Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Taking the Waters

The differences in taking the waters at a Japanese onsen compared with a bath house at Hot Springs National Park are instructive. What they teach, I’m not sure, but the experiences are very different, perhaps the opposite of what you’d expect, though they both depend on access to hot water seeping out of the Earth. At an onsen, at least the ones I went to as a carefree gaijin, most of my time was spent lounging around in hot pools or steam rooms or, sometimes, cold pools. It’s a do-it-yourself experience.

Since we’d come all the way to Hot Springs, Arkansas, the thing not to do was skip taking the waters, which is still possible at the Buckstaff. It's the only establishment on Bath House Row that still offers baths, and the experience is much more methodical than at a Japanese onsen. First you do this, then that, then something else, in order and for a certain period of time. Yuriko and I had to take turns visiting the Buckstaff, since children aren’t allowed in (another difference with Japan), and I went in just before the staff’s lunch break. So for a while I was the only customer in the men’s floor, it seemed.

The full traditional bathing package at Buckstaff includes whirlpool mineral bath in a large tub, hot packs, a sitz bath, time in a steam room and a thing called a needle shower, which just means that water streams at you from every direction, followed by a 20-minute massage on a table. These steps come in that order, and you're assisted by a series of attendants all along the way, in my case mostly older black gentlemen who’d likely been plying the trade for many years. It was all very pleasant, some of it novel, but I never believed of a moment that it had any therapeutic benefits for me.

The sitz bath, for anyone who’s curious about that term, is taken in a seated position, with water of varying temperatures flowing around your lower reaches. Supposed to be good for back pain, and I can’t say it felt bad. At another stage, instead being put in a steam closet with only my head exposed, my attendant pointed me to a small sauna of a room, intensely steamy, for a two-minute sitdown. I was a little disappointed with that, since how often do you get to do something that exists mostly in old movies and cartoons (now that I think about it, The Bank Dick featured one that took about 200 pounds off one gentleman).

With its tiny white tiles (somewhat worn), and rows of tubs and tables and pipes and gauges, and the sound of water flowing and dripping, and the muffled sounds of the staff crossing the floors, I got some sense of the Buckstaff as an old-time bath. Just a fleeting sense. Maybe shades of men as pale and paunchy in life as I am now still made small talk while lying prone with hot towels around most of them, chatting about Babe Ruth or Red Russia or the price of corn with the fellow on the next table, an optician from Muncie or loan officer from Oklahoma City. But I wasn’t privy to any of that.


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