Going with the flow, in water we trust

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

In the Tokyo area, August was a month of hideri (日照り, brutal sunshine), the effects of which were accelerated by the setsuden (節電, energy-conserving) mood. Many of us trudged through the streets under a blazing sun, clutching a towel in one hand and a water bottle in the other.

Ah, thank the gods for mizu (水, water) — the one thing the Japanese have always had in abundance. Consider the phrase: yumizu no gotoku tsukau (湯水の如くつかう, go through something like hot and cold water), which when you think about it, is a blatantly extravagant thing to say. Even during the toughest times, like the end of World War II when Tokyo was a charred wasteland of ash and rubble, the majority of Tokyoites rarely lacked for water even as they lacked for everything else. There were working wells in every district, as well as the grapevine network of yōsuiro (用水路, irrigation canals).

The Japanese know it’s a sin against the gods to take water for granted. We’re fully aware that elsewhere in the world crops have failed and the earth is cracked from drought. Sessui (節水, conserving water) has been drummed into us from elementary school onwards. Yet, at the very heart of the Japanese soul is a conviction that nice, clean water — whether gushing from taps or running through (relatively) pristine rivers — is our birthright. Japan has never had natural fuel resources to speak of and has had to import almost all forms of fossilized energy for more than a century. Water is our only and last resort.

Our relationship with water runs deep. Real deep. When the bushi (武士, samurai) wanted to empower themselves before battle or a similarly difficult undertaking, they stripped down in front of the well to sluice themselves with buckets of cold water, even in the dead of winter. The ritual lives on in many New Year’s matsuri (祭り, festivals). When parting from friends or family for an extended period of time people used to exchange mizusakazuki (水杯, water in sake cups), mimicking the centuries-old seppuku procedure of swallowing a bit of water before committing the deed. Chikaramizu (力水, power water) is something sumo wrestlers pass to each other before mounting the dohyō (土俵, sumo ring). When visiting a jinja (神社, shrine), the correct protocol is to first wash one’s hands and mouth in a ritual known as temizu (手水).

For women, water often has connotations other than empowerment and tradition. My grandmother was a strict disciplinarian, but even she warned us against engaging in too much mizushigoto (水仕事, working with water) during the winter months, as it led to mizubukure (水ぶくれ, bloated skin) and akagire (あかぎれ, welts on fingers and knuckle joints). The Japanese kitchen is a wet, cold place defined by water-logged chores, and Japanese cooking requires a vast amount of mizushigoto. And when that’s done, there’s the cleaning of the mizumawari (水回り, wet area) to attend to, which means scrubbing the bathtub, toilet, taps and anything else that pertains to mizu. As a child I used to hate the sight of my grandmother’s hands, but now I realize they were living works of art and testimonials to incredible labor skills, honed over decades of devotion and dedication.

It’s said that though Japanese women’s hands may be scarred and swollen, their skin is mizumizushii (瑞々しい, soft and supple) and kime ga komakai (肌理が細かい, of a fine and delicate texture), thanks to the liberal use of the particular Japanese nansui (軟水, soft water) that has beautified the nation’s women from time immemorial. Yukio Mishima wrote at length of the allure of the Japanese female skin and noted that beauty standards on the archipelago were mainly defined by color and texture while in the West, it was mainly about shape and silhouette.

No discussion of mizu is complete without bringing in kome (米, rice), which like most things Japanese, is laden with moisture. For centuries Japanese women have had to wash the rice in cold water, immerse it in the pot for at least half an hour and cook it so that each grain of rice gleams and glistens with moisture. Kome-togi (米とぎ, polishing the rice) is one of the first mizushigoto chores a girl learns from her mother, though the recent advent of musenmai (無洗米, no-wash rice) may abolish that rigor altogether. Musenmai is a nifty product but there is a downside. Kome-togi yields the togijiru (とぎ汁, the water in which rice has been scoured and polished) and this white, creamy liquid is rich with nutrients. It can be used on plants as an organic fertilizer. Soak a washcloth in it and polish your car — the result will astonish you. The same goes for mopping floors or wiping walls. Togijiru also works wonders on the skin, for cooling and soothing sunburns or just as a moisturizer. Mizushigoto can be a bummer, but when all’s said and done, water is the Japanese woman’s best friend.