Japan March '94: Saunas and Sake Blessings

Hello to All!
How is everyone back home? Well and healthy, I hope, and having better weather than we are in Japan. Here it's been rainy and we've got a cold wind blowing down from Siberia. I've told you before about Japanese houses--how cold they are, well I'm definitely waiting for summer to hurry up and get here.

I've finally decided to start writing at work again. My friend Nick has a Mac so I can get him to print out my letters. My company is still too cheap to buy a printer. I wish now that I hadn't been so hasty to buy my IBM computer. The price of Macs has gone way down and are now lower than what I paid for my IBM. Oh well, that's life I guess.

Life hasn't been all that exciting for me lately. After cracking my elbow last October and my rib at New Year's, I've been taking it rather slow as of late. I went skating at New Years with some friends and the rink we went to didn't have regular skates in my size--only figure skates--you know, the ones with those little points on the front so figure skaters can do all those fancy twirls. Well, I wasn't trying to do any fancy twirls but if you're used to regular skates (with no dangerous points on the front of the blade) then sometimes these points dig into the ice when they're not supposed to. So I was merrily skating along and the next thing I know the points of the skates had dug in and I went flat on my face on the ice--landing with my arm across my chest. Between the force of the fall, a misplaced elbow, and my light weight, I managed to crack my rib. Actually it didn't hurt that much at the time or even later. But a few days later I was in the gym trying to lift weights and then I sure noticed it. I thought at first it was just a bruise but when it continued I finally went and got some x-rays and they told me it was cracked. They couldn't do much about it. I just had to wait it out. I'm ok now though. I'm back to exercising and I don't feel any pain there whatsoever. This last year I've had more humps and bruises than I've had in my entire life. I'm trying to go to the gym a lot and am working on losing weight and getting in shape. It's coming--slow but sure.

I was told by one of my more superstitions friends that 43 was a very unlucky year for men and that was why I had so many bad things happen to me. So shortly after New Years' we were walking around one night and went past a shrine that was having a big festival. We went in and it turned out that ‘bad lack removals’ were on special that night. We had a certificate made up and then went and sat with about 50 other supplicants. The priest blessed everyone's certificates, had a little ceremony and bowed to the gods that be and the two big stacks of coca cola boxes (I'm serious) and burned some incense and we were all cured. I have my ‘curse lifting certificate’ on my wall and I haven't had any accidents since (touch wood). I hope the blessing doesn't run out soon! The festival (Shinto religion) was also for prosperity and general all round blessings for a good year--this was included in my certificate as well--kind of a package deal. So I guess large companies, like Coke, donate large symbols of their product to be placed on the altar to be blessed and supposedly this will guarantee a prosperous year. There were also many kegs of sake to be blessed--on the alter and throughout the temple. A very pragmatic religion Shinto --as the priests get to keep and consume all the various food and drink that have been brought to them for blessing. Maybe I'll become a Shinto priest in my next life.

Work has been just work. About three months ago the situation was becoming a little intolerable--management (mostly one person--Japanese) was getting a little heavy handed and power hungry and was making life miserable for everyone. As a direct and indirect result, we had three people quit in the space of one month. I was almost not far behind. The fact that three people quit in such a short time caught the attention of upper management and our immediate superior was brought up on the carpet. As a result, things have calmed down a lot here the last two months and work is almost bearable again. The only reason I didn't quit at the time was that I wanted the company to renew my visa. If I'd had my visa in my hand at that time, with the company situation as it was combined with my own feelings at that time, I think it would have sent me packing. But, as in everything in life, things change, the situation has brightened, and I'm still here. It' s amazing what we learn when we get older isn't it? I think that the Japanese propensity for patience is wearing off on me. I’m learning that 'this too shall pass’.

The latest thing in the news in Japan is the big rice controversy. This year, the rice crop in Japan was very bad and the country is experiencing a severe shortage of Japanese rice. Consequently, Japan has been forced to import rice--mostly from Thailand and USA. The Japanese farmers are extremely protective of their market and have energetically demonstrated against any importation of rice. What the people are supposed to eat I'm not really sure but they don't want imported rice. The US has been pressuring Japan for years to open their rice market and now Japan has finally been forced into importing. But you'd think that the Japanese were being asked to eat poison. You see there's nothing quite as good as Japanese rice. There are many stories about how foreign rice is contaminated and chemically unsafe--despite the fact that Japan uses more chemical fertilizers and sprays than any other country--but try to get a Japanese person to believe that! Japanese rice is also extremely expensive. At present I pay about $5.00 for a kilogram(2.2pounds). On the days when domestic rice is sold there are long lineups of people waiting to buy the limited supply offered. People are hoarding rice. And there a many thefts of domestic rice all around the country. The stores have take to mixing domestic and imported rice--clearly labeled "Over sea rice" (no, that's not a spelling mistake-just another example of Japlish) On TV the numerous weekly talk shows and cooking shows with famous personalities are all doing a taste test of domestic and foreign rice. It would be funny if it weren't so typically, sadly and irrationally Japanese. After all, in another four months there will be a new batch of Japanese rice. So I wonder why they don't just take this opportunity to try something new for a while.

Another big issue is the pressure the US is putting on Japan to open their markets and reduce their foreign surplus. Last month the US tried to get the Japanese to set numerical goals of what they expect to do to open Japanese markets. Japanese people were aghast--this was far too blunt for the Japanese. In Japan it is not what you actually accomplish that’s important. What is important is the effort. As long as you put forth lots of effort then you are considered to be doing your job. The result is that you have workers staying late in the evening--ostensibly working. But in reality—every time I've ever visited a company in the evening everyone is sitting around talking and drinking tea and reading the newspaper. Certainly some work does get done but the efficiency factor is very low. Another gaijin friend is taking her MA at a local university. The university has a large study room where the students are expected to spend their days studying--all day and until late at night. She says that nothing gets done and usually they just goof off all day--talking and reading newspapers. When she stayed in her room and worked on her thesis—and therefore didn't go to the study room--she was called up by her professor and told she wasn't being a good student--she wasn't working hard enough. They did shut up however when she showed them the work she had produced. However, there still was this feeling of not being a good student even though she had produced far more than the other students. So, with the government, it was too blunt for the US to demand numerical targets--it was enough that the Japanese government promised to do something about the problem--to do their best--to try hard to reduce the surplus but no one wanted to talk about criteria of objectives or numerical goals or how someone could actually tell when they had achieved their objective.

Japan has lots of water--I mean lots of water! And people use it a lot. My next door neighbour splashes a couple of buckets around outside on the balcony every morning--and this is in a second floor apartment. He also likes to throw a bucket from the balcony to the ground. The other morning he almost got me as I came back from the market. Many people and businesses are constantly splashing water in front of their houses or shops. In ancient times it was to purify the area and keep down the dust--but it's all pavement now so no dust. I suppose it still needs to be purified--and if you get the odd person wet, well, I guess they get purified too. In a few weeks the rainy season starts and then things really get wet. But the reason I started talked about water was that I went to a sauna last night, one of the nicer more decadent things you can do for yourself. Randy and I go about once a week and it's quite a treat. The one we go to is near Randy's apartment just above a Pachinko parlor. Pachinko is Japan's version of slot machines--with little ball bearings falling into various holes in a board. I tried it once and was bored to tears (thank God!). Pachinko parlors, like shrines, dot the landscape everywhere you look. The big joke is to say "Oh you can't miss my apartment building--it's next to the shrine, across the street from the Pachinko parlor'. That ought to cover about 10,000 places in Fukuoka.

So let me take you on a trip with Randy and me to the sauna. This will take about two hours--so sit back and relax. You start at the entrance to the Pachinko parlor and take the elevator to the third floor. There, you take off your shoes and put them in a small locker and give the key to the girl at the reception desk--along with 1,050 yen ( about $1 1.00) and she gives you a key to a larger locker where you can keep your clothes. In the locker is a large towel. We get changed and then walk towards the sauna area. This walk is in view of the front desk--but then that's not unusual in Japan. I've gone to 'sentos'--a public bath--where your bathing was in the view of the grandmother who was tending the front door. That's OK, I'm not shy. So we enter the sauna area and hang up our towels. First we go off to the right where there are about 25 hand held shower outlets, all at waist level, above a long knee-height shelf. There is a plastic stool and a wash basin. You sit down on the stool and proceed to wash yourself all over and then rinse yourself off with the shower--all while you're sitting down--(of course there are some things you have to stand up to wash). After this we go into the sauna, which is a large room about the size of your average bedroom, with two huge radiators and a TV. We sit and bake for about 10--15 minutes. It's not usually very busy when Randy and I go, so we have a great time chatting away as we wander about from place to place. Because we talk in English and no one can understand us--we talk about anything and everything. It would be highly unlikely that any of the Japanese around us could understand what we're saying. Even if they have studied English, unless they have lived overseas for a few years, they cannot understand normal speed native English. So we feel quite safe. After the sauna we go to the cold pool--about 7 feet by 7 feet and knee deep cold water. I know it sounds horrible but it's quite refreshing after being parboiled in the sauna or the hot baths. We don't stay in there very long--a few minutes to cool down the body and then it's back to the sauna. Another ten in the sauna and then back in the cold pool and then under the waterfall. They have two streams of water which come out above your head with great force and feel just great on your back, neck and shoulders. It's a wonderful massage. More cold pool. Then the large whirlpool ( seats 20) and they have a shallow bed with jets of water to massage your back. I love it! Cold pool and then into the steam room. Here we often sit for quite a while chatting away. In the sauna part you can also sit in a cold room or in a large hot bath. This place also offers massages. And all time, while you're parading around in the buff, there are massage ladies coming to the door and shouting out the customers’ names. And yes, it's legitimate massage, done in a large room with a dozen other people getting massages --no funny business. It's definitely different! So after the steam room it's time to get the final wash up. Back to the stools and the showers. At this place they provide, for free, individually wrapped tooth brushes and razors and they have small porous stones for your feet and a wonderful rough wash cloth to scrub your self with. And of course, shampoo and soap and toothpaste--everything you could ask for your bath. We soap up, lavishly, and scrub down with the rough cloths--they take off all the dead skin and your skin feels great afterwards. I've come to the conclusion that the reason Japanese men like these kind of baths so much is that it brings our the child in every man. I mean when you were young your mother was always nagging at you not to make a big mess in the bath, and to watch out where all that soap went. But in this place, you can soap up to your hearts content and there’s soap flying all over the place--and then you rinse it all off and go out. I think we're all little boys at heart. So we go out of the sauna area to the final stage of our ablutions. There is a big cupboard with towels and house coats and cotton shorts. You can use as many towels as you want to dry off (I mean you don't have to clean them so why not) and then you put on a pair of shorts and a housecoat (which you'll only have on for maybe 10 minutes) and go to the hair drying area where there’s a row of sinks and chairs in front of a mirror. They have sterilized combs and brushes, hairdryers, various hair potions and skin creams and even Q-tips for your ears--now that's what I call civilized! And then, marvelously cleansed and resplendent in our brown dressing gowns, we march past the front desk again and back to the locker to get changed and then on home, feeling relaxed and just a little tired and ready for a great night's sleep. At this place there is also a bar and snack area and they have a large room with reclining chairs and a TV. Many men, who have worked or partied late and missed the last train home (at 11 pm), come for a sauna, crash out in the chairs for the night and then go to work in the morning. I guess it's a great life, but I wouldn't want it.

Some Japanese Incongruencies:

I don't know what the latest styles are back home, but here one of the latest is the "grunge" look--kind of a cross between an old hippy and a poor logger. And the look is complete with big work boots. I threw my old black, thick soled, high-top Dayton work boots out long ago--I didn't realize they'd come back into style. I should have kept them. On second thought, I think I wore them enough when I had to. Of course, in Japan, appearance is everything--so everyone (the young people anyway) is wearing these work boots--even if the rest of the outfit doesn't match. There is something quite incongruous to see a very petite beautiful young lady, with a very short skirt, clomping around in these enormous black thick soled work boots. It does cause confusions as to what to react to first. (Naw, not that much. Work boots never did turn me on!)

Another thing coming back is the Carnaby Street fashions from the '60's. They looked strange then and they look even stranger now. Work boots and bell bottoms and weird coloured clothes. Must be getting old. Don't say that! I'm 39 and holding!

A few days ago I was following two attractive OL's (office ladies--I swear that's what they're called here--a touch of local color for you) and they stopped to purchase some flowers from a streetside shop. My gaze followed them up the steps to the beautiful arrangement of flowers in front of this tiny shop. My gaze then went to the young salesman who came rushing out to serve the young ladies and I watched as he deftly picked out the flowers, skillfully arranged them into an attractive bouquet, wrapped them and gave them to the ladies. The shopkeeper was tall and thin and had on a pair of blue jeans, black thick soled work boots (of course), and a big wide belt with a silver buckle. His hair was tied up in a pony tail and he had a baseball cap on. Displayed proudly on his back were his motorcycle colors, a faded bluejean vest with a Harley Davidson logo, and the Fukuoka Hellriders Motorcyclye club colors. Yes, he was your local representative of the Hell's Angels and, sure enough, parked out front of his flower shop was a brand new, top of the line, 1000cc twin cylinder Harley Davidson 'Hog' (Old and second hand is definitely not 'in" in Japan). This boy was mean! Tell me you see that kind of help working in a flower shop in North America.

Yet for the Japanese this is not an incongruency. The ancient Samurai warriors could easily spend the morning cutting people up with their sharp swords and then come home in the afternoon and practice calligraphy or writing poetry. Perhaps we all could use a bit of balance to our nature, where we can express the more aggressive sides of our personality as well as that side of us which yearns to be gentle and artistically creative. One thing I have realized about the Japanese is that this guy wouldn't have been a threat to anyone--he just wanted to look tough.

Well, I've run out of things to natter on about--so I'll wish everyone good health and happiness and a great summer. I'm not sure when I'll be home next but the fall may be a possibility. Love to all ....... Braden


Copyright©2003 Braden Corby