Here’s a little sample from the pages of Scratching the Surface…..

scratch.jpgMy God, it was hot in Tokyo. The kind of heat and humidity that makes the jaw go slack. Morning was to stagger toward the newsstand, shielding my eyes from the glare off scooters and vending machines. Afternoons were spent careening through Tokyo in search of information, or prone dumbly on the tatami beneath an oscillating fan, listening to Tony Bennett on the Far East Network:

"The little boy lost
will find his way once more/
Just like before/
When lips were tender…."

Our apartment, like most in Tokyo, had no shower. But when the cool evening finally arrived I climbed gratefully into my yukata (robe) and made for the sento (public bath).

How I loved our neighborhood sento! Big bright locker-room-cum-gym, spotlessly clean. Please Leave Shoes At Door. Never crowded. A handful of Japanese men – I was the only foreigner – attended themselves naked and unselfconscious, rubbing their bodies with rough towels.

The walls were lined with low mini-showers. One must squat. Also, Please Turn Faucet On Slowly: those little Japanese showers can knock you across the room. 

The entire back portion of the sento was occupied with baths. First there was an olympic-sized hot-tub/jacuzzi. Next to that was a cold bath; then a green bath; and at the end a small mystery bath, perpetually empty, with an alarming lightning-bolt emblazoned in red on the white tile wall above.

Glancing now and again at that placid final bath, the surface of which seemed supernaturally calm, I felt a nagging curiosity. For all I knew it might have been a device for sterilizing surgical tools, or hyper-cleaning jewelry. Why was I seized by a crazy intuition to climb recklessly in?

There are no beggars, few elderly on Tokyo streets. The city seems to belong to a youthful post-bomb generation that moves at ease among high, clean buildings and throbbing electrical billboards. As if there had been nothing before this. As if Tokyo had elected to submerge its history under canyons of steel and glass and especially plastic, infinite quantities of plastic. Flowers wrapped in plastic. Plastic eel in the windows.

Another day ended. I sweated and staggered from subway to subway, swooning in the unspeakable heat. Home at last and all I wanted was a bath. Collecting my toiletries in a plastic bucket, I set off for the sento.

There were men in the mystery bath.

Two old men, covered from neck to waist with outrageous tattooes. Their faces wore expressions of the purest transcendence, like samurai warriors under torture. One of them motioned to me with his head – a mere twitch really – in what seemed to be a gesture of invitation.

Silence prevails in the sento, but foreigners are expected to breach every custom and who was I to disappoint the Japanese? Pointing to the fateful pool, I inquired of the young man on my right.

"Denki Furo," he explained. Electric bath.

There is a moment we have all experienced, on the edge of a diving board or at the threshhold of a bedroom, when we know that to take another step is to commit ourselves irreversably. I walked, naked, to the wall of the denki furo. The water within pulsed invisibly, and I felt the fascination and aversion one experiences when bending over to touch a completely still animal that may or may not be dead. But to touch the water hand-first would be, I imagined, shameful, as if I lacked the strength of my convictions.

Every eye in the room was upon me as I swung my leg into the bath. Electricity swarmed up my calf, buzzing and stinging. I uttered no cry. Bracing on rubber arms, I swung my other leg in. Face be damned; this was as far as I was going to go.

But wait – the bath was doing something, not unlike love, to my loins. They were turning to soba (noodle). Wearing the resigned grin of a fall guy in some 50’s comedy, I began to sink gradually into the water.

There was no point trying to escape; my feet would not respond. The most important thing, I understood, was to remain unflinching as my testicles went under. Every situation in Japan is a test. I would not disgrace myself.

Contemplating the wu (essence) of the white tile wall I sank, expressionless, up to my neck. The men in the adjoining bath watched my eyes, staring with an impassive, cat-like gaze.

What did it feel like? Imagine the howling physical rush of a blow to the funny bone, generalized over your entire body. Or think of yourself as a silver filling, and the denki furo as a mouth full of foil. Did it hurt? The exquisite intensity went far beyond pain. My only hope was that there would be no permanent physical damage; that, like the cartoon cat whose tail is thrust into a wall outlet, I would sizzle for a while then reappear, unscathed, in the next scene.

I do not recall how I left the denki furo. Perhaps the two old men lifted me, a recalcitrant tumor, from their buzzing province. Perhaps I mustered a supreme effort of will and climbed from the tub myself, like Batman in a fix. Or maybe I never left the bath at all. Perhaps I’m still in it, existing in a Borgesian dream-state of compressed time. It often seems that way.

I live in America now, where the burgers are charcoal-broiled. People take baths at home. I have never met anyone else who has taken an electric bath. We have all seen movies or read newspaper stories of people getting electrocuted when their radio or blow-dryer decides to take a bath with them, and I would go so far as to say that electrified water, like darkness or sharks, is a deeply rooted fear.

The men in the Japan National Tourist Board laughed when I asked them what I had encountered in Japan. "Denki furo," they replied, unable to elaborate.

Still mystified, I called a shiatsu school specializing in oriental healing techniques. "It obviously effects the polarity of your electrons profoundly," speculated the director. "It can probably alter your brain-waves. After all, we’re nothing but masses of electrons to begin with…."

Which explains some things. But sometimes, in Japan, there is no explanation save that single four-word mantra, uttered by the visitor in awe and italics:

They are the Japanese.