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click opera
February 2010
September 1st, 2004
Wed, Sep. 1st, 2004 09:10 am

If the hot-and-cold water experience of visiting a Japanese public bath-house were a drug, which one would it be? A calming drug like valium, or a pick-me-up like speed? An anti-depressant or an empathy drug? The Guardian reported recently that so many people in Britain are being prescribed Prozac that it's now building up in the nation's water supply. What the British don't seem to realise is that the Prozac in the water is just the icing on the cake. Water itself, used correctly, can banish all forms of depression. It's the new drugs.

To celebrate my last night in Osaka before my week in Hong Kong, Hisae took me to a sento (public bath-house) near Bishoen Station, a short walk from where we're staying. This sento is also an onsen, a natural hot spring bubbling up from volcanic sources in the rocks beneath. It's in the cheery, slightly sleazy commercial district beside the station, and has a dilapidated charm. We paid $3.50 each, agreed to meet in forty minutes, put our shoes in lockers, took a wooden peg, and went through the doors marked 'Men' and 'Women'.

I wish I could have taken my camera inside, because the place was beautiful. It had a Showa era flavour. It felt public and institutional and run-down, but also cheerful, with elegant detailing. I folded my clothes into another locker, took the key, my 'modesty towel' and a bar of soap, and slid open the door to the great hall, the hammam. And there, cascading all around like pleasure itself, was the 'drug': hot, clean, fresh water. Sitting on a little plastic seat in front of a mirror at the edge of the room, I washed vigourously, soaping up, splashing buckets of water over my head, showering. With all impurities removed from my forehead, armpits, genitals I stowed soap and towel in a corner (I'm never quite sure where to keep the towel when bathing; some Japanese men wrap it around their heads like a bandana) and advanced past the cupid fountain and up into the multi-level bath itself. Hot water poured in from a series of ornamentally twisted pipes, cascading through bamboo tubes and spilling over the edge into lower-level baths, each about five metres across. I sank onto the seat, enjoying the embrace of the scalding, just-bearable water, then sank deeper, settling on a lower ledge. The room was full of naked strangers, fat and thin Japanese men scrubbing themselves, snorting like hippos, conversing as they showered. Square art deco pillars supported the ceiling, sporting a pleasing 'ceramic bamboo' motif. Tokyo sentos often have murals featuring frescoes of nature (lakes, mountains), but the Osaka style is more restrained and functional. Just lots of tiles, fluorescent chandeliers, and the odd cupid.

It was time to sample other types of water. I made for a cubicle with reddish lighting. A fine spray and piped muzak greeted me as I entered. The bubbling pool was at an intermediate temperature, and faced a window. Country onsens frame views of nature in their windows. This one, encircled with ivy, showed the platform of Bishoen's elevated railway. I bobbed on bubbles awhile, letting them massage my lower back. Then it was time for a sauna -- so ferociously hot, it scorched the lungs to breathe, and sweat poured into my towel. Six minutes of that were all I could take. Outside the sauna was a brown pool -- the electric pool! A continuous low voltage electric current infuses the oxydised water, giving it massage-like properties. I dipped a finger in but couldn't feel anything. Nevertheless, this was an adventure too far. Deep taboos on mixing water with electricity (and distant memories of the horrible death of French disco star Claude Francois) kept me out of the brown pool of death. I made for the cold pool and slowly, slowly, submerged myself. My lungs felt crispy-tipped, my head dizzy. Would I faint? Could I breathe? Would I catch fever? Didn't Finns, diving into cold lakes directly after sauna, their bellies full of lunch, often die of heart attacks?

I survived, gentle reader, took one more dip in the bubble pool, another soak in the hot spilly bath (how I wished I had a wet bunko paperback to hold aloft from the water and peruse, as I've seen some Japanese gentlemen do!), showered again by the wall, then took a body-jet horizontal shower in the tile stall. When I emerged, a gorgeous young Adonis was standing naked beside my bag. The Bishoen bishonen looked startled to see a gaijin emerging from the shower, and more startled still to see me approaching him and bending down beside his shower to pick up my belongings. I slid open the door to the dressing room, towelled down, slipped my clothes back on, and sat for a few minutes in a charming 1960s massage chair which, for 20 yen, jiggled two spinal prongs you could move manually up and down your back, manipulating a big mechanical wheel on the side of the chair.

I was sipping cold green tea under the paper lanterns at the sento door, regarding the waning yellow moon, when Hisae rejoined me, her hair straggly and wet. 'How do you feel?' she asked. 'Great!' And I really did.

Water. Better than drugs.