DREAMSCAPES: In the Japanese Bathhouse
Charlie couldnt help but feel they were laughing
stood facing the wall. He peeled off his socks and rolled them into
a ball. Then he pulled down his trousers, balancing awkwardly on one
foot and then the other as he tugged free of the legs. With that done
he loosened the noose of his tie and pulled his shirt off over his head.
Finally, glancing over his shoulder, he slipped off his underpants.
He left his clothes folded in a neat pile inside the locker and locked
the door. Then he fastened the rubber band with the locker key around
his ankle. He took the small white bath towel and wrapped it around
his waist, pinching the ends together between thumb and forefinger just
above the hip. Then he walked on through the locker room towards the
He had expected people to look. It was only natural him being
the only foreigner but he was determined to overcome his self-consciousness
and let his daily stresses evaporate with the steam. Yes, a hot bath
would be just the thing.
As he approached the glass door it slid open automatically and a warm
fog billowed towards him, misting his glasses. He propped them on top
of his head and squinted around for the shower area. A tiny old man
brushed passed him, disappearing in a plume of steam.
The showers ran along the right hand wall at waist height, occupied
by a line of Japanese men who were squatting down on yellow plastic
stools, lathering, scrubbing and rinsing. They ran hot water from the
tap into a plastic bowl, tipping it over their heads, down their neck
and backs, and sprayed themselves clean with the powerful showerhead.
The air was thick with heat and soap.
Charlie found a space next to the old man who had passed him in the
entranceway and plonked down onto a stool, which gave slightly under
his bulk. The old man had a scrawny neck, bony shoulders and worn yellowy
skin. He soaped his hairless bodies mechanically, his face void of expression.
"Looks like a newt," Charlie said to himself with a chuckle.
Charlie felt large and a little cumbersome propped on his stool next
to the little man. As he lathered himself in soap he took surreptitious
pinches of body fat. It occurred to him that he wasnt in the best
of shape. He was touching thirty and with little time in his busy schedule
for exercise, his body was beginning to spread.
His thoughts were sharply interrupted by a spray of icy water. It hit
him on the shoulder and he flinched against the cold. He looked sideways
at the old man, who continued to shower under the cold water, seemingly
oblivious to what he had done. But it must have been a mistake, so Charlie
began to shampoo his hair.
The shampoo ran down his face, stinging his eyes. But as he rubbed his
eyes another jet of water pummelled into his back. The cold whipped
through his spine. He turned sideways again, looking at the old man
through blurred vision. But just as he was preparing to issue a polite
reprimand he felt another spray attack him from behind.
He spun quickly on his plastic stool and immediately caught a strong
jet of cold water full in the face. It was another man washing and splashing
unawares, his eyes glazed like a dead fish. Even more annoyingly, the
jet was shooting right out from underneath the mans arm, redirected
towards Charlie via the mans armpit. Well enough of this, thought
Charlie, and he stood up.
Now that he had washed thoroughly carefully observing the etiquette
of the bathhouse Charlie was looking forward to relaxing in one
of the steaming hot communal baths. There were indoor baths with electric
thermometers reading 41 degrees and the outside bath was designed like
a rock pool with a cave and fountain. Charlie was particularly looking
forward to a sauna, a great way to finish a relaxing few hours.
He stepped down from the ledge into one of the indoor baths, feeling
the heat of the water wrap tightly around his calves. He let the small
towel drop from around his waist, then folded it and placed it on his
head like the other men in the bath had done. As expected, the other
men looked over at him as he removed the towel. But he had nothing to
be ashamed of.
lowered himself slowly into the water. His skin prickled as the
back of his legs touched the surface. Gradually he submerged his
stomach, chest, shoulders and neck, until only his head remained
above the surface. As his bottom settled on the floor of the bath
he let out a deep sigh of relaxation.
Then he remembered his glasses. Where had he put them? There was
a moment of panic before he remembered with a smile, feeling for
the metal frames propped on his head.
He looked around the pool. Several heads were submerged in the water,
their bodies lost to the dark pool. Charlie couldnt see very
well through the steam and without his glasses, but a feeling crept
into his mind that they were all looking at him. Their eyes were
like cubes of ice refusing to melt in the heat, lingering on him
coldly. And when he stared back they didnt even react.
dripped from his face as the bath became uncomfortably hot. The submerged
heads were making him feel nervous. They looked like crocodiles waiting
in ambush. So Charlie stood up, deciding to try the outdoor rock pool.
The automatic door grated unpleasantly as it slid open. Immediately
the night air gripped his body. Charlie felt his ball sack retract against
the cold. He tensed his muscles and stalked barefoot across the rocks
towards the pool, with only his towel for protection. Desperate to escape
the cold air he waded quickly into the bath, sending waves across the
pool, then sank down without hesitation into the water.
It felt like his skin had flared and caught fire, burning in the water.
He jumped up in shock, dousing the heat in cold air. Then lowered himself
once again more slowly this time allowing time for his
body to adjust to the temperature.
As Charlie settled into the water he noticed two pot-bellied men sat
on the edge of the pool, like toads croaking with laughter. Charlie
couldnt help but feel they were laughing at him. When he looked
up at them they ignored him, chuckling at their private joke. It felt
like they were mocking him. Then the sound of laughter ceased abruptly,
disappearing in the mist and leaving a disconcerting silence. Charlie
felt their dead eyes looking down on him before they turned and walked
back inside, making no effort to cover their buttocks.
Left alone, Charlie tried to enjoy the bath but he couldnt help
feeling that he wasnt welcome here. Maybe he should just go. But
the more he thought about it, the more worked up he became. He had done
nothing wrong. "Why should I leave?" he said to himself. He
was determined to relax so (clenching his fists) he stood up purposefully
and strode back indoors to try the sauna.
He pushed the door a little more forcefully than he had intended and
it swung back against the wooden wall with a bang. Several faces
shiny with sweat looked up at him through the hot mist. A wooden
bench ran in three tiers around the sauna. He took up a position on
the lowest rung and draped the wet towel between his legs.
He concentrated on his breathing, slowly filling his lungs with the
heavy air as a clock ticked somewhere above him on the wall. Sweat leaked
from his pores and trickled down his skin. He could feel his chest and
leg hairs prickling to the heat.
There was a hissing sound as somebody poured water onto the coals. The
room grew steamier, so that he could hardly see, and the temperature
rose. Charlie thought he felt something slither over his foot, then
realised that somebody was trying to get passed. He looked up but the
figure was silhouetted in mist, like a ghost. The ghost hissed something
under his breath and his voice sounded like steam: "Ssumimasssenn".
Charlie was feeling very uncomfortable sitting in the cloudy room surrounded
by shady, half-visible figures. His position on the lower step made
him vulnerable, but to climb any higher would mean an increase in temperature.
He was already feeling overheated, suffocating in the thick air.
He heard the door open and close and Charlie got the uneasy feeling
he had once more been left on his own. Unable to bear the heated atmosphere
for any longer Charlie stood up and felt his way along the bench towards
the door. With some relief he located the door and pushed. But the door
didnt move. He pushed again, harder this time, but still the door
wouldnt budge. Charlie started to panic. Somebody must have locked
the door from the outside, trapping him. He stepped back, then flung
himself at the door with a shoulder charge. The thick wood didnt
give an inch.
He sat down again, his body drenched in sweat, his chest heaving and
wheezing as he strained for breath. The metal frames of his glasses
were burning thin lines into his forehead. What was he going to do?
The heavy heat was sapping him of energy, saturating him with despair.
Then he heard a shuffling noise. He looked around, twisting his body
from side to side, peering through the steam. He stood up and raised
his arms, preparing to fend off an attack. There was another noise
from behind this time and Charlie span around on the defensive.
A shadow slipped passed him, pulled the door open a fraction and slipped
out. Charlie rushed at the door, determined not to let it shut, and
stumbled out into the bathhouse
Disorientated from the heat, Charlie stepped right off the edge of the
cold pool and plunged into the water. He belly-flopped and the water
splashed up on either side before swallowing him up. There was a brief
moment of bliss before the cold started to burn. His head broke up through
the surface, his skin fizzed, shrink-wrapping his flesh, and he starting
to hyperventilate again.
He stood up a little too quickly, and stepped out of the freezing water
onto the ledge. It felt like an immense pressure had been released from
his body, like his flesh, his skin, and each of his cells was expanding
in pulses. His arms and legs were buzzing and weightless. He staggered
across the bathhouse, trying to regain his balance and to stop himself
from floating off towards the roof. He steadied himself against a wall,
the blood rushing in waves through his head.
Then he felt a cold hand on his shoulder. He turned around and found
himself face to face with the slim shadowy figure from the sauna. With
each wave of blood surging through Charlies head, the face rushed
towards him like a cobra on the attack. Charlie swayed backwards away
from the face and then, as the face retreated, he lurched forward again
into the space. Struggling for balance, he placed a hand on each side
of the face, gripping onto the mans shoulders.
The mouth was contorted in a mocking grin, sharp little brown teeth
open around a black hole, ready to swallow Charlie up. The mouth stretched
and gaped, pulling lines across the mans face. The mouth was laughing
at him and mocking him and then it started to spit out a mash of garbled
sounds: "Daijoubudessska. Ssamuidessshoussonopooru. Kiotsssuketene.
Charlie had had enough. He found that his hands were sliding towards
each other over mottled skin of the snake-man`s shoulders. They met
around a skinny neck, gripping tightly. And with all his remaining strength,
© Joe Sinclair June 2003
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