Friday, August 19, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: In Hot Water - From Japan to Morocco

Our guest this week is Edith Maxwell, whose mystery novels feature Quaker Linguistics professor, Lauren Rousseau. The first, SPEAKING OF MURDER, is in search of publication. Her short stories have appeared in THIN ICE and RIPTIDE by Level Best Books, the LARCOM REVIEW, and the NORTH SHORE WEEKLY, as well as the forthcoming FISH NETS. Edith holds a PhD in Linguistics and lives in historic Ipswich, Massachusetts, with her beau, four cats, and several fine specimens of garden statuary. She works as a technical writer when she's not writing fiction.She is a member of Sisters in Crime, and is on the board of the New England chapter. Edith blogs weekly on topics relating to SPEAKING OF MURDER at Speaking of Mystery. Look for her as Edith M. Maxwell on Facebook, and @edithmaxwell on Twitter.

I'm so pleased to be a guest here among this group of intrepid travelers/writers. I have also traveled widely, lived in disparate place like Brazil, Japan, and Mali for a year or two each, and am a mystery author.

I was thrilled to discover the sento, or public baths, when I lived in Japan for two years in the mid-1970s. They were widely used, because many homes did not include a bath.

The baths were segregated by gender. I was still learning to speak the language when I first ventured into the building, so I just followed what I saw others doing. Females from birth to 100 removed cotton pants, blouses, or kimonos in the common changing area and hung them on hooks without any evidence of embarrassment or self-consciousness. As the sole gaijin – foreigner – I was the self-conscious one. Women stole sideways glances and little girls stared at me and giggled.

I knew from reading that you wash first and then soak. A well-lit tiled room featured faucets every few feet along each wall and down the middle. You grabbed a blue plastic bin and a little wooden stool and picked a faucet. Lather up, rinse off, and repeat.

Women in the Kiyonaga Bathhouse
When I was clean, I followed a woman into a steamy room with two large bathing pools enclosed by low tile walls. I put a foot in and drew it out in a big hurry. It was HOT. I couldn't believe tender babies and elderly women sat soaking in that boiling pot. Someone pointed me to the other pool. It was marginally cooler, at least enough for me to lower myself in. It being Japan, people were shy about talking to foreigners, but I did eventually get some timid smiles.

After the bath session, people walked away even mid-winter wearing sandals with no socks. Your body was so heated it kept you warm all the way home. And I always slept like a baby that night.

When my son was in Morocco last year for a study abroad semester, he wrote his own blog post about visiting the public bath, the hammam, with his host father. We visited him for two weeks, and checking out the hammam with his host mother, Farida, was high on my list. I was sort of expecting a similar experience to the Japanese one. Boy, was I wrong!

Host Mother Farida
Bath doesn't exactly describe it. More like a willing deep slide into into all the senses, no holding back. I followed Farida like a lamb into a dark high-ceiling long room and then into to the next room, a less dimly lit copy of the first. It lined up in parallel with the first and another beyond, three long chambers that the passageway bisected. The stone walls were dark with moisture and centuries of steamed human skin cells.

We did wash first, just like in Japan. Then a woman named Baresha, a massage/scrubber Farida knew, started scrubbing me in a casual way that soon turned firm. She moved my body around in all dimensions. The treatment was both luxurious and painful. My head rested on Baresha's ample thigh as she sat splay legged. I closed my eyes and submit to having my chest, breasts, stomach scrubbed and massaged over and over. My legs were worked top to bottom and then my front torso again.

She turned me on my side to face her and scraped my pale skin up and down. A large pendulous breast was in my face. I closed my eyes again, loving it all. She turned me to the other side, extended my arm, scrubbing my armpit, side, hip. My neck, back, buttocks, and legs also got the full treatment.

Moroccan Hammam
When I was  finally brought back to sitting, Farida laughed and showed me the multitude of particles rolled into tiny dark fibers all over me that came from my skin. That WERE my skin.

All this time, women talked. Low voices, shrill voices. Greetings and negotiations. Children speaking to their mothers, friends catching up on neighborhood news. Not a word of it could I understand. The language echoed and merged. It washed over me as welcome as the bucket of warm water Baresha dumped over me, even as she still rubbed and cleaned.

In my year each in Mali and Burkina Faso, in West Africa, I never heard of a public bath.You can bet I would have been there in a flash.


  1. Wow, how fascinating, Edith, Heidi, Supriya, Ali and Lina, I always learn so much from your blog. I doubt I'll ever get to be a world traveler. What a service you perform as far as location and understanding cultures.

    Edith, I have a question. Did you venture into those baths all by yourself? I think I might if I was with someone, but you are fearless, woman. I'm curious about the health standards. Is the water treated? I can't imagine that occurring in the US without lots of regulations and constant monitoring by the local health department. Thanks for sharing with us!

  2. I went to the hammam with my son's host mother. In Japan? Yes, fearless. When you're a world traveler, you do lots of stuff you might not otherwise. I even hitchhiked in northern Japan.

    Sometime, somewhere, I'll post my story about getting my hair braided into 58 braids in West Africa. Of course, it looked terrible with my thin hair and my white scalp, but the care of the women's hands was something to savor.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Oh, sounds terrific. Thanks, Edith.

  4. Thanks for this wonderful, engaging post, Edith. I feel like I'm dipping my toes in the hot water right along with you.

    Did you return to the sento after you learned more Japanese and were you able to eavesdrop on the conversations? I wonder if the baths there also served the same purpose as a place to socialize as in the Middle East.

    Donnell, thanks so much for your kind words about the blog. I'm always delighted to see you here. :)

  5. Edith, what a post! And what adventures! Fabulous piece -- thank you!

    And Donnell, we love you! :)