Context: Three months after moving to Japan; SK was my American neighbor/buddy
Originally published on November 3, 2011
A few weeks ago, SK took me to his favorite public bathhouse (or “sento”) in the area. For 500 yen, one can enjoy a shower, a variety of baths, a sauna, a standing tanning bed (more of a tanning closet, I guess? You step inside a giant tube) and when you’re done, there’s a cooldown area out in the lobby with snacks, drinks, ice cream, a bunch of crane games, a vending machine with cold coffee in squat glass bottles, and bookshelves full of comics to read (consuming food/drink, standing in the cancer-machine, and playing crane games requires additional $$$). On top of all that, this place is in the same parking lot right behind my new favorite store, Mandai, which is a massive second-hand store divided into the four essentials for human life: clothing, video games, toys, and comics. Everything there is super (relatively) cheap, and they’re basically willing to buy anything that fits into any of those categories from you pawn shop style, although usually it’s just for pennies (yen-nies). But still. Pretty great. Essentially, if I’m ever fired, or if my apartment burns down or is destroyed by Mothra, I will take up residence in this bathhouse for 500 yen a day, spending my days browsing Mandai and my nights soaking in the baths.
Back to the baths. First, you sit down on a stool in front of a shower cubical and wash up, because nobody’s there to bathe in your grease and dead skin cells. After that, there’s the normal hot bath. Like a hot tub, except that you’re in there with mostly out-of-shape, naked old men (women if you’re a woman; they require you to make that determination). They’re not all out-of-shape though. Some are young and virile and rippling with muscles, but still naked. They’re the worst, because then I realize that everything is relative and that to them, I am the out-of-shape, naked, old man. Then there’s the salty mineral bath, which leaves me yearning to return to the beaches of SoCal from whence I sprung forth 22 long years ago. Then the icy cold bath. With a water temperature set exactly at 33 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re not actually supposed to get into this bath. It’s just there for you to splash cold water on yourself after coming out of the 194 degree sauna (I’m lying about the 33 degrees, but the sauna has a thermometer inside to remind you how dumb you are for being in there).
I thought I was a cool cat strolling into the sauna like a man who definitely likes to sweat with other men, but after five seconds my sinuses started burning, which I’m assuming is the body’s way of telling the brain that the current atmospheric conditions are not conducive to human existence. But I couldn’t run out like a wimp. There were shriveled old men and gap-toothed children in there, casually watching the baseball game on the mounted TV. If I were to leave so quickly, they would no doubt turn to each other, burst out laughing, and start commenting about how pathetic foreigners are. So with my neurotic tendencies fully in charge of my decisions, I sat there for six whole minutes, enduring what I imagine the cartoony Christian version of hell must feel like. At the six-minute mark, though, I ran out faster than you can say “I think my senses of smell and taste have been literally burned away by this experience,” which is actually plenty of time to leave a room. Point is, you’re not supposed to dive into the icy cold bath, but I was badly tempted to break protocol.
Then there’s the outside bath (rotenburo). It contains the standard hot water, but the shape of the bath itself is different. Part of it is a three-foot deep pool whose perimeter is formed by real rocks, and the other part is a section with water is only two inches deep. I can’t be sure, but I think you’re supposed to lay down in that section- a hypothesis supported by the presence of rocks that were shaped and positioned like pillows. The nice thing about the outside bath is that you can feel the breeze, see the stars, and in the winter, you can apparently sit there while it snows, which will almost allow me to fulfill my dream of becoming a macaque.
Finally… the denki furo. Those of you with no knowledge of Japanese- go ahead. Take a stab. I’ll give you a hint. Furo is bath. So what does denki mean? Is it… “delightful relaxation bath”? “Lukewarm bath”? “Couples’ bath”? Nope. It’s “electric” bath. “Whoa. Hold the phone. You’re telling me this bath is heated by the power of electricity? How novel! What an interesting place Japan is!” No. Not even close. The denki furo is unique among the bathhouse attractions, because instead of trying to passively kill you with coldness or heat (as the ice bath and sauna do), it actively tries to get the job done by running electric currents through the water. I saw the sign. I even managed to read the first bit with my incredible third-grade literacy. “Electric Bath. Do not enter if you are afflicted by any one of the following 32 medical conditions: heart murmur, epilepsy, pregnancy…” I was unable to decipher the other 29, but I figured everything would probably work out in the end.
So I entered the deceptively innocuous-looking waters of the denki furo (it was unoccupied! I can’t imagine why the crowds weren’t lining up for this one) and immediately felt a painful, buzzing sensation around my left wrist and right middle finger. With electricity coursing through my body, it took a few seconds longer than it should have to realize that the pain was localized precisely where my steel Swiss Army watch and college class ring were. Moving as quickly as my partially-paralyzed limbs allowed me, I lifted my forearms out of the water and removed my conductive bling, placing them on the rim. But my left wrist still felt an inordinate amount of unpleasantude upon being placed in the water. Ah. Of course. How silly. It was the wristband that held the locker key inside it. I removed that as well and was finally able to enjoy this torture device as its creators intended.
The bath itself is a depressed rectangular prism (physically, although it might be emotionally depressed too considering its lot in life) with a safe zone running down the middle, lengthwise. The electric current is weakest in this safe zone, because the electricity emitters run up and down the long sides of the rectangle, mounted on the walls. If you stay in the safe zone, you only experience a mild tingling. It’s sort of like, “Hey, who’s tickling me all over my body? This isn’t my fetish!” Pressing your body up against one of the electric walls is asking for it. I accepted that challenge, but my heart started hurting when my chest was about four inches from the wall, so, having at least a few things to live for, I couldn’t find it in myself to proceed.
The most “fun” way to “enjoy” the denki furo, however, is to sit in the safe zone while sticking your limbs into the danger zones. Since extremities don’t contain vital organs, there’s little danger of death. If you move your feet towards the walls, it instantly feels the way it does when your foot has fallen asleep and you’re trying to wake it up by walking around. Like the pins-and-needles sensation, followed by pain. Except only the pain part. Hands experience a similar sensation. If you’re feeling really brave, you can stick the whole appendage into the danger zone. As you do, you’ll feel your muscles tighten up and convulse, until the arm/leg is completely locked in the flexed position. At that point, you can’t extend the elbow/wrist/knee/ankle. The only ways to regain control of the limb are either to pull it out of the current with another limb or to just stand up. If one found oneself with every limb was locked into the danger zones. I guess one would fall on one’s face and drown in two feet of water?
I’m sure if I could read the rest of the sign, the absurd health benefits of this thing would become clear, but until that point, I will continue to consider it a fun way to flirt with death.