Sitting in a tub of clear, near-scalding water up to your neck might not instantly appeal to those new to Japan who are used to stretching out in a warm sea of suds and playing with their plastic ducks. However, taking a bath that way is more than a hygienic chore for the people of these islands; it's almost a sacred ritual, and it would be hard to find a population anywhere who take baths more frequently than the Japanese today. Although they might have some way to go before they can rival the citizens of Ancient Rome, who are believed to have shed their togas at huge and luxurious public baths at least once a day, Japanese people's fondness for soaking themselves is one of those things that often amazes visitors to these shores.

On average, indeed, Japanese take a bath five times a week in summer and six times a week in winter, according to the results of a 1999 survey of 1,456 people by the Tokyo Gas Urban Life Research Institute. Also, 48 percent of respondents said they had a bath every day, even in the heat of summer, while in winter, 61 percent took a hot plunge every day. In comparison, because of the lack of reliable data, it's difficult to be sure how often non-Japanese people take a bath -- although it's almost certainly less frequently. Several years ago, when the Fuji TV program "Hakkutsu Aruaru Daijiten (Encyclopedia of Living)" interviewed 100 passersby in both New York and Paris, it found that, on average, New Yorkers took a bath 2.2 times a week, while Parisians did so 2.4 times, although 12 percent of the Americans said they did not take a bath at all. Of course, this doesn't mean people in New York and Paris are dirty, because most of them said they often had a shower instead. In practical terms, of course, having a shower is more convenient than a bath, and also takes less water, less fuel, and less investment in equipment and maintenance. Despite this, and the fact that at least 70 percent of households in this country have a shower, nearly 80 percent of Japanese still insist they prefer soaking themselves in a hot bath.

"We were surprised by this survey result. We had expected more Japanese today would prefer a shower," says Miho Hayakawa, the Urban Life Research Institute's chief researcher.