He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
— Edwin Markham, “Outwitted,” 1915
I dropped my pants and felt a rush of cool wind against my legs. Slower now, I slid off my remaining clothes to stand naked on the stone path, which felt warm below my feet. The smell of pine from the nearby hills lingered in the air. The sun had just set. It was a midsummer evening, my first night out of Tokyo , and standing bare on this mountain, I soon realized how quiet a body can be.
Unsure, I kept my eyes down, shifting first from my feet now white with the chill, to my clothes, which lay in a shy heap on the grass, my pants still clinging to the shape of my body. Then suddenly I saw the other feet, and the legs. They too were bare. And as I watched them shuffling in my direction, my eye told me what my mind had not time to know: these feet were looking at me.
Stepping back, I met the eyes that the feet belied and for a moment felt locked in a frozen stare. There were twenty-four eyes in all — open, agape, peering! — and despite all I had heard about Japanese eyes being narrow, these eyes seemed remarkably wide. As I stood on this mountain path, face to face with the twelve men who would be my hosts for a year as a teacher in their rural town, the only difference I noticed between them and me was that they were all wearing towels and I was not.
To my relief, one stepped forward. “Mr. Bruce,” he said, offering a slight bow and a nervous laugh, “we are going to take a bath now. Perhaps you would like a towel.”
I had never taken a towel into a bath or, for that matter, taken a bath with other people, but under the circumstances I agreed. “Thank you,” I managed, trying to bow discreetly while drawing the small hand towel across my body.
As soon as I stretched it halfway across my waist, the others cheered, rushed forward, and with all the glee of a band of ten-year-olds parading a captured mouse, led me to the mouth of a nearby cave and the steaming, pungent fumes of a hot spring bath. As a newcomer in Japan , I would be welcomed into my office as I was welcomed into the world; with a bare body and a fresh bath.
Inside the cave, the bodies of other bathers emerged from the steam. They seemed to move slowly at first, as if muted by the weight of the thick white mist. Bare arms cut through the air drawing handfuls of water to splash over shoulders; heads bobbed in the murky liquid like croutons in a gray broth. Some of the bathers — all men, I now realized — stood half submerged in the round pool, nodding their heads intently and speaking in echo; others floated quietly by, suspended by shadows of steam that lingered above the surface. From above, the pale evening light sifted through the air, giving the space the eerie feel of a Roman bath. But instead of wearing a toga, each of the men wandering outside the water held a small white towel over his private parts. As I watched these men clutching their towels while splashing and chatting and strolling about, I wondered if I had discovered the secret reason behind bowing in Japan ; to shake hands at a time like this and release the towel would mean a certain loss of face.
As we approached the water, the teacher who had earlier offered me the towel, a short, squat man with wiry black hair, cherubic face, and a waddle that rocked him from side to side like a penguin, pushed the others away, put his arm around my shoulder, and led me forward.
“I … Mista Burusu boss,” he said, tapping first himself and then me on the nose. “My namu … izu … Sakuragi. I Iamu Mista Cherry Blossom.”
At this early stage in our relationship he spoke in English. Though my Japanese was far from fluent, I had the facility to understand most things when necessary and the ability to pretend not to when prudent. Both of these skills would prove vital to my survival.
Mr. Cherry Blossom led me to the wall of the cave and row of men seated with their backs to the water. We sat on two round stones facing the wall and, with our towels draped over our knees, proceeded to douse ourselves in warm, chalky water from a shallow trough at our feet.
“In Japan ,” he said, this time in his native tongue, “we clean ourselves before entering the bath. Then we just soak in the water. This is our Japanese custom.”
After pouring water over our shoulders with buckets and wiping our bodies with our hands (no soap), we were ready to step into the bath. Moving from the wail to where the water splashed at the edge of the pool, we walked slowly down the steps, slid up to our necks in the warm liquid, and for the first time removed the towels from below our waists and placed them — dripping wet — atop our heads.
“Doesn’t it feel wonderful?” he said, closing his eyes stretching his arms, and flashing a dreamy, self-satisfied grin.
“The water seems … alive,” I said as I struggled to keep myself afloat while pushing away the flotilla of bugs swimming past my head. Then slowly my feet began to sink, and I realize, that instead of being in a stone cavern, we were standing in an open mud basin with hot spring water bubbling up from the ground. With each burp from the earth, I would slide down further, until chalky liquid lapped at my mouth from below and dripped down my nose from above …
Excerpted from LEARNING TO BOW. Copyright © 1991 by Bruce S. Feiler. All rights reserved.