JAPAN: GET ME IN HOT WATER!
cover article of Westways Magazine
Blame it on Bill Murray – that moment in “Lost in Translation” when he finally stops mugging for Scarlett Johansson and utters the only earnest words in the whole film: “I’m lost. I want to change my life.”
And where, exactly, does Bill make this most un-Bill-like declaration? Within the gleaming marble walls of a luxury hot tub on the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Where I am right now. Because I want to change my life, too. I’m going to soak my way to enlightenment in a series of Japanese hot tubs like none other on earth.
It started, innocently enough, as a bike trip. Butterfield & Robinson, the upscale globe-trotting group that specializes in epicurean meals, rugged workouts, and intelligent commentary, had our group pedaling eight and occasionally twelve degree hillsides -- sort of the difference between riding up a wheelchair ramp and riding up a roof, with wild boars watching from the sidelines. All went well until, on the third day, I fell. In a burst of over-enthusiasm, I was racing full speed down one of those eight degree grades. The pavement was wet. The autumn leaves were slippery. Bang.
It could have been worse. At that speed, and with an oil truck put-putting up the mountain bend right toward me, there could have been gore. All I sustained was a sore butt and sensitive shoulder. But oh man the lurid contusions that were going to flower! Black and blue begonias! Purple petunias!
Enter my guide Anthony Weersing, a strapping, shaven-headed 45 year-old Vietnamese American with the commanding presence of Yul Brunner who speaks fluent Japanese along with survival French and Thai. Up until my fall I assumed he was merely an expert in sake-brewing, paper-making, Buddhist thinking (and non-thinking) – an all-purpose guru for the various side jaunts he had squired us on. But it turned out he was something of a homeopathic whiz kid as well, and the first thing he did was order me into one of the hot tubs I’d seen but hadn’t paid much attention to. Until now.
Why hot tubs? As Anthony explains, joining me in my Park Hyatt hot tub atop downtown Toyko, soaking in Japanese mineral hot springs, or onsen, is good for most anything that ails you. Rheumatoid arthritis? Check. Skin diseases, diabetes, nervous tension, fatigue, injuries to the heart/spirit/soul? Check plus. Anecdotal evidence going back to its Buddhist-Shinto roots 1500 years ago seems to indicate that soaking can cure everything from constipation to impotence (well, maybe not the latter -- there’s a folk song that claims it “cures everything but love sickness”). With a track record like that, Anthony says with the bemused understatement of the aficionado, soaking might just fix my bruises, too.
He should know. He’s trekked the globe from Pakistan to Malaysia the past decade to make himself an expert on the subject. He competes for the greatest number of soaks against his pal, a “talented VW mechanic” residing in Oregon; Anthony’s clocked 109 while Allan’s at 116. And Japan is their favorite place for hot springs in all the world. Though not this one, he explains – the ridiculously expensive hotel hot tub favored by Bill Murray is technically a sento filled with ordinary heated tap water. To experience the real deal, waters containing an elusive combination of 19 designated chemical elements, he’ll have to take me farther afield. Sayonara, Mr. Murray!
For the next several days, while he tutors me on the history and practice of hot springs, Anthony has me soaking far from Tokyo in an array of genuine, medicinal onsen -- some indoors, manmade of wood or ceramic; others outside in fissures and craters the way nature built them. As one of the most volcanically active places on the planet, with steam pluming from literally thousands of creases in the landscape, Japan has some 3500 onsen -- more than any other place on earth.
As his happily captive audience, I learn that “purification by hot water” is a thriving, not to say obsessive, practice in Japan, boasting diehard adherents in all levels of society from farmers to famous athletes, most of whom bliss out in water around 108 degrees, though zealots claim that cloud nine is not achieved until one achieves the yudedako or “boiled octupus” stage of 115 degrees. Locals make whole-family expeditions; tourists come from far corners of Asia (though not generally the West) to partake of the sedate frenzy that is onsen. And all this, Anthony chuckles, is despite -- or maybe because -- some waters are so acidic they can dissolve a one-yen coin made of aluminum.
So here I am, about to partake yet again. Picture a mountaintop scene out of a 15th century Japanese scroll. Delicate cranes fly past a distant moon. Ancient cypresses tower overhead as four men ready themselves to luxuriate in a pool of healing hot water. Since Anthony split to lead his new tour in Laos I’ve become an onsen fanatic, devoting two weeks to trekking the length and breadth of Japan to get my fix. I’ve already treated myself to a ryokan or traditional inn overlooking the Sea of Japan (imagine salt water that’s more like baby oil, leaving skin sleek as the lacquered bowls they handcraft here). I’ve tried the water theme park whose highlights include a red wine bath, a green tea bath, and a coffee bath. I’ve sampled the “hot waterfall baths” where a tepid river cascades onto you from two stories up, the “walking onsen” where you wade through ankle-deep water that’s alternately hot and ice cold, and the “sand baths” -- heated cocoa-colored sand into which you’re buried up to your neck for fifteen minutes.
And this mountaintop scene is the latest place I find myself, approaching the onsen with three monks who’ve kicked off their neon-yellow crocs and are gabbling about whether Tom Cruise is a bigger star than Denzel Washington. Strict protocol abides: you wash first, then approach the tub, filled to the brim with water too scalding to enter … no, wait … ease in … just the right temp after all. Dunk, dunk, then settle in for the duration. Sort of like a tea ceremony, except you’re the tea bag. Pore by pore, the waters seep into you and afford a robust peace to your core muscles. Invigorating yet calming. Senses are lulled even as they’re honed. I can’t swear to it, but it may be the contentment a simmering noodle feels as it surrenders its brittleness. Becoming one with a slippery-soft world, despite the fact that on the TV overhead, a reality type show features unsuspecting office workers falling through floorboards into a tank of water so hot it’s steaming. The monks howl with laughter.
Clearly the country is crazed. Could all this hydrophilia be ascribed to the fact that Japan is an island culture – not just the five main islands but a total of 3900 altogether, none of which are wide enough to plant you more than 100 miles from the sea at any given moment? Or does it have something to do with all the fish eating that goes on here? (Though they constitute only two percent of the world’s population, the Japanese consume ten percent of the world’s fish.) What else could account for the national fixation with water that includes a “kiss-kiss fish foot-bath” where carp of various size nibble the dead skin from your toes, and even a commercial sex technique whereby the masseuse suds you up with soapy water before bathing you down with her personal body…?
I haven’t a clue, for all my soaking. All I can say is that, in addition to becoming completely healed, I’ve also become remarkably mellow, possibly the result of absorbing so much of the water’s lithium carbonate -- the natural salt used to treat bipolar disorder. (It’s worth noting that studies suggest that locations with naturally high levels of lithium in their ground water -- places like Japan and, counter-intuitively, certain counties in Texas -- enjoy lower levels of suicide and violent crime, raising the question in some scientific circles as to whether lithium shouldn’t merely be soaked in but actually added to drinking water the way fluoride is.)
Whatever it is, I want more of it. I can no longer pretend I’m merely an idle partaker; I’m a full-fledged onsen freak, a hot water junkie. I lust for the lucidity it generates, the way it seems to bring the landscape into razor-sharp focus around me. I particularly admire how it intensifies my vision so I can make out wrinkles within the water. I hunger for the serenity it provides, as profound as anything I’ve ever gotten from a yoga class or, for that matter, an opium den. I crave the heat it brings to my heart that feels like the best mother love that never was. The tingle, the long sigh, the noodly nirvana.. No getting around it; if I truly want to change my life, it’s time to venture into the belly of the beast: Beppu, the super soaker city, the hot spring epicenter of Japan and possibly the world, located on the southernmost main island.
“Bep-pu! Bep-pu!” chirps the sweet lady train attendants as I pull into the station, welcoming me to “The Las Vegas of Japan.” I have ridden all day from Tokyo to arrive at this honky-tonk onsen mecca that boasts the largest volume of hot water on the planet. Inside the station, an information bureau offers maps to dozens of local onsen. Outside, on the somewhat seedy streets below the stacked-up neon signs for strip joints, tourists from all over Asia wander with towels hanging from the sashes of their yukatas as they pad from one onsen to another -- flip flop pilgrims.
In keeping with the vaguely carnival-like atmosphere I dive right in, not caring if they’re rooftop onsen or cellar tubs enclosed by bamboo-like aluminum siding. After shattering my personal best of five soaks in one day, I visit the series of touristic “hells,” multicolored volcanic pits of boiling water too scorching to touch. Then next afternoon, to the piped-in muzak of Captain and Tennille (“Love will-ah keep us a-gether”), I follow a labyrinthine series of corridors down to my only mud bath that, oddly, is one of the few coed baths I’ve found -- maybe because the mud coating provides a modicum of modesty. After a while I am close to snoozing, only half studying the map given out at the information bureau. And it is here in the soporific sunlight, with the smear of gray glop drying on my skin where my battle wounds used to be, that I notice a peculiar thing.
Ready? Here it is. In tiny letters in the center of the map are the tiny English words “atomic treatment center.” What does that mean? Fully alert now, I ask the proprietor of the mud bath. No idea. I get dressed and go back to the information bureau. No clue; they’ve never noticed it before. I Google both in English and, with the help of my hotel hostess that evening, in Japanese. Nothing -- not a single entry on the entire worldwide web. But there are the words on my map: “atomic treatment center.” After a good night’s sleep, I decide to check it out in person.
A dawn filled with bashful birds. A narrow, winding, hillside street. An unpresuming sun-bleached cement building, just like the cement buildings all over Japan. A small courtyard with steamed-up windows inside, indicating a hot spring on the premises. A glassed-in reception area where neither middle-aged secretary speaks English. After some standard confusion, the director is brought forth, a pleasant white-haired gentleman who also has no English. I keep asking, “What does it mean, ‘atomic treatment center?’” He keeps patiently gesturing to the origami hanging on the walls, festoons of cranes in pink and blue and yellow. And then it dawns on me: isn’t the origami crane a symbol of hope associated with Hiroshima? As in, victims of the first atomic bomb?
Hai! Hai!” he says, nodding happily.
“So victims of Hiroshima, a two-hour train ride away, come here to take the waters?”
Somehow I am making myself understood. We are communicating. “You mean, all these decades later, surviving victims of Hiroshima, who must have been children at the time, hobble back here periodically to get onsen treatments for their radiation sickness?”
“Holy smokes, could I visit with them?”
He gestures to an empty coffee mug on the counter, filled with room keys. He makes walking gestures with his fingers.
“They’ve gone out walking, as a group?”
It’s the one English word he seems to know.
“And they actually get better in this facility? Are they doing OK? Can I wait for them?
To ask a few questions?”
But that is not possible. Their privacy, he somehow indicates. I understand. It is enough to see their room keys clustered together in the coffee mug anyway. More poignant somehow, speaking of a natural balance between war and peace, pain and health, and the capacity of the human spirit to heal itself after terrible harm. It makes me feel that maybe I don’t need to change my life after all. Maybe it’s fine just the way it is. I’m fried. On the all-day ferry that brings me back to the real world, there’s a final hot tub, naturally – but it’s just a pool of ordinary water, not a single magic power on tap, nor any sign of Bill Murray. Somehow that suits me just fine.