsendo exist and I suppose rural sentomay exist, as well. But today individual bathing has become more common with public baths in decline.
Our cozy small apartment had a cast concrete, tile, and painted plaster room. This bathroom was almost a cube with ½ the floor space, once you enter a glassed door, devoted to a tiled shower area. Parallel to this, about ½ the room was filled by a short, blue, very deep, almost vertical sided tub. Asian faucets often are configured as a bar with the hot & cold feeds entering the back. The temperature adjustment is on the end, and the volume knob is, as I’d expect it, in the middle front. Because of these 2 knobs, it’s easy to set a temperature once, and then get about that each time you a turn the volume knob in the center. This is almost like the rigs in expensive darkroom setups I’ve seen in the States (perhaps not as precise, but as convenient). The showerhead was on a flex tube with two cradles on the wall, one low and one high.
Once that deep, narrow “soak” tub was filled – which one entered only after a terrific cleaning in the shower space – I never drained it in winter until the water-cooled. I let the heat radiate away inside. Most of these things had thick rolls on top for conserving heat.
Bathing’s “ideal” protocol demands are very thorough. They include that soapy cleaning on the duckboards away from the tub, in public or in private. Some folks like to stand at a shower and some like to sit on a plastic stool, usually provided, and pour water over themselves with a plastic basin. If you talk about baths, there is always talked about clean water sluicing, and plenty of it.
Then, into the tub, the hot water unsullied by soap. No further soaping allowed. The men have their long, narrow towels neatly folded atop their heads lest they fowl the hot water.
The Real and the Ideal – Donald Richie Writes
But every place has its “real” and its “ideal.” I’ll rely on Donald Richie and his inches thick diary of life in Japan here. In his years of observation this, too, seems more of a “do what I say, not what I do” situation. In that habit the Japanese would be joining, if not good company, at least copious company—probably every other nation on the globe. That doan mean the maid won’t break into a crazy dance like a Wild Tchapatoulas if a foreigner soaps up the soak tub.
Many years ago, my sister Sally and her then husband Mike invited me as a guest to the New Orleans Athletic Club, at the time a kind of labor of love by the owner to maintain a traditional setting with marble slabs, steam bath, and swimming pool nested in old world columned architecture. It was well before I’d traveled in Cyprus and Turkey, and I didn’t get the Classical bath references. I don’t know what happed to the NOAC, especially after Katrina, but I hope it’s still steaming along. In Hadano, Japan, we came to love the individual bath, which is the modern, home version of the public tradition.
And Onsen are still going strong in Japan. The urban species, as is the case of hamams in most areas of Turkey and the baths in Russia, are slowly being phased out. Some commercial baths in Japan are hanging on by the expedient of adding karaoke pubs and the like.
Our first hot bath was far from Tokyo, on the opposite side of the archipelago. Friends of the owners, Jolly and I had the tank to ourselves when we tried out that first surprisingly hot soak. The place was way up the mountains near the setting for Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, the Nobel Prize winning novel about a country geisha at a hot springs resort. No coy geishas and only fast melting snow when we were par boiling.
Hot Soaking in Japan
In the Japanesebath, otokoburo marks the male side and onnaburothe female side of almost invariably gender separate pools. Turkish hamams may be either exclusive to gender or wig and wag by days of the week. Country by country, each bathing style deals with gender in its way.
It wasn’t invariably separate in Japan. Brue, always an amusing writer in each chapter of her book, out does herself describing when she was fundamentally mislead by her careful research. Finding one of the last onsenin which men and women bathe together, way, way up in the outback, she and the Belgian art dealer with whom she’d hooked up on the plane (her long-time relationship in recent shambles) visit as a romantic opener. She steps from the shower area holding her furoshiki,the small square of cloth in which one’s loufa and shampoo are tied, but otherwise blissfully unencumbered by earthly concerns or possessions.
Towering European Pinkness
As you might predict, almost immediately, in her towering European pinkness, she quickly accesses the reality that she is not simply the only non-Asian. That would explain the immediate silence. But she is also the only woman of any flavor among a tank of nude men. Importantly, she knows immediately that the tiny square furoshikihas little or no tactical use, regardless of coverage choice.
For his part, the Belgian is fully as useful as any male companion would be at such times. He is doubled up, as she notes, in a gale of laughter at the spectacle. Unfortunately, during the chapter discussing Moscow, Brue had given a full précis on the “Mohawk” waxing habits of the New Russian women compared to the natural look sported by aficionados at the sauna in Finland. The author underwent the painful cosmetic procedure, all in the name of participant observation, in Moscow, but we have no idea if the Asian men at the rustic mountain onsen were greeted by an American Mohawk or its au naturalbrethren.