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Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 08:49 12/20/2007
Book Review #85: December 17, 2007

"Getting Wet - Adventures in the Japanese Bath" by Eric Talmadge

Reviewed by William Farr

Title: Getting Wet - Adventures in the Japanese Bath
Authors: Eric Talmadge
Language: English
Publisher: Kodansha Europe Ltd (Japan)
Date/Time: 2006
Pages: 272 pages (Hardback)
ISBN: ISBN-10: 4770030207
ISBN-13: 978-4770030207


Hidden beneath the dustcover of the English version of 'Getting Wet' by Eric Talmadge is the Japanese sign for Onsen, or Sento, and for anyone who has ever lived, travelled or worked in Japan for any length of time the Japanese hot spring or public bath is instantly recognisable. The hidden symbol nicely summarises the fact that to find the best experience of bathing today Mr Talmadge had to travel far and wide and in many ways, the Onsen of the past is becoming a dying, and more hidden part of Japanese culture.

Talmadge writes with an obvious love for the bath in Japan in all its shapes and forms, with a wide ranging discussion on the Japanese love of soaking, through to an interesting description of modern-day "super Onsen," which is all encapsulated by a good geographically deterministic view of the relationship between the Japanese environment and Japanese culture.

The upside of being a volcanic country is the hot springs, but the downside can be the volatile nature of volcanoes such as on the Izu islands south of Tokyo which is now barely inhabited due to a massive eruption in 2000. Lingering poisonous gas means that many of the younger generation have now sought more stable roots on mainland Japan.

Mr Talmadge has a natural inclination toward the scientific aspect of balneology, the science of bathing, and everything from an explanation of why we go wrinkly (too much osmosis) through to the fact that there have been outbreaks of Legionnaires disease due to the lack of cleanliness at public baths makes for fascinating reading. The Japanese company of Tsumura is mentioned on a couple of occasions as a company which treats the science of bathing very seriously. Particular temperatures, the location of the body, (water up to the neck) the duration of the bath, (no more than twenty minutes) make the whole bathing experience very methodical and scientific.

I was very interested to read about the prefecture where I spent time whilst on the JET scheme - Tottori. However, I was not expecting the town where our mid-year conference took place to be the location of a potentially radioactive mineral bath. The radium present at Misasa whilst being natural - unlike many Japanese Sento which in the 1990's were embroiled in a scandal due to not being truthful about the freshness of their water and the mineral content within- is present at very low levels and must be far better for you than the electric shock bath. Electric shock baths, or Hertz baths are now all the rage and even though as Mr Talmadge explains, they possess very low voltage one was still enough to make Mr Talmadge's hand cramp up. This surely would make for a bathing experience of the strangest sort.

The Onsen of the future must surely be in the mould of the Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo, a "Supaa Sento" which has themed rooms, where people bathe without nudity, and can handle thousands of people in a day.

The most harrowing chapter must deal with the "Soaplands," a word which was developed by vote after the previous name of "Turkish Bath" eventually became synonymous with prostitution and the Turkish Embassy complained. In Tokyo the soaplands are hidden even though they are very close to the centre of the city. Strangely enough the only way to reach the Tokyo soapland is by taxi. There carnal pleasures are dealt with in a system which developed as a result of a loophole in the law - washing was not viewed as prostitution under Japanese law and anything else over and above that is between consenting adults. Mr Talmadge places this chapter where it belongs, toward the back of a good book.

There are so many remarkable little stories and facts within this book that it is definitely worth a read for anyone thinking about travelling to and within Japan. For those who already live in Japan, Talmadge provides excellent insight into the country with good advice to novice Onsen-goers and interesting asides for the more seasoned bather.

(This review was produced in collaboration with the Japan Society, UK)

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