Hot Baths and Life

It was a surprise to find myself thinking of Goemon Ishikawa while reading Simone Weil's Iliad or The Poem of Force:

The bitterness of such a spectacle is offered us absolutely undiluted. No comforting fiction intervenes; no consoling prospect of immortality; and on the hero's head no washed out halo of patriotism descends.

His soul, fleeing his limbs, passed to Hades, 
Mourning its fate, forsaking its youth and its vigour. 

Still more poignant – so painful is the contrast – is the sudden evocation, as quickly rubbed out, of another world: the faraway, precarious, touching world of peace, of the family, the world in which each man counts more than anything else to those about him.

 She ordered her bright-haired maids in the palace
 To place on the fire a large tripod, preparing
 A hot bath for Hector, returning from battle.
 Foolish woman ! Already he lay, far from hot baths,
 Slain by grey-eyed Athena, who guided Achilles' arm.

Far from hot baths he was indeed, poor man. And not he alone. Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths. — Simone Weil

In Japan, while Nobunaga Oda and Hideyoshi Toyotomi were in force, death and affliction also took place in hot baths.

A large iron kettle-shaped bathtub is now called a goemonburo (“Goemon bath”). — (fn:1)

Execution of Ishikawa Goemon

Sometimes these old baths, big iron cauldrons are left around old houses. People use them to collect trash and make the cauldrons even harder to dispose of. A historic home in the neighborhood has an intact Goemon bath.

OguraTei Bath, Mimata, Miyazaki

Nice older ladies visiting Toroku explained the name's origin. At first I thought they said “HoeMon.” Since “Hoeru”吠える is to howl it made sense that a cauldron bath used to boil a person to death would be named after his howling. Eventually someone told me I was saying the name wrong and let me discover Goemon Ishikawa. Which of these stories comes closest to what happened, or maybe they all happened but are a combination of what happened to a few different people…

He was sentenced to death by being boiled alive in an iron cauldron along with his very young son, but was able to save his son by holding him above his head. His son was then forgiven.

He was executed on October 8 along with his whole family by being boiled alive.

Goemon at first tried to save his son from the heat by holding him high above, but then suddenly plunged him deep into the bottom of the cauldron to kill him as quickly as possible. Then he stood with the body of the boy held high in the air in defiance of his enemies, until he eventually succumbed to pain and injuries and sank into the pot. — (fn:1)

But usually, Japanese baths are great places to ponder human life and all the life we depend from. Energy and water are saved as people wash and rinse by the side of the bath, keeping the hot water clean for whoever comes in later. After a couple people share the heat from one bath, the washer machine can suck the water up to clean clothes.

Modern Bath in Japan

A lot of the gas and electric heat baths are automated now. But some people still heat Goemon baths with chopped wood. Chopping wood is great exercise, a relatively harmless use of the ax.

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