Photo: Snow monkeys in water
In hot water: Monkeys enjoy a Japanese power spot--a thermal pool.

Photograph by Boyd Matson

By Boyd Matson

It’s not pretty when guys over 40 walk around naked. I’m reminded of this while getting ready to climb into the natural hot springs bath at Yudanaka, Japan. The last time I experienced anything like this was in a hot tub in California, when I was considerably younger, the group was coed, and copious amounts of alcohol were being consumed. On second thought, the only similarity was the hot water. Now, diverting my eyes from the sagging flesh around me, I remove my robe, adding to the horrific tableau, and descend into the steaming water.

I’m in Japan to visit traditional power spots, the places people frequent to seek spiritual rejuvenation, physical healing, happiness, peace of mind, and good fortune in love, business, and school. These power spots come in three configurations: monuments and relics; temples and shrines; and natural wonders such as rivers, mountains, waterfalls, and hot springs—like the one I’m soaking in. But instead of relaxed and free of tension, I’m feeling overcooked and overwrought because I have just noticed that I’m the only one missing a small rag to provide cover while I walk from pool to locker. So I’m hoping for the impossible—a moment when I, the only non-Asian in the room, can inconspicuously slip my pink, wrinkled body into my too-short robe and shuffle quietly away to retrieve my rag.

My tour of power places began in Tokyo, with a visit to Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine that features a famous positive-energy spot, Kiyomasa’s Well. I watched as visitors snapped photos to use as wallpaper on their cell phones, which brings good fortune. Next stop was Fukagawa Ryujin, where believers drop wishes written on paper into water. If the paper dissolves, the wishes come true. At yet another stop, Kameido Tenjin, visitors stroke the head of a stone cow for healing purposes.

Following my misadventures in the baths at Yudanaka, I’ve taken a taxi to Jigokudani. The name means “hell’s valley,” but this place north of Nagano—site of the 1998 Winter Olympics—is more like heaven for the snow monkeys that live here. These Japanese macaques, the world’s most northern-dwelling nonhuman primates, famously gather in winter to soak in the natural hot springs. None sports a small rag, but they seem unconcerned and at peace. So do I, just watching them.

Another Nagano attraction sits inside Zenkoji, a 1,400-year-old Buddhist temple: the Amida Golden Triad, a trio of statues that, according to legend, were the first Buddhist icons to arrive in Japan. This major power spot attracts some six million visitors and pilgrims yearly, many hoping to find enlightenment by touching the “key to paradise.” It’s my kind of spiritual journey: no long years of monastic living or sacrifice, no endless hours reading ancient texts. All I need to do is grope my way through a pitch-black tunnel under the main altar until I touch the key.

First, however, I tour the temple grounds with Taka-Kazu Fukushima, a Zenkoji priest. Before he entered the priesthood, Fukushima earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and did research in the U.S. He probably senses my Western inclination to find a shortcut to paradise. He suggests that I stand in line to get a blessing from a temple religious leader.

“Does it matter that I’m not Buddhist?” I ask. “No,” he answers. “This temple is nonsectarian. We don’t care about religion; we care about faith.”

I get my blessing, then make my way into the dark tunnel. Sightlessness is supposed to help clear the mind of worldly thoughts, but all I can think is: “Don’t accidentally grab some body part of a stranger,” and “Don’t screw up and miss the key.” I find the key, attached to a wall, but no shortcut to enlightenment. On my way out of the temple, Fukushima tells me that the walkway to the front gate has 7,777 stones. I don’t count them, accepting his number on faith. It’s a first step.

My final morning in Japan, I discover the country’s real seat of power. No, it’s not Emperor Akihito’s throne, though I bet he has one like it, as do more than half the homes in Japan. This special place, as humble as it sounds, may be the ultimate expression of Japan’s technological vitality: the electronic toilet seat.

To clarify, this isn’t my first toilet break in Japan, but it is the first time I test all the features. Transitioning from an American potty, with its two options—seat up or seat down—to a Japanese toilet is like going from horse and buggy to the space shuttle. You’re not sure what the buttons do, but you sense you’re in for quite a ride. I was familiar with a few of the standard features: padded, heated seats; automatic flusher and lid closer; automatic deodorizing spray. But I hadn’t explored the buttons on the digital control panel, labeled in Japanese. Only now, with time to kill before catching the train, do I experience the invigorating, meditative, and entertaining qualities of the Japanese toilet.

This particular model, which I dub “the water park special,” has two nozzles that—depending on which button I push—spray, pulsate, or stream, giving my backside a mini-shower. The water is heated precisely to 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. My wife, in the other room, hears me giggling and asks: “What’s going on in there?”

“Just researching power spots,” I shout.

Next I try the blow-dryer feature, which provokes more chuckles. I find a button that plays music and another that mimics the sound of a toilet flushing to mask other sounds. Yet another button activates a seat vibrator that keeps one’s legs from going numb when sitting too long. I’ve heard that the newest generation of Japanese toilets measures your blood sugar level, blood pressure, weight, and body fat. My concern is that toilets will eventually be programmed to make snarky comments when we sit on them, such as “One at a time, please” or “Did you really eat that?” But on balance, even that would be a small price to pay for all the other benefits these electronic thrones offer.

I have always been fascinated by the high-tech gadgets that friends bring back from Japan, knowing that we won’t see such products in the United States for at least a year. I wouldn’t be surprised if souvenir-hungry tourists soon turn their attention to these washing, drying, fluffing, vibrating, blood-diagnosing, perfume-spraying, music-playing, heated Japanese toilet seats. After all, who wouldn’t want a bona fide power spot right in their own home?

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.

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