Sunday, 23 March 2008

(2) the o-furo

Number 2 of "Ten things I love about Japan".

Taking a bath in Japan is a pretty big deal. As you might expect in a country blessed with hot springs, there is a whole culture and way of bathing, and in ordinary (and entirely modern) homes you will find a bath quite unlike the ones we use in the West: short, very deep --- one can sit in the o-furo immersed up to the neck --- and with a recirculator that can maintain or modify the temperature of the water for as long as you please. Think of a hot spa, without bubbles, built for one person ... or for two people who know each other very, very well.

Let's get something straight: the bath is not for washing in. No, no, no, no, no. When you get into the bath, you should already be clean. (A shower is supplied for this purpose, perhaps with a small stool to sit on if you prefer: the Japanese use the European-style showers where the head is attached to a long flexible hose.) The bath is for taking your ease; it is a small version of the onsen, the public baths (artificial, or at hot springs) for social soaking. Foreigners tend to think the Japanese are uptight, but this is at best a partial picture: the Japanese take relaxation very, very seriously.

Soap may be out of the question, but beer is another story. So are snack foods. I myself am partial to a certain kind of prawn chip, common in Japan, shaped like a twist of rope the size of a child's finger. Colleagues offered me a plate of these chips at a party once, asking if I liked them; I praised them as the ideal accompaniment for beer, when sitting in the o-furo and drinking. The younger Japanese standing around smiled, nodded, and broke out into polite applause: in this taste, if in nothing else, I had gone native.

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