I’m feeling rather exposed here. This was John’s first thought as he stood alongside the nude woman who’d told him to “keep calm” while suggesting they think of themselves as Adam and Eve, as if wearing birthday suits and holding hands among Japanese pines and hazy mountains could turn a fiasco into a religious experience worth another cardiac event, which was obviously on Jane’s mind since she was secretly pressing her index and third fingers to John’s wrist and, upon announcing a heart rate bouncing between 55 and 155 flub-flubs a minute—which would have been proper flub-dubs, had it not been for a-fib jacked by dopamine and adrenaline swirling through sclerotic veins—declared it dangerous for a guy fearful of bathing au natural to be standing where onlookers looked on.
“Keep calm,” Jane said again.
Their ¥90,000-a-night room with a personal outdoor spa was advertised as worth every yen. Toji therapy was good for you, the tour guide assured them. As soon as they checked in to their ryokan, the desk clerk swapped the couple’s shoes for slippers, bowed, and with outstretched hands presented John a list of onsen health benefits: “Hot springs relax muscles and stimulate natural immunity. Minerals in volcanic water flush toxins, lower inflammation, increase blood circulation and improve metabolism. Onsen baths cleanse oneself of impurities that disturb divine spirits.” On the brochure’s flip side were rules of hot tub etiquette, which ended in a haiku.
Warm bath soothes the skin.
Problems melt in steamy mist.
Peace blooms from within.
“You buy this nonsense?” John asked his wife, passing her the brochure.
“My Asian genes say yes; outdoor baths are a traditional Eastern practice. My Western medical degree is skeptical. I’d have to see the data.”
“My data says it’s voodoo.” John spoke loudly as they followed the bellhop and luggage to their room. “Like the supposed health benefits of drinking tea.”
Jane whispered back, “Not so fast, white guy. Black tea’s antioxidant and flavonoid protective value is proven. You need to drink more of it.”
In their room, John and Jane stripped and showered per the brochure’s instructions, which Jane kept handy for reference. (“Rule 4: People with tattoos are not allowed in the onsen.” She examined the tiny butterfly on her ankle.) Then they stepped from tatami to grass to a rocky outcrop, where light rain sprinkled their faces and shoulders. Fifteen paces on, at the edge of a raised concrete basin surrounded by dense forest, they heard footsteps, and not the kind bare feet make on stone.
John pointed to movement in bushes 20 yards away. “Um … I’m feeling rather exposed here.”
The second thought racing through John’s head was a long-buried memory of the last day of his first week in junior high. Coincidentally, it was his first showering with other boys after gym class. Someone noticed a difference between them and him, the only Jewish kid in the school.
The teasing was relentless, and the trauma imprinted. John refused to streak when the craze swept through college campuses. Neither would he skinny-dip with third-year architecture school classmates at nude beaches chanced upon backpacking through Europe. Being with a grown man reluctant to remove his clothes even after weeks of serious dating was weird, more than one girlfriend complained. His wife called him “the biggest square I ever met.”
“Keep calm,” Jane said a third time as John’s pulse gyrated. “Pretend we’re Adam and Eve. Think of this as getting back to nature.”
Jane, Chinese modest by birth, knew how to zen out when necessary. John, paranoid at 13, could only freak out. Spooked by the footfall, his fright and flight reflexes cocked, the approaching torso was a trigger. John wanted to bolt bare-assed to their room, slide the patio door shut, and draw the blinds before whoever was coming up the path arrived.
On third thought, he said, “Let’s go.”
“Yeah, your heart rate is all over the place. Time to go back.” Jane lowered the ryokan’s hand towel to her crotch (“Rule 7: Modesty cloth is the only article of clothing that can be brought to the onsen”) and stretched the other arm across her chest.
She was one step in reverse when John said, “No, that’s not what I mean.” He removed fogging eyeglasses and laid them on the tub’s rim. Then he tossed his towelette. “We’re too far from the room. Let’s get into the tub. There won’t be anything to see when she gets here.”
They plopped on the rim, rotated 180 degrees, and swung their heels into 107-degree Fahrenheit water.
“Oh my god!”
John and Jane were mere knee-deep when the hiker sauntered by. The young woman nodded and sing-songed, “Ohayou gozaimasu!” (“Good morning!”) without breaking stride.
“Hmm,” Jane observed, scanning the brochure again. “I’m guessing ‘personal’ onsens aren’t necessarily private onsens.”
John closed his eyes as if what he couldn’t see couldn’t hurt him.
It took five minutes to submerge to their waist; by then, three more hikers had come, bowed, and walked past. Finally immersed, Jane asked, “You okay with this? We have to get out sooner or later, you know. Should we escape now before the next train pulls in?”
“Meh, let ’em gawk.”
“Huh? I can’t believe this is you talking.”
“I can’t believe my leg is feeling better.”
The warm bath soothed. Steam rose. Bubbles popped. John contemplated his navel, wondering what hocus-pocus gave him the courage to shrug off 50 years of nightmares.
Researcher Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., has the answer. “Selective apathy can redirect emotional resources to [more] meaningful concerns.” John put physical pain above mental anguish. He and his wife were ending a trip through Japan that began in Kyushu, 1,400 miles away. Somewhere between Fukuoka and Sapporo, John began hobbling with the aid of a trekking pole. An exam at a local doc-in-the-box found a “weak backbone,” as best Jane could make of the Kanji characters in the report. The doctor gave John a steroid dose pack and sent him on his way. After five pill-popping days, John’s sciatica turned crippling. The drug didn’t work for him, but the water dousing his flaming nerve did. The onsen was an angst kill switch.
Not giving a hoot is usually considered a negative trait, but not always. In The Genius of Apathy and Boredom, author Karla McLaren describes how indifference can be beneficial. It’s “a masking state [that] helps you cover up your inner truths with a protective attitude that can distance you from uncomfortable situations. It can give you a necessary break from the situation, and its ‘I don’t care; I can’t be bothered; none of this matters’ attitude can give you a sense of control.”
John discovered the significance of control, or lack thereof, in junior high. Three days before leaving for Japan, he received a painful reminder. A client for a house he’d been designing had become unmanageable. There would be hell to pay on return to Fort Worth, a fear that niggled him across the Pacific. Once in the hot tub, though, the problem seemed to melt in the steamy mist. Eyes closed, John reflected on what he’d learned over the last 10 days.
One: Japanese people were uniformly polite. The folks they’d met on sidewalks went out of their way to help when he and Jane got lost or confused by street signs that weren’t in English or Kanji.
Two: People and pollution were not joined at the hip in Japan. Unlike Americans, these folks were near anal-retentive clean. Bathrooms, even at dodgy gas stations, were immaculate. John and Jane had yet to see a dirty vehicle on the road during hours of tour bus and car travel. Nor were dusty windshields, bent fenders, or rusty wheel rims to be found. Every private or commercial vehicle appeared to have rolled out of a showroom. Ditto on litter: highways, city streets, and residential and industrial neighborhoods had zero roadside trash.
Three: Japan’s aesthetic was as polite as its culture. Adjectives like quiet and reserved came to mind. Also: organic. They’d toured historic Shinto shrines and ancient castles that emerged from Earth as natural stone monuments. New and old machiya townhouses were understated. Modern minka homes harmonized with neighboring buildings. Yes, big-box retail strips looked like they’d succumbed to American fuck-you design principles, but the indigenous architecture withstood the onslaught. John’s pilgrimage to Nakagin to honor Kisho Kurokawa’s late Capsule Tower, a high-rise pagoda of plug-in, tearoom-sized homes, convinced him that Japanese designers knew how to blend traditional with modern styles. They’d mastered the art of harmonizing the unharmonious. Comfortable drawing from multiple histories, they were unlike John’s colleagues in the States. Japanese architects’ work was fitting in, not standing out.
Four: Not giving a shit was both yin and yang. Who knew?
There was a fifth pearl to harvest, although murky waters made finding it difficult. How, John wondered, did Japanese architects convince their clients to build modestly? For that matter, how did local architects suppress their own egos?
A gurgling hot spring crashed into waves of “Ohayou gozaimasu!” Through the fog and passersby, John noticed an older man dressed in a yukata. Save for the robe and ethnicity, by gate and build, he could be mistaken as John’s problematic Texan client. John felt a knot in his stomach, like someone squeezing it with a fist. Peering into the volcanic water between his legs, he wondered if he had the balls to finish the project.
“It’s getting a little hot, hon. I need to cool off.” Jane stood up.
John wouldn’t budge. “Let’s soak a few minutes more. The heat’s doing my leg good.” Importantly, he knew it was also stimulating his mind.
Jane reimmersed and reached for his hand. After a moment, she said, “Seventy-two beats per minute and steady. Good enough. Splash away.”
A month ago, a woman walked into John’s office and asked him to restore a midcentury modern house. John remembered the place, having often ridden his bike down its street as a child. An icon of the 1950s, the original structure had expansive interiors, vaulted ceilings, and shoji-proportioned clear glass windows set in cherry wood frames. A low-pitch roof spanned the living room, dining area, and kitchen. Clerestories highlighted exposed timber beams. According to the old roll of drawings she’d brought, the front lawn was once a Japanese garden. Inside was a raked gravel courtyard open to the sky and, within that, an onsen. Unfortunately, seventy years of McMansion renovations erased all of this. Helene said she and her husband bought the property and an adjacent parcel for their retirement. She wanted to save the building.
John jumped at a chance to restore midcentury history, even reducing his fee by 10% to keep out the competition. Once he received his letter agreement in the mail, signed by Helene’s husband, John booked a nonrefundable flight to Japan to spend 10 days absorbing the local flavor. He told Helene he wanted to return educated and inspired before putting pencil to paper if not mouse to screen.
At their next meeting, three days before the flight, Helene said her attorney husband would join them, but he was running late. Seymour showed up an hour afterward. Seriously older than her, the man studied the firm awards carefully lined up on John’s conference room credenza. He lifted each one, read its inscription, and put it down cockeyed. Exploring John’s photos on the walls, Seymour wondered, “Why are the trees green in these pictures and the sky blue, while all the houses are black and white?”
John didn’t answer.
Seymour plunked himself down at the Saarinen table and gestured to a sheet of yellow trace taped to a faded blueprint. “Y’all, it ain’t cost-effective to renovate this junk pile. Bulldoze the lot and draw me something like the rest of the houses in the neighborhood, just with bigger Carthaginian columns.”
Helene shrunk in her chair. John cringed and asked if Seymour meant “Corinthian” columns.
“Yessir. Design me a house with lots of them.”
Taking a deep breath, John said that, sadly, he felt obliged to resign from the commission. This wasn’t the kind of work he did.
Seymour appeared shocked. “How about I double your fee? My wife likes you.”
“I can’t do it. My style is—”
“Spare me your pretentious style. I’ll triple your fee.”
“Seriously, I appreciate the offer, but—”
“Look—John, is it?—John, I will pay you five times what you asked for. And, by the way, I recall no termination clause on that single piece of paper you and I signed. Did I mention I was a judge before I married Helene?” Seymour pushed back in his Brno chair. “I have no time and no patience to hunt for another architect, my friend, so you will do the work as I described.” Before leaving John’s office, Seymour glowered and said, “Hope I’m getting through,” and, pointing to his wife, added, “to both of you.”
Silence for a considerable time. Then Helene touched John’s shoulder. “Seymour isn’t a man to trifle with. Don’t worry, though. Go to Japan. Somehow, we’ll find a way to sneak a Zen garden under his nose.”
John put his head between his hands. “I’m feeling a little exposed here.”
“Yes. From a legal perspective, you probably are.”
“That’s it. I’m boiled. I’m out of here.” Jane stood, pulling John up as another hiker flâneured into view and waved. “Ohayou gozaimasu!”
Jane dropped John’s arm to wave back. “Mei? That you?” Switching to Cantonese, Jane said, “Zou san, Mei!”
Mei walked over to the couple, their nakedness unacknowledged, happy-faced. Immediately, she and Jane launched into an animated conversation. John’s understanding of Chinese was marginal, but he could decipher the women asking each other if they’d eaten yet—a standard Chinese greeting, the equivalent of How are you? John thought he next heard Mei say she was Japanese but raised in Hong Kong. Something about USC was mentioned. Beyond that, John had no clue other than when the women were talking about him: Jane and Mei occasionally looked his way and smiled.
John whispered in Jane’s ear, “Listen … I’m feeling a little exposed here. I’m gonna bug out.”
His wife ignored him. Not Mei, though. In a vague Southern Californian grin, she extended her hand. “Please to meet you. I met your wife in Shimojo.”
“Remember that public onsen I visited while you stayed in the room, hon? This is the woman I told you about, the Japanese residential architect? Ha. I didn’t recognize her with her clothes on the first time she walked by.”
“Yeah, funny.” John was covering his privates with his hands. “See, I feel a little—”
Mei cut him off, laughing. “Oh, no need to be embarrassed at Japanese hot springs. Public bathing is a tradition since, oh, I don’t know, Edo time, I think. Everyone is used to it. It is how we fit in with nature.” Mei extended her hand further, accidentally poking him in the belly button. John desperately searched for the miniature towel he’d laid down … somewhere.
“I tell your wife I am happy to meet a fellow architect. And to practice my almost forgotten English!” She took John’s two hands and firmly shook them. “Welcome to Japan. Your wife say you come to learn about our architecture. That is funny because I went to the U.S. for the same reason. That is where I get my graduate degree. So many differences I find between us.”
“I opened my little office in Sapporo 10 years ago after returning from California. So many differences between American and Japanese architecture practice, wouldn’t you say?” She balled a fist and pealed off fingers. “Building codes, materials, design approach, client handling—”
“Wait.” John stepped out of the tub and sat on the onsen’s rim, finding the lost towel under his butt. Dragging it over his lap, he said, “Talk to me, Mei,” and patted the space beside him.
Mei alighted alongside, followed promptly by Jane, who joined them cross–legged to their right and draped a possessive arm around her husband’s neck.
“I’ve lost control of a project. I have got a client who always gets his way. He’s insisting I design a damn cartoon.” John described a neighborhood once filled with modest modern homes now lined with Greco-Roman mansionettes. “He’s going to pay me handsomely for destroying my image.”
Mei’s smile faded. Her eyes darkened. “Ah, you are—what is the word—circumcised?”
John blinked twice and confirmed his towel was in place. “You mean circumspect?”
“Yes. You are wary, am I right?”
Jane interrupted before he could answer. “Hey, hey, hey. Your pulse is going bonkers again. Calm down.”
“John,” Mei said, squinting, “Japanese people believe authenticity is more important than self-image.”
“I have no idea what that means. What I do know is that the teasing I’ll get from peers will be relentless. I’m stuck, Mei. I can’t go through with the house design, yet I can’t get out of it.”
“Your heart, John. Remember your heart.” Jane put her mouth into his ear. “Keep. Calm.”
Mei’s voice was monotone. “In between black and white is gray.”
“I still don’t follow.”
“These are Shinto beliefs. This is how we live. Tell me how you tried to reason with your client.”
“I couldn’t. The guy stripped me of the chance the first time I met him.”
“I have to know, Mei, how does Shintoism apply here? How would you keep my client in check?”
Mei briefly looked away before answering. “Peace blooms from within.”
“I need more than that.”
Mei spoke of harmony, about not offending the spirits, the client’s spirit, or anyone and anything. John nodded, with Jane’s hand on the side of his bouncing neck, but he said nothing.
Thirty minutes into Mei’s gentle lecture, Jane stood up. “Fifty-five and steady again,” She headed toward their room, promising to return with yukatas, cups, and a pot of black tea.
Featured image by the author.