I was born in Japan and spent the first few years of my life there before my parents moved to Hawaii (half way between their respective hometowns of Tokyo and Berkeley). Dad had learned Japanese to practice law in Tokyo and so we all spoke Japanese almost exclusively at home. Mom made us take Japanese lessons to learn our kanji, taught me traditional Japanese dance and took us back to Tokyo for long visits yearly. I was brought up, culturally, very Japanese.
I’ll save the complicated conversation around culture and identity for a future post; for now I’d like to extol the soulful pleasure of a traditional Japanese furo, or bath.
I’m not talking about anything fancy. It’s the tub you’ll find in any Japanese home (and in every apartment, no matter how small) or in a public bath house (sentō), a deep soaking tub filled with piping-hot steaming water. Unlike Western baths, the Japanese furo is not for washing; to enter the bath, whether at home or in public, one washes oneself outside the tub, either at a sitting shower or using hot water brought from the tub. One steps into the tub only when squeaky clean, ready for the serious business of soaking.
I have always loved a good furo. There’s of course the physical delight of the heat seeping into tired muscles, of the buoyant lightness of a body in water. In a sentō there is also a deeply communal element of people coming together, unclothed, literally stripped of any identification of class. Everyone is equal in the sentō – a naked body is a naked body – a bath is a great leveler, bringing us back to our basic physical selves.
Even when I’m bathing alone, I have a sense of being part of a long tradition, seven centuries of history and ritual. And while I most often am in a Western tub, I have my own rituals – showering before (if at all possible), sprinkling in a generous handful of bath salts, and sliding down until I’m completely submerged, save my head.
When I walk into a hotel room, the first thing I look for is a bathtub, and it’s always a thrill to come across a particularly big one. I look forward to my bath all day; the tub in my Minneapolis hotel (now nearly a home away from home) is particularly spectacular and makes for a satisfying soak.
Daily I read about the continued chronic stress as Covid draws out in a never-ending sequence of surges, lockdowns, quarantines. The ends of our nerves feel frayed, our bodies in a state of constant tension. We are anxious, we are tired.
Sitting in hot water won’t solve the worries of the world. It will, however, soothe taught muscles and invigorate the skin. It will give us a few moments to yourself, stripped of the efforts of the day. It will connect us to our fundamental physical self – simply a body feeling warmth and comfort. And when we arise, let us wrap ourselves in something soft, and perhaps we’ll be able to face the world with more awareness of our cooling skin, our loosened limbs, calmed minds.
Get yourself into some hot water.