The milky water lapped at my bare legs as it flowed slowly towards the back of the bath, cascading over the edge in a thin curve of white. The evening air cooled my chest and neck. I tried to decipher the name of this particular bath. Mochi. The water did indeed have the same opaque look of the white soup that comes with squares of sticky rice mochi at New Year’s, and I pictured everyone in the bath as rice kernels taking on water and growing plump in the warm soup.
“Do you like hot springs?” said the man sitting next to me. His modest bath towel was laid over his lap and his glasses slid down his nose from sweat.
“Yes,” I said. “I love it here.”
The awkwardness of being fully exposed and sharing the same bath water with strangers didn’t create the kind of personal space barriers that you might expect or that you would maybe highly appreciate in the Japanese public baths. Everyone was stripped of their clothes and all other human symbols of rank, down to the level where we all saw each other as nothing more than animal bodies that breathe and sweat.
Goran and I had previously been lost in our own separate thoughts, but he came over to sit by us and join in on the conversation. I asked my new friend about the bath water. He adjusted his glasses, squinted at the sign, and we stood up to wade through the water and have a closer look.
“Ah, the name means hope,” he said. Hope water, then, and not anything as concrete as mochi soup. I suddenly felt a wave of gratitude for my new friend and his explanation which quickly grew into a feeling of affection towards all of Japan for its ability to imagine a place where hope bubbles up from the earth in scalding, liquid form.
The baths at Japanese hot springs are said to have specific healing effects on skin and nerves depending on the source of the water. Inside the bath house, a middle-aged man helped his old father out of the warm bath. The father’s frail legs trembled with the effort of standing, and an old scar traced a half circle around his belly. Here, in the bath house, he was simply another body among a varied collection of arms, cheekbones, muscles, and hair.
Goran and I stayed in the baths until the water brought out the whorled lines of our fingers and toes. At the restaurant in the lobby, two glasses of shochyu over ice appeared on our table, courtesy of our bath friend, who smiled at us from where he was sitting, fully clothed now, with his family. We raised our glasses and sipped at the strong alcohol, closing our brief friendship with a drink.
Last weekend, after a steep climb up Mt. Rokko, Goran, Chris, Devin, and I went back to the baths, to Kin no Yu, a hot spring in Arima. We brought a bottle of sake into the baths, but, unsure of whether or not we were breaking proper bath etiquette, we poured the sake into a plastic bottle and sipped at it like water.
The dull, red color of the bath looked like old, rusty blood. The man next to me lowered himself into the bath and his body seemed to disappear under the dark water until he was just a head, floating freely on the surface with eyes closed. He blinked twice and came back to life.
The hot water made us sweat out the alcohol as soon as it hit our tongues. Drips of sweat lined my lips and gave a salty taste to each sip.
“What are you drinking?” said the Japanese man next to Goran. He leaned over to us with a conspiratorial grin.
“It’s water,” said Goran.
“Is it Japanese water?”
“Is it sake?”
Goran paused. “Yeah, it’s sake.”
The old man grinned wider and Goran offered him a sip. Another brief friendship at the baths, sealed with a drink.
“Very…good…taste!” muttered the old man.
The heat of the bath made my head dizzy, and I left to have a cold shower. The blood-water swirled towards the drain in the floor and the icy spray on the back of my neck pulled me up wide-eyed into the present moment.
We left the bath and rode the train into the city, my head emptied of all the sporadic thoughts and worries that I had sweated out through my pores. The city was a human carnival of flashy neon lights and commerce. We waded through crowds of people who streamed past us like water. Two girls in grey, smartly cut uniforms dipped their heads towards us from inside a store while a man handed us small packs of tissues advertising a nearby buffet restaurant. Everyone was dressed in their finest, walking the streets in pairs or packs, following familiar tracks into the night.
Words that did not exist hours earlier suddenly came to mind: hospital, surgery, stitches. What had happened to that old man who could almost no longer stand on his own, and what had been taken away from inside his stomach, underneath the cold, jagged scar?