Title: Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath
Author: Eric Talmadge
Publication Year: 2006
Publisher: Kodansha International
For the past two weeks, the internet has been deluged with people talking about how Tokyopop is going out of business. Somehow, in all the confusion, it seems that it’s slipped everyone’s mind that Kodansha International is closing its doors as well. At least, it’s ceasing all operations at the end of April. Which was yesterday, I realized a few hours ago – to my considerable dismay.
In my startled panic, I thought about writing a brief retrospective highlighting the excellent work the publisher has done with regards to promoting Japanese literature in America. I thought about how the company has put out the early novels of Murakami Ryū (such as Coin Locker Babies and Almost Transparent Blue) and the murder mystery novels of Miyabe Miyuki (such as The Devil’s Whisper and Shadow Family). I thought about how the company has published offbeat classics like Natsume Sōseki’s Botchan and Kawabata Yasunari’s House of the Sleeping Beauties. I thought about how the company has taken financial risks to publish niche-interest period dramas such as Ariyoshi Sawako’s The River Ki and Fujisawa Shūhei’s The Bamboo Sword, and then I thought about how the company has taken on even greater financial burdens to collect contemporary avant-garde short fiction in anthologies like Monkey Brain Sushi and Inside.
But really, I think what I’m going to miss the most are Kodansha International’s intelligent and beautifully published books about Japanese culture, like Diane Durston’s Old Kyoto, Kiyoko Morita’s The Book of Incense, and Jay Rubin’s Making Sense of Japanese. And of course Eric Talmadge’s Getting Wet, which is probably my favorite “foreigner writing about Japan” book ever.
As its title suggests, Getting Wet is about baths in Japan. Private baths, public baths, bathing resorts, and bathing theme parks. And of course you can’t talk about baths in Japan without talking about onsen, or hot spring baths. Talmadge covers onsen in Hokkaido, onsen in Nagano, onsen right in Tokyo, and onsen in the Izu Islands south of Tokyo. There are onsen with mineral water, onsen with radioactive water, onsen with electrified water, onsen on the lips of volcano craters, onsen so acidic that your eyes hurt for days afterward, and onsen with snow monkeys.
There are plenty of books on Japanese baths floating around, but what I like about Getting Wet is that it’s not a traveler’s resource like A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs or a coffee table design book like The Japanese Bath. It is instead a collection of eleven journalistic essays unified by the theme of bathing. These essays aren’t travel literature, per se, but rather memoirs (if such a stodgy word is actually appropriate) of life in Japan cradling a core of interesting contextual information. For example, the fourth chapter, “Under the Bridge,” is about a trip to the Oedo Onsen Monogatari theme park in Odaiba. Talmadge begins by admitting his reluctance to don a yukata (he claims that they always flip open at the front at inopportune moments – which they do) and then walks his readers through the park before comfortably sliding into an essay about the Arima springs in Kobe, where emperors and the Heian nobility used to bathe. Talmadge then compares the Japanese history of bathing to that of the West, storied as it is with the opulence of the Greeks and Romans and Moors. Elsewhere, when Talmadge talks about mineral springs, for instance, he explains how our skin works and how our bodies retain water. When he talks about the onsen in the north of Japan, he writes about economic depression and the drive towards international and regional tourism (and why these initiatives never work). All of this writing, both travelogue and journalism, flows together smoothly, as if it were a feature in National Geographic.
Except Getting Wet is a lot more interesting than National Geographic. The way its author writes reminds me of the way my favorite grad student drinking buddy tells stories. His vocabulary is colorful but not ostentatious, he’s done his research and knows his facts, and he’s not afraid to laugh at something that’s ridiculous or unpleasant. Talmadge’s language is crisp and clean and for the most part professional, but every once in awhile he’ll let a colloquialism slip in (“The bath was – excuse me – fucking hot. It was really fucking hot.”), which adds both spice and warmth to his narrative. To put it simply, Getting Wet is a pleasure to read. Even if you don’t care about hot springs or bathing. Even if you don’t care about Japan. In terms of interesting and enjoyable essays, Eric Talmadge is right up there with John McPhee and Annie Dillard.
The book is a pleasure for other reasons as well. What I have always loved about Kodansha International is the attention and care they put into each publication, from the font to the page layout to the beautiful cover and binding. Most of these small touches are up to the reader to discover, but I should mention, in the case of Getting Wet, that the photographic illustrations are especially stunning. I don’t mean “stunning” in the sense of “created by a professional photographer with professional software,” but rather that the pictures are unusually sharp, printed in soft yet high-contrast greyscale, and perfectly positioned beside the text. In other words, the high quality of the images is something that you don’t find often even in art books published by specialty presses.
Kodansha International’s Japanese parent company has recently invested quite a great deal of money in Vertical, so I think that perhaps it’s not unreasonable to assume that their fiction licenses will change hands at some point. I’m not so sure what will happen to their non-fiction, though. Kodansha International put out beautiful books, and it will be a shame to see publications like Getting Wet disappear. I have loved Kodansha International and its books for many years, and I’m going to miss them now that they’re gone. Thankfully, the international arm of the company is resurrecting itself as a high-profile manga publisher, so this story may just have a happy ending after all.