Parboiled in Japan

Parboiled in Japan

Adventures in and out of hot springs

 

Adrian Raeside

 

Introduction

Japanese society is still basically rooted in traditions that go back centuries, from excessive bowing and scraping when greeting one another, to the passive acceptance of one’s place in the hierarchy. But when a westerner thinks of Japan we think of the shinkansen (Bullet Train) toilets that play music, crowded subways, and of course, Toyota. But these are all recent additions to Japanese society, add-ons if you like. To experience a tradition that has been unchanged for centuries, go to a Japanese onsen (hot spring) Traditionally, houses would not have room for a bath or shower, so one would go to the public baths to wash, soak and catch up on the local gossip. It wasn’t long before inns would be built over hot springs, along traditional travel routes, a place where you could stop for the night before going on to raid an enemy’s castle. With the demise of the shoguns, these inns became more like hotels but kept the same traditional service.

from Hokkaido in the north, to the tiny island of Miyakojima in the south, I’ve visited onsens carved out of a rocky islets, onsens in 400-year old Ryokans high up in the mountains, and public onsens in the middle of a bustling city. But along the way, I’ve been up to my knees in mud planting rice, almost crushed while helping carry a Shinto shrine, there isn’t a food I haven’t eaten, (Fugu sperm is OK but not something you’d serve at a cocktail party) a centuries-old doorway I haven’t hit my head on and a sake I haven’t drunk.

Parboiled in Japan is a look at Japan most westerners never see.

 

Chapter 4 – The public bath

I’ve seen more wrinkled scrotums than Elizabeth Taylor. I mean, it’s hard not to if you go to the men’s side of a Japanese public bath, especially in the smaller country villages where pretty much everyone is over the age of seventy. But before you get to experience the scrotal parade, one must navigate the changing room. Trick is to find a locker where nobody will take the one below it. Possibility of theft, you say? Nah, nothing gets stolen in Japan, least of all my shorts. No, it’s in case some elderly gent takes the locker below you, as it will take him an excruciating amount of time to first get his clothes off and then even more time to get his clothes back on again, leaving you hovering around naked, waiting for the show to end. Painfully thin and stooped almost bent double – a sign they’ve been working the fields all their lives – the public onsen is the one place where they can warm their bones, and if they aren’t too far gone, carry on a conversation with their chums. Which is in reality usually a choreographed shouting match, as many of them are almost completely deaf, which does lead to some interesting reverberations within the bath area. What always amazes me is how much heat these old guys can take. I’m good for ten minutes submerged in the hot water. Max. I’ve seen 80 year-olds lie motionless like alligators for over 30 minutes. Mind you, they could also be dead. I was in a public onsen in Kyushu where there was a guy lying on the floor on his back. Not unusual, as sometimes they like to get out of the water and cool down on the tile floor. It did make me wonder though, how many times someone has just expired in a public onsen and if that did happen, would they change the water? I’m sure the statistics-obsessed government has someone who is tracking those numbers. As it is, there is a department of the federal government whose job it is to calculate how many people will die in the next big earthquake and which areas will have the most fatalities. I suppose if you wake up one morning to find the city has left a bunch of bodybags outside your door, you’d have cause for alarm…

And on the subject of statistics, recent Government figures show there are 47,000 Japanese over the age of 100, the largest number ever recorded. Out of that number, 41,000 are women – which means a male centenarian has an excellent chance of scoring at a karaoke bar – nine million are over the age of 80 and 30 million are over the age of 65. Japan has become the world’s largest old folks’ home.

The good news is the Japanese are now living even longer, with average life expectancy now 86 for women, 80 for men. The bad news is the Japanese are now living even longer. Turning 100, although great for Japanese birthday cake candle manufacturers, has created a host of problems for Japanese society, not the least being a drop in business for funeral homes. Announcing a relative has pegged-out at say, age 90, will elicit responses like: “Oh, how sad, he was so young.” Or, “that must have been such a shock for you.”

 

Take driving, for example. Japanese octogenarians on bicycles are as ubiquitous as squirrels in a downtown park, and have roughly the same road sense. Negotiating a car on the narrow streets in Japan is tricky at the best of times, especially when those streets were developed at a time when the widest vehicle would have been a man pushing a cart off to meet his mates for an afternoon of dolphin clubbing. Now mix into that same street, cars, delivery trucks and centenarians on bikes cycling in the wrong direction.

bench
It’s not just fossils on bikes you have to watch for, Japanese seniors are reluctant to give up their cars, especially in the countryside, where public transportation might be spotty. This has resulted in a rather dramatic rise in the number of traffic accidents involving senior drivers. But rather than re-educate elderly drivers, or pull their licenses, the government feels it’s better to just warn other motorists. Similar to the ‘N’ sticker new drivers in Canada have to display, Japanese drivers over the age of 65 are asked to display a green and orange-coloured leaf-shaped sticker on their car. Some seniors feel these stickers are an infringement on their right to run over pedestriations and refuse to display it. Others use it to their advantage. One acquaintance had a senior driver plow into the side of his car and then refuse to accept blame, because, as he said; “you should have seen my senior sticker”  then he drove away. I saw one vehicle plastered with dozens of those stickers, either as a protest by the elderly gentleman crouched behind the wheel, or he was so completely batshit, his family felt it was their civic duty to festoon his car with stickers as a warning to other motorists.There is some debate as to the effectiveness of these stickers. Recently, a senior driver was pulled over by police at a train station, which isn’t that unusual. That he was driving down the railroad tracks and had been doing so for quite some time, was definitely an eye-opener. (Presumably train drivers saw the green and orange sticker on his car and gave him a wide berth.) Shortly after this incident, another elderly gent was pulled over after tootling over a busy four-lane highway bridge – in the wrong direction.

To be fair, it’s not just seniors who are a menace on the highway. Young Japanese ladies have a curious obsession with stuffed toys and mascots and can’t bear to leave their ‘kawaii’ (cute) Hello Kitty, Pokemon, and related plush varmints at home when they make a run to the grocery store for a whale sandwich. Rather than be separated from their stuffed chums, they pile them on their car dashboard, turning their car into a rolling Toys ‘r’ Us window display. I once saw a vehicle with the front windshield almost completely obscured by dozens of identical stuffed toys – with the driver peering out of a letterbox-sized opening.

Although they may be old and grey, they are still very active. On any given day, the highways are packed with tour buses zooming across the country, shuttling seniors between hotel gift shops, competing for road space with the numerous vans shuttling octogenarians to their daycare facilities. Phalanxes of grey pour out of these buses, moving in dense packs, shepherded by harried young female tour guides, who dart among them like border collies herding sheep. With pockets full of retirement money and voracious appetites, they arrive en-masse at hotel restaurants, mowing through buffet tables like locusts, devouring everything in their path before getting back on the bus and tootling off to the next food stop. With Japan’s economy still in the toilet, this is welcome business for hotels and tour companies, but economists worry about the cost of keeping this growing army of seniors supported, and, as their ranks swell on a daily basis, if it will even be possible to continue providing them with the same level of support they currently enjoy.

The agricultural sector is desperate for workers, but it is not an attractive option for young Japanese, who have left sedate rural areas for the more exciting big cities, with no intention of returning. Currently, a disproportionate 70% of farm workers are over the age of 70, while only 5% are under 40. As farmers fall off their tractors, or just die of old age, an increasing number of farms are sitting idle. In 2010, 3,960 square kilometres of farmland were abandoned.

farmer

Not a lot, considering the size of Saskatchewan is 651,000 square kilometres, but dramatic for mountainous Japan with limited flat land available for agriculture. Factor in the loss of farms due to the recent tsunami (salt in the soil) and resulting nuclear disaster (radiation in the salt in the soil) means a loss of more productive land. Currently, Japan’s food self-sufficiency sits at a surprisingly low 39%, which the government would like to raise to 50%. However, if, as expected, Japan joins the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) the resulting influx of cheaper, tariff-free foreign produce (crap) from Asia and the USA will drive what few small family farms are left, out of business. The loss of these farms could result in lowering Japan’s food self-sufficiency to a piddling 13%, which would be a disaster for rural Japan. Small towns, already reeling from migration to the cities and the downturn in the economy, may simply be abandoned. As it is, drive through any country village and it’s quite common to see small shops and restaurants shuttered. Their owners either dead, in an old folks home, or just living like trolls in the back of their shops having long since given up trying to keep the business running.

farmhouse

Whole apartment blocks in smaller towns sit abandoned, with school roles reduced in some cases to only a few rather lonely students. Those familiar blue ‘school zone’ warning signs featuring the silhouette of two schoolchildren are being replaced by blue ‘silver zone’ signs featuring a silhouette of an elderly couple with canes.

To keep the Japanese population healthy, the replacement rate (number of children per woman) is calculated at 2.07. Right now the birthrate is at 1.39 and dropping. This is only likely to continue dropping, as fewer young males are interested in girls (see chapter on television and the bizarre popularity of transvestites) and the girls aren’t interested in any males not making an income healthy enough to support their shopping habits – and won’t be stealing their clothes. If this downward trend continues, the population of Japan will be reduced from the current 128,000,000 to 89,000,000 by 2055 – with over 4o% of those 89,000,000 being classed as ‘elderly.’

Although with the longevity of the Japanese, one does wonder what it takes to be classed as ‘elderly.’ The other day I saw an old lady having a conversation with a mailbox. I think she could be classed as elderly.

© 2015 Adrian Raeside

To view the 5 minute video clip related to the book, click here to visit the Raeside Youtube channel

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