A long-awaited, welcoming soak

Japan, April 14, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Malka Older/Mercy Corps  </span>
    One room of the new bathhouse, built by Peace Winds and Mercy Corps with help from local evacuees, which was constructed using materials salvaged from last month's earthquake and tsunami. Photo: Malka Older/Mercy Corps

The Takonoura Community Center in Ofunato, northeast Japan, has become home for around 80 people whose houses were destroyed in the massive tsunami on March 11. They don’t know how long they will be there or when piped water will be reconnected in that neighborhood, but Peace Winds Japan — with support from Mercy Corps — has helped to make their difficult situation a little more comfortable and hygienic by helping them build a temporary bathhouse.

For most of us, a hot shower can make all the difference between a good day and a terrible one. In Japan bathhouses not only help people keep clean and psychologically refreshed, they are also an important community space where people (usually segregated by gender) relax together.

Among the happy memories of my years living in Japan are the times when unknown old women, sitting next to me in the bathhouse, offered to scrub my back for me, as well as special excursions to particularly nice hot springs with groups of friends. On this visit, I’ve found stepping into a hot bath the best way to relieve the stress of aftershocks and extensive destruction.

I imagine the first bath for the evacuees in Takonoura after the temporary bath was set up — already a few weeks after the earthquake and tsunami — loaded with fear, grief and grime. The carpenters and other artisans among the evacuees worked together with Peace Winds Japan staff Matsuda-san and Kojima-san to build the bath, using salvaged materials and donations. The water, in a tarp-draped tank, was first heated and then pumped by generator into a second tank, which once held fish in a processing center or market, inside a tent.

To get to the bath itself, you walk through a series of three tents, each affording more privacy. The innermost segment has wooden pallets on the floor for drainage, with shampoos and soaps available for the initial scrubbing before stepping into the former fish container for a hot soak.

“The only problem is that in a normal bathhouse you can take your time,” said Sakiyama-san, an evacuee who gave us a tour of the bath. “Here because we have so many people waiting to use it, we have to set limits.”

However, in the cold springtime of this Touhoku (northeastern) region of Japan, even a short soak in hot water is very welcome.