As soon as the weather starts to get chilly in this country, it seems that peoples’ minds turn to two things: yu (湯, hot water) and nabe (鍋, hot pot). Anyone staying in Japan longer than a year will have noticed it — as a nation, Japanese are hopelessly samugari (寒がり, prone to being cold). Out on the streets, visitors from overseas wander around smiling in shorts and T-shirts; many Japanese bend their backs in the akikaze (秋風, autumn breeze), their hands pulling together the lapels of their overcoats.
Theories abound as to why the Japanese feel cold most months out of the year; the one I recall most readily is that we are thin-skinned and therefore poorly equipped to combat the perpetual shikke (湿気, humidity) that defines the weather, whatever it happens to be.
My grandmother claimed that she never felt hot enough any time during her entire life to wear short sleeves, and she shivered at the sight of her granddaughters traipsing around the house in tank tops and cutoffs in sultry mid-August. She held that such shameless attire usually brought on natsukaze (夏風邪 summer colds) and urged us to take hot baths instead of showers. Actually, she marched us into the tub for everything. “Hie wa manbyō no moto (冷えは万病のもと, a chill is the source of all ills)”?was one of her maxims in life, followed by “yu ga ichiban no kusuri (湯が一番の薬, hot water is the best medicine).” To back it up, she always kept the kettle boiling and the bathroom immaculate. Indeed, over the years we learned how a hot bath followed by a hot cup of tea relieved most kinds of pain and stress; to this day, the women in my family are hot-water fetishists, renowned for spending inordinately long periods in the bathtub, even during the hottest days of summer.
We are by no means the only ones. “Nihonjin niwa ofuroga aru (日本人にはお風呂がある, when all else fails, the Japanese will still have their baths)” is an old folk slogan; for hundreds of years and way into the 20th century, the Japanese never got a whole lot to eat, but in the darkest of times a soak was always possible. To this day, in many regions people will say “itadakimasu (いただきます, the salutary phrase that precedes a meal)” before taking a bath, especially when they’re about to do so in the home of a friend or relative. As for immersing oneself in an onsen (温泉, hot spa), many perceive it as a gochisō (ごちそう, repast) and will often say that a good onsen session is equivalent to a full meal.
And the yu is a democratic phenomenon; queens, lords and paupers occupied the same space and the same hot water — and now you can too. All over Japan are famed onsen spots where this lord or that warrior took time off from fighting and politics for a soak. One famous yu is Taikou no Yu (太閤の湯, The Grand Military Commander’s Bath), which is tucked in a hillside of Hakone, that veritable Mecca of hot water, southwest of Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture. A tiny, warm little grotto surrounded by rocks, this is where Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the warlord who laid the groundwork for the unifying of Japan, took a bath some time in the mid-16th century. A poor farmer’s son, Hideyoshi worked his way up to become the most powerful, fearsome military leader in the country. It’s a bit weird to think that here floats a chunk of history, suspended in time in a pool of hot water.
Yu has its downside, though. Phrases to remember while mediating in that tub are as follows: yuatari (湯あたり, dizziness and nausea caused by soaking too long) and yuzame (湯冷め, catching a chill after getting out of the tub). Only the hale and hardy can handle some types of onsen, and women and children are often warned against yujyaku (湯弱, exhaustion from exposure to hot water).
For the most part, though, yu is regarded as a gift from the gods — and people still send specially wrapped bottles or cartons of brand-name onsen yu to each other as gifts — to drink, soak feet in, or use in lieu of facial water and moisturizers. There’s nothing like yu to combat the blues and keep the body warm and supple. It is a daily custom whose pleasure never wears with time.