The joy of good soaks

Published 6:15 am Sunday, September 4, 2016

I’ve stopped taking baths. Haven’t had one in … let’s see … two years??? But before you rush to judgment, let me explain. I’m not exactly a social pariah yet. At least I hope not. You see, I still wash — everyday! — now I just do it in the shower.

It’s like this. Anymore, it’s hard getting out of the tub. You see, I’ve arrived at that stage. It’s just one more thing in a long list of other things that no one told me about. About getting old. Sheesh! There’s a walk-in bathtub on the market with a door, but what I’d rather have is a lift. You know the kind of friendly boost with which some recliners now come equipped. At my command, it would gently lower me into the hot water and then lift me out when I was fully pruned. Is that asking too much?

My family has lived — and bathed — in many different countries. In these widely varied places we encountered a myriad of bathtubs and methods of ablution that run the gamut from Koehler porcelain to rainwater poured over our heads. There is, however, no bathtub experience quite like that found in Japan. There, soaking up to your chin is a hallowed ritual far beyond anything we from the corn belt could ever understand or appreciate.

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It begins with a good scrubbing before one ever steps into the tub. Bathrooms (these are rooms without toilets) are built with tiled floors and drains where washing is done while sitting on a wooden stool no taller than your mid-calf. Here you sit in front of a spigot and lather every last centimeter of your body — Japan is big on prolific lather — then rinse off with dippers full of water. Only after you are so thoroughly antisepticized that you can hear your skin squeak, do you enter the sacrosanct bath water.

Why all the bother with first sudsing and rinsing? Because you don’t want to share your personal grime with others. Get it? For example, if you are home, you share that clean soaking water with the rest of your family — dad first, kids next and mom (of course) last! If you’re at a public bath where the tub is a large pool, you join in the soak with your neighbors. And if you’re on a well-deserved vacation and are staying at a Japanese inn, you and all the other guests marinate your worries away in the same water. Sound ishy? Well, it isn’t. It’s one of the glories of Japanese life.

In 1962, when we first arrived in Japan, we often used the neighborhood public bath. It was the largest building in our area with a huge tiled roof and a tall smoke stack billowing out the steamy smoke from the fire that heated the water. In those days most people did not have bathtubs in their homes. It wasn’t necessary because there was a convenient public bathhouse just down the street. There you met your neighbors and chatted away while you vigorously scoured away the day’s detritus.

But, once in the water — with women on one side and men on the other — all talking ceased for as you slowly sank up to your chin in the soothing, though formidably hot water, you immediately zoned out into your own mental space. This was where yoga and meditating took a hike, because the temperature of the smoldering water did all that for you. In the meantime, every individual pore in your body began a virginal rebirth. It was as close as a person could get to returning to fetus-hood.

When I say the water was hot, I mean hot (105F !) like you’ve never known hot. Picture the water in which lobsters are boiled. Picture yourself as the lobster. That’s what I’m talking about. We left the public bath so pink we could have been mistaken for walking, talking Spam carvings!

Our first Japanese house had a bathtub made of wood with a charcoal heater underneath. Our second house had one made of concrete. It was shaped like a thick, boxy bunker, 4’ long x 2.5’ wide x 3’ deep. In an attempt to enhance its menacingly sharp edges and corners — to say nothing of the lack of attractiveness in its steel gray cement — the tub was encrusted inside and out with tiny, blue, 1” square, ceramic tiles.

To fully illustrate this, I’m going to share a story from my book, “Potato in a Rice Bowl.”

The first evening we were in our second house, my husband decided to take a bath. He was looking forward to the recuperative powers of a good soak after a stressful day of moving. While I was downstairs still unpacking boxes, I didn’t think anything of it when he stayed in his bathroom retreat for a long time. An inordinately long time! Well, why not? He’d earned that good long soak.

Suddenly I heard a sound. Being in a new unfamiliar building, however, I wasn’t sure. But, then there it was again. It was coming from upstairs. What was it? Was someone calling my name? Our toddler boys didn’t call me “Peggy,” so I figured it had to be Glen. But, why was his voice so muffled; so strained?

I followed the noise up the stairs and ever so gently knocked on the bathroom door. No response. Then I slowly opened the door and peeked in. There was my tall husband soaking in the Japanese concrete tub, not quite up to his chin as it was designed to do, but rather somewhere just south of his nipples.

My eyes drifted down to the floor which to my alarm was covered in water. “Say, Honey, were you calling me?” I entreated in my most caring voice. “Is everything okay?”

At my words, Glen’s head swiveled in my direction. A sheepish look sheathed his strained vermilion face. “Uhhhh, Peggy, I think I may need your help,” he beseeched. “I’m … well … stuck. I can’t get out.”

Why, help was my middle name! Like a paramedic on uppers, I covered the distance across the bathroom floor in two short strides then peered into the tub.

What the heck? Where was the inside of the tub, anyway? All I could see was Glen everywhere. For Pete’s sake, his body filled up the entire receptacle. Even the four square corners were full of his pale flesh. It was as if Glen had been melted down and poured into a rocklike mold. My Lord in Heaven, in the time of only one long soak, my husband had turned into a block of living, gasping tofu!

Of course I couldn’t help him. Not just then, anyway. First I had to laugh! Falling on knees that could no longer support me, I cackled and chortled and exploded in crazed merriment. Glen, on the other hand, did not laugh … nor smile … nor see one damn thing funny about his predicament. I guess you could say he had really gotten himself in hot water this time.

It took a while to regain my composure but once under control I gave myself over completely to the rescuing of my man. With the mightiest tug I could muster, his crammed body began a prolonged un-wedging of itself from its concrete encasement. Slowly … slluuurrrp … he came up the sides like a cork from an aged wine bottle.

With a final heave, out he popped, breaking the suction. Had he stayed there another minute longer, the life may well have been sucked right out of him. I glanced up and down at his glistening, abraded body. Trying my best to maintain control by neither tittering nor saying words I would later regret, I struggled to stifle what my eyes perceived. His entire backside was whimsically embossed with tiny one-inch squares. My husband’s fleshy white rump looked like a slick, wet Rubik’s cube.

Then I made another discovery. Looking into the tub, I saw at the bottom only a few inches of water. “Didn’t you fill this up before you got in it?” I inquired. He had. But, it seems that when Glen lowered himself into the concrete coffer, his six-foot foreign body so completely displaced the water that he was instantly turned into a human bung.

Next, like a giant bi-ped toilet plunger, his abruptly encased flesh caused the water to suction into a tsunami-like swoosh bringing it up and over the top. At this point, and unable to stop the action, Glen simply sank like an iron anchor to the bottom of the deep box. At precisely that point he realized he had just become one with his new bathtub.

Darn! I had missed the whole first act!!

After this unfortunate introduction to our new bathtub, it was clear Glen would have to come up with a new bathing technique. That’s when he turned to the public bathhouse just down the street; that or else spend each evening bent over in a tricky embryonic pose as he attempted to wash from the low faucet with a crouch-and-plunge technique. It would be five long years before we moved again into a house with a full-sized bathtub.

In the lengthy interval, the rhomboidal embossing on his derrier slowly faded.

Peggy Keener of Austin is the author of two books: “Potato In A Rice Bowl” and “Wondahful Mammaries.” Peggy Keener invites readers to share their memories with her by emailing Memories shared with Keener may be shared or referenced in subsequent editions of “Full Circle.”