We all enjoy a nice hot bath. But let's face it: the bubbles-and-candles, glass-of-wine-and-a-good-book variety can get a little boring (not to mention lonely) after a while. It's much more fun sharing the tub with someone else ? in fact, with a whole bunch of people, preferably complete strangers.
The Romans did it, the Greeks did it, even Ottoman-style sheikhs did it... and no, I'm not talking about the kind of thing that Big Brother contestants get up to in a jacuzzi. I'm referring to that oh-so civilised activity, the communal bath.
I've scalded myself in 45? water at the baroque public baths of Budapest; I've been intoxicated by the spice-infused steam of the 'Turkish' baths in Marrakesh; I've leapt from sweltering basins to frigid puddles under the instruction of well-meaning Swiss people trying to keep me healthy through the torturous hydrotherapeutic methods of Sebastian Kneipp; heck, I've even lazed in the tepid waters of South Africa's own 'warm baths' in Limpopo.
But nothing ? nothing ? beats the Japanese obsession with the delights of hot water.
In a country that constantly surprises with its curious mix of technological hypermodernity and staid traditionalism, there's something reassuring about the timeless atmosphere of an ofuro or onsen. These two should not be confused: the former is where you clean yourself, the latter is simply for leisure.
Travelling across Japan on a tight budget, I stayed at a fair number of establishments where the ofuro facilities appeared to have remained unchanged since the days before running water was introduced.
But whether I was at a fancy hotel in Tokyo or a rural ryokan (traditional inn), the same protocols seemed to apply: strip naked, fill a bucket with water, tip it over your head, turn the bucket upside-down to make a low stool, sit and scrub yourself, fill the bucket again, rinse yourself off, and make your way to the soothing waters of the communal bath.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well, it took me a few attempts to master the technique, but after a while I got used to it. I also got used to Japanese men peering none-too-subtly at my crotch, trying to compare the respective endowments of nihonjin (Japanese) and gaijin (foreigners).
The real challenge, however, is at an onsen, where myriad different rules apply ? unspoken, unwritten laws of propriety that the Japanese seem to imbibe with their mothers' milk, but that remain opaque to bumbling gaijin. (Occasionally, codes of conduct are written down, but they're incomprehensible unless you can read the kanji characters used for most public notices in Japan.)
When do you have to wear a robe as you walk from one open-air bath to another? When will a towel round the waist do? Which of the baths are men- or women-only? Which are for both sexes? Why are some baths approached with a modesty cloth over one's wobbly bits, while the walkways around other baths are evidently for parading in the nude?
These were the questions running through my head during a day spent at Kurokawa onsen, a town on the southern island of Kyushu dedicated to the pleasures of bathing.
Yes, that's right: an entire town where there's nothing to do but indulge in the restorative waters drawn from hot springs in the surrounding area. Walking around Kurokawa, I was confronted again and again by that ubiquitous Japanese combination of the old (kimono-clad ladies crossing crystal streams on wooden bridges) and the new (the hiss and hum of a kilometres-long network of pipes through which water is pumped into and around the town).
As with the equally famous onsen in towns such as Beppu and Ibusuki, visitors to Kurokawa have long since ceased to bathe in actual hot springs. There might still be a few hidden pools of naturally occurring mineral-rich water, but it requires a substantial feat of engineering to get the water from natural source ? filtering it along the way ? to man-made bathtub.
I was grateful for the artifice, however, when I learned about the fate of certain gaijin predecessors in this part of the world: a few centuries ago it was customary to toss Christian missionaries into the boiling waters of jigoku ('hells'), the sulphurous bogs that are not-too-distant geothermal cousins to a balmy hot spring.
Far better to bathe, I thought to myself, in the pleasant waters of a rotemburo (large open-air bath). I even found the faux-rock strangely reassuring; admiring the snow on the ground and watching an icy river rush by ? onsen is very much a winter activity ? I was safe in the knowledge that no-one would be chasing me away any time soon.
After a while, sharing fruit, engaging in broken conversation and sweating merrily with my fellow-bathers, I felt right at home...
... that is, until I had to get out.
> First published on iafrica.com in January 2009