December 24th, 2005


Steamy thermopolae

This time next week I'll be in Japan. One of my favourite things to do, just before I head off on a trip to my favourite place, is plan excursions. Before I moved to Tokyo from New York in early 2001, I wrote a lyrical piece about Nakameguro called Organic Cafe. I anticipated "just hanging out, riding a folding bicycle as neat, small and silver as a pair of travelling scissors... cycling by the river, under the cherry trees, towards the Organic Cafe."

This time, utopia isn't summed up in a teacup but in a bath. A public bath. "I was thinking," Hisae writes to me from Osaka, "one day we can go to the place called Kinosaki, which is a onsen town in Hyogo prefecture (next to Kyoto) with 7 onsen. People are wearing yukata walking around the town going to sento one after another. I found a cheap hotel. It doesn't look that great but it's 3150 yen per a night and you can get free tickets to access to those 7 onsen places. It will take about 3 hours by train and a bit more by a car, and by train it will cost 4-5000 yen. Actually the Relax magazine onsen issue was introducing the ones which are in outside of Japan -- Iceland, Germany, New Zealand etc, and only a few onsens in Japan. Haven't read it properly though."

Bathing incarnates utopia for me this time not just because I've been living in a house without a bath for the last year, or because onsen bathing is trendy enough to feature on the cover of Relax magazine's January issue, but because it sums up the civilised attitude to embodiment that prevails in Japan. Pleasure, there, is something to do with a non-destructive and non-sporting enjoyment of your body, something that can be pursued communally in a dedicated spa town.

Other cultures have had similar pursuits, similar framings of pleasure, sometimes with more explicit spiritual overtones; think of Indians congregating to bathe in the Ganges. Or think of the ancient Romans, stopping work every afternoon to scrape themselves clean and enjoy a massage at the baths. I've listened countless times to a radio series David Aaronovitch made for BBC Radio 4 in 2002, The Roman Way, and particularly the episode about the public baths, or thermae.

"After the Romans left Britain in the 5th century AD," says Aaronovitch, "our ancestors didn't bathe again for a thousand years." But while Rome was still Europe's superpower, life in British cities like Bath would have followed the same pattern it followed in Rome. The Forum emptied out at lunchtime. The men went to the baths, huge steamy cathedral-like buildings surrounded by high density Roman apartment buildings, in the afternoon. The afternoon was a time for relaxation, but baths were some of the busiest places in the Roman city, filled with a cross-section of the Roman population, from naked slaves to naked nobles.

You'd leave your clothes in a numbered cubicle marked with an erotic painting. You'd exercise, eat, drink, have a massage, get depilated with a strigil, get oiled up. The Stoic philosopher Seneca lived above a bath, and hated it. He thought the baths were proof of social decadence, and longed for the good old days "when men washed once a week and smelt of the farm and the army." But mostly it was the noise he couldn't stand:

"My dear Lucilius, here I am surrounded by all kinds of noise. I hear the grunts of musclemen exercising and jerking those heavy weights around, add to this the racket of a fellow who likes the sound of his own voice in the bath, plus those who plunge into the pool with a huge splash of water, besides those who just have loud voices... Imagine the skinny armpit hair plucker, whose cries are so shrill as to draw people's attention, and never stop except when he's doing his job and making someone else shriek for him! Now add the mingled cries of the drink peddler, and the sellers of sausages, pastries and hot fare, each hawking his own wares, with his own particular peel... And there's a lazy chap happy with a cheap massage: I hear the smack of the hand on his shoulders, the sound varying with whether it strikes flat or cupped."

It sounds completely wonderful; the only thing better would be to hear it all in Japanese.