Steeped in Culture

Scott Gardner

“How can anyone glorify and venerate a whole people! It is the individuals that count, even in the case of the Greeks,” said Nietzsche, in a declaration that somehow seemed to glorify and venerate an entire population of ancient peoples even while telling us it’s a mistake to do so. To be fair, when he said this he probably had a few individually glorious and venerable ancient Greek “Übermensch” in mind—Socrates; Aristotle; Diogenes; and the mysterious Kal-El, whose name in Latin was Clarkus Kentus.

I’m going to defy Nietzsche here and attempt to venerate an entire culture of people, specifically the one currently administering the Japanese archipelago. However, for someone as witless as me to try doing justice to Japan’s cultural greatness through its philosophical tradition, as Nietzsche did for the Greeks, would be like trying to demonstrate the astrophysics of black holes by doing a row of star-shaped jello shots on the bar. So I will instead focus on a more down-to-earth, conspicuous aspect of Japanese culture that I believe is one of its truly great collective achievements: the cultivation of the hot spring.

From the start, it is necessary to make a semantic distinction between the Japanese onsen (温泉) and the anything-but-Japanese “hot spring”. In the mountains above my hometown in the USA, we could visit a spot called Fifth Water Hot Spring. It was a handmade, muddy, semicircular pool of piled-up rocks, easily locatable from the trail above by the light glinting off the empty beer cans strewn around it. One could easily imagine, as per the place name, that the water there had been “used” in some way or other at least five times. Another hot spring a few kilometers away was called Stinky Spring due to its high sulfur content. This spring was a lot cleaner than the other one because no one ever stayed long enough to finish their beer. Comparing Fifth Water and Stinky Springs to a Japanese onsen is like comparing a game of marbles to a game of go.

Japan’s ubiquitous bubbling wells of mineral-enhanced hot water are a cultural treasure and have become central to the way the country sees itself. When I planned my first trip to Japan in the 90s, I remember talking to a travel agent from JTB. He tried to show me all kinds of places I could visit if I bought a JR train pass, including a few opulent onsen resorts. My eyes must have lingered a little too long on the brochure photos of elegant Japanese women lying languidly in the pools, because he looked at me with a smile and said, “They will all have gone home by the time you get there.”

In Japan we can talk about onsen and relaxing hot baths even when we’re talking about something completely different. Look at these actual proverbs:

“湯は水より出でて水にあらず” (yu ha mizu yori idete mizu ni arazu). This says that hot water is something special; it comes from water but it’s no longer just water. It’s supposed to mean that even people who think they are average can push themselves to the “boiling” point and be extraordinary, at least for a while. These are inspirational words to live your whole life by, but I usually only think of them when I’m lying naked and lethargic in a communal tub balancing a towel on my head.

“湯の中で屁をひったよう” (yu no naka de he wo hittayou). This is basically saying “something akin to farting in the bathtub.” It’s usually applied to a person’s way of talking: they think they’re making sense, but they’re really spewing out gibberish.

And in that same spirit, I am now going to present my own onsen-themed proverbs for you to start teaching your kids:

“Whichever way the faucet is turned, it will squirt you.”

“Be certain of whose towel you are sweating on.”

“However cute the bath stool, consider its role.”

“No running on deck.”

“First to dip, quick as a whip. Last to soak, soggy slowpoke.”

“It is the minerals that count, even in the case of the Sulfurs.” (apologies to Nietzsche)