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Traveling the globe in search of the fountain of youth may be a centuries-old quest, but the spa is the hottest, most "in" travel destination of the 21st century. The choices at your disposal worldwide are far-ranging: from Hawaii's healing gardens to the Native American sweat lodges, you can pamper your skin and soul today as never before. Our reporter Karen Mueller took a trip to Japan, a country famous for their hot baths. And as Karen found out, relaxing sometimes takes on different interpretations in different cultures.

Denki Bath

By Karin Muller 11/01/2002

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Volcanoes, typhoons, earthquakes...Japan has not been dealt an easy hand. But the Japanese also have a long history of turning adversity to advantage. Once they realized that they were sitting atop a bunch of mountains that, literally, ooze hot rivers from thousands of pores, they decided to box in some of that steaming water, then sit in these baths -- or furos -- for hours. How divine -- I can't wait.

But I've forgotten that I'm in Japan. One must have discipline. And, discipline's gotta hurt. A normal furo is so hot that you have to inch yourself in, rubbing each newly submerged area like you've just banged it on the edge of the bed.

Once in, you sit absolutely still, waiting for your skin to cool down a thin, insulating layer of water to keep you from being boiled like a chicken.

You watch the clock -- the Japanese have rules for everything, and you're supposed to stay in no less than 3 minutes, and no more than 5 minutes. Has it only been 30 seconds? You're kidding. Your forehead pops with sweat. Your eyeballs bulge. Twoandahalfminutes -- that's enough! But getting out will disturb that layer of cool water you've built up around your body. You brace yourself. You mutter "discipline." Then, you throw yourself, screaming, from the furo. You sit under a freezing cold shower for as long as you can stand it, go straight to bed, then sweat all night long.

But after a while, a regular furo just doesn't seem...disciplined enough. So, the last time I was in Kyoto, I bravely braved the infamous denki furo. On the surface, this looks like any other Japanese hot bath -- until you actually examine the surface: it's chattering ominously with tiny little standing waves. "Denki," you see, means "electricity."

I wait until no one is looking. I casually stick one toe into the water. Something shoots up the inside of my leg, rather like a case of rabies that's working its way into my central nervous system.

Of course, now that I'm in Japan, I don't just have discipline: I have face, and that means I can't back out, even if no one is looking. I lower myself into that furo one inch at a time, so carefully that I barely disturb those evil little ripplets.

It's one of those times that I'm truly glad I don't have testicles.

And then, an eternity later, it's time to get out. I prepare to leap, screaming, from the tub. I leap. I scream. Nothing happens. My legs are completely and utterly asleep. No pins and needles. Just out like a light.

I'm glad my parents took me to Seaworld when I was a little kid because dolphins don't have legs either. I got out much the same way, beaching myself on my stomach and using my spindly little arms to flop along the ground. I left a long, slithery trail all the way to the showerheads. The electricity followed me like a bunch of hungry leaches. I propped myself up against a wall and waited for my body to wake up.

Then, I put on my clothes and wobbled out into the street, looking for all the world like one of those drunken Tokyo businessmen on the train after a sake-night with his buddies.

For my next trip, I've decided to cross the Sahara, where they drink their water tepid -- and they've never heard about taking a bath.

Savvy Resources:

Taking a Japanese Bath http://www.ease.com/~randyj/rjjapan9.htm

Japanese Public Baths

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