Ritual of a Bath Denied to Japan Survivors


Of all the day-to-day hardships suffered by survivors of Japan's tsunami, the simple everyday ritual of a bath -- so important in the nation's culture -- is the thing many say they miss the most.

In a country where bathing is an elaborate and highly prized daily pleasure, the people of the washed-away city of Rikuzentakata now can only rinse their faces in cold water.

Life for many is now lived in a school hall, with the only water coming from a small military tanker parked outside the entrance.

"I haven't had a bath in a week," said Honami Suzuki. "That's one of the worst things about living in the shelter."

About 1,000 of the 9,500 people left homeless in Rikuzentakata are holed up in Daiichi middle school, where volunteer Tsutomu Nakai is co-ordinating their care.

"The lack of a bath is something that many of those staying here find difficult," said Nakai, whose own home was flattened.

"Japanese people really enjoy having a bath. We can't do anything about it at the moment, but people have been very good. They don't like it, but they aren't complaining."

Before the waves came on March 11, Rikuzentakata was a picturesque tourist spot on the coast of Iwate, an area dotted with "onsen" -- natural springs heated by the geologically unstable ground on which the country sits.

In normal times, many Japanese spend their weekends or holidays visiting these baths, which can range from a simple ceramic- or wood-lined deep tub to elaborate open-air pools created from volcanic rock.

Bathers must shower and scrub themselves scrupulously clean before climbing into the steaming pool, where they soak with friends or chat to fellow visitors.

At home, the ritual of cleaning is equally important, with a nightly shower and bath.

But for many of the estimated 380,000 people living in shelters, the once taken-for-granted soak is a pleasure they no longer have.

Rinzo Chikutsu has slept on a makeshift bed on the floor of Daiichi middle school since his house was crushed in the 9.0-magnitude quake and ensuing tsunami.

The 74-year-old says he is grateful for having somewhere to stay, even if conditions at the school are a little basic.

"There is no hot water, so we can't get clean," he said. "I can wash my face, but only in cold water."

Even those whose homes were spared the destructive force of the wave have been left without the means to bathe because there is no electricity, gas or water.

"We have a small solar panel, which meant we could heat about half a bucket of water," said Shizue Oue, whose home still stands on a small hill overlooking the devastation wreaked by the tsunami in Rikuzentakata.

"We could rinse ourselves, but we could only do it once and it wasn't very easy because there wasn't much water at all."

But for some, it isn't the quiet pleasure of a warm bath that they miss, but the very real necessity of being clean.

Kumiko Takahashi and her 18-month-old daughter Akiha are among those sheltering in the school.

She has access to nappies and wipes, but is desperate to give her baby a bath.

"There is no way to keep her clean," she said. "There's no water to wash the baby. It's really hard."

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