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July 15, 2011

Book Review: "Getting Wet, Adventures in the Japanese Bath" by Eric Talmadge

Eric Talmadge is a Tokyo news editor for the Associated Press who has lived longer in Japan than in his native country. In Getting Wet, Adventures in the Japanese Bath (Kodansha International, 2006) Talmadge combines work and hobby by trying out the whole spectrum of Japanese bathing culture and serving that up in what can only be called an enjoyable read.

[Arima Onsen, Kobe]

There are countless hot springs in Japan. Since very ancient times (say 10,000 years ago), it has been the biggest pleasure and pastime of the Japanese to sit in those sometimes scalding hot waters - provided for free by their extremely volcanic country. Visiting an onsen (as hot springs are called in Japanese) is not only the main idea the Japanese have of a holiday, it is also healthy thanks to the medicinal properties of thermal spring water.

In this enthusiastic account, Talmadge relates his adventures in various onsen around Japan and combines those tales with reflections on bathing-related subjects.

Sitting in the bug-lined tidal pools of far-away Shikine, one of the volcanic Izu islands SE of Tokyo, he studies the science of hot spring bathing and the different kinds of stuff you can find in all those tubs.

During a visit to the popular hot springs of Ikaho in Gunma Prefecture he realizes that the Japanese obsession with onsen may have led to a recent scandal where bath owners were caught tampering with the healing properties by mixing in ordinary tap water (for how else can you serve 5 million customers a year?).

Talmadge also ventures into his neighborhood sento (no mean feat, I can assure you, as your nakedness will be stared at by the locals) and survives the shock of a skin-tingling Hertz bath with low voltage electrical stimulation.

Next he joins the dense crowds in the new Disneyesque hot spring theme park in Tokyo Bay, the Oedo Onsen Monogatari (which uses "paleowater" drawn from 1400 meters underground), before contemplating the history of the Japanese bath in more traditional Arima, the oldest hot spring in Japan.

Invited to Kusatsu in the mountains of Gunma (to help promote onsen visits among foreign tourists), he makes the reader hungry by a detailed description of the gorgeous meal served him in an expensive ryokan, courtesy of the Japanese government. His justification: in the onsen experience, food is just as important as hot water.

In Yunessun, Hakone, another hot spring extravaganza where guests wear bathing suits in the mixed bathing area, he ruminates on the subject of nakedness and why Japan has so many onsen where people hop around stark naked, but virtually no nudists.

In Misasa Onsen, Tottori Pref., Talmadge challenges fate by sitting in a radioactive bath, although he could have been warned by the statue of Madame Curie that graces the village. He also describes the fancy for radon products in the Western world in the 1930s (low radiation was thought to be beneficial), which abruptly stopped when the jaw of one of the users of such products literally dropped off.

In one of the final chapters Talmadge adds an experience in one of the numerous Yoshiwara Soaplands to his list of bathing pleasures. The "soap girl" who washes him is a direct descendant of the age-old yuna, or "hot water girls," who for obvious reasons were instrumental in popularizing the bath in feudal times.

Onsen are one of Japan's greatest pleasures. After reading this highly appetizing book, you may be ready to jump right in.

But be warned before you try: Talmadge also lets us know that the number of Japanese who die in the bath each year rivals the number killed in traffic accidents!

So don't forget to read the author's advice on how to take the Perfect Bath and go slow on the alcohol (which can be dangerous in combination with a very hot bath)!