Adventures in the Japanese Bath
by Eric Talmadge
Reviewed by Marguerite Hulett
Eric Talmadge is certainly not the average American. Leaving Washington at the age of 19 to study in Japan, he managed to get stuck there. Now at the age of 40, he has spent longer in Japan than he has his native country. And, it seems, much of that time was spent in a bath.
In Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath, Talmadge offers an amusing memoir detailing the Japanese phenomenon of bathing. With a friendly, conversational tone, Talmadge explains to the reader that Japanese bathing is a concept much more complicated than many Americans may realize. “Onsen-ism,” Talmadge tells us, “signifies not just the bath, but the whole experience that goes with it, from the inn where you stay to the food that you eat. The bathing life” (101).
And this “bathing life” is not limited to soaks at natural hot springs. Many Japanese houses have baths that are used daily. Even if one is without a tub, most neighborhoods have a public bath divided into sections for each gender.
If a simple neighborhood bath seems too boring, Talmadge recommends the super sento. He discusses Oedo-Onsen Monogatari, Japan’s most popular super sento and the bathing world’s equivalent to Disneyworld, a “bathing theme park” (75). Like Disneyworld, Oedo-Onsen Monogatari has something for everyone; it offers every kind of imaginable bath, from mud baths to electroshock baths to baths for your pets.
Talmadge doesn’t simply explain the various kinds of baths in Japan; he also repeatedly stresses the spiritual aspect of the bath. He tells us that the ideal Japanese bath involves “a controlled mental meltdown, when all the normal flotsam of the brain recedes, allowing the warmth of the moment and the beauty of nature to seep slowly into one’s core” (13). The Japanese don’t go to the bath simply to clean their bodies; they come to “cleanse their souls” and celebrate “the beauty of the transcendent”.
To present the reader with a more thorough understanding of Japanese bathing, Talmadge nicely weaves in the history of the Japanese bath throughout the book. He discusses the science of bathing and how the temperature and chemical condition of the water react with one’s body. Also interspersed throughout are lovely black-and-white photos of various kinds of baths that help the reader visualize more clearly the bathing experience.
Though Talmadge is clearly a fan of the Japanese bath, he doesn’t limit himself to the glamour and benefits of bathing. He also honestly describes those aspects of the bath that are less appealing. He mentions that the baths aren’t always the cleanest of places. The issue of nudity arises, and Talmadge humorously illustrates his problems with it. At one point he finds himself immersed in a bath of naked men, an experience that gives him “the strong – and deeply disconcerting – impression that I am embedded in a landscape of butt crack, male nipples, distended bellies, swinging scrota” (121).
At times, he admits, the bathing experience can even be a bit disgusting. Often, globs of what Talmadge delicately calls “coagulated crap” float around on the surface of the water (though these globs are often collected, dried, and sold in stores as the “essence” of a particular hot spring). In his visit to the hot springs on the island of Shikine, Talmadge notices the sea lice that line the pools and the smell of sulfur that remained on him for days.
In the last section of his book entitled “Tub Tips,” Talmadge provides helpful information such as the traveling times to the various hot springs from Tokyo, what kind of bath one might prefer, and the necessary etiquette in order to be a polite, well-behaved tourist. He warns that one should wash oneself off before entering the bath and that swimming suits are usually worn in mixed company.
Getting Wet is an ideal book for an American reader who might want to know more about one aspect of Japanese culture, or who might soon be traveling to Japan. Talmadge does provide a lot of useful information on the Japanese bath, and his casual, humorous tone makes it a pleasure to read.
Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath
(New York: Kodansha International, 2006).
ISBN: 978-4-7700-3020-7. $22.00. 255 pgs.