The Temperamental Shower

Pictured: One out of five knobs, and a little window.

I’ve been to Japan a few times now. First as a high school exchange student, then as an educator through the JET program, and most recently for as a “tourist”,  living with my then-girlfriend for three months at the tail end of 2006.

My first night in her apartment she gave me the obligatory tour. The thing that most caught my attention was the shower. It looked like something from straight out of the Industrial Revolution.

It was an imposing metal unit, and its operation required the use of five different cranks and knobs. That evening my girlfriend provided the necessary explanation:

“Turn this knob to start the gas. Then turn that knob to “high”, and then push and turn this knob, and hold it down. While holding it down, turn this crank. [*click, click, click*] Okay, look in the little window. Can you see the blue flame?”

I looked in the window: “No.”

“You need to get the angle right. Look again.”

I scrutinized the inside of the metal box from every possible angle, but still didn’t see it. Wait. There’s something, but it looks more like a reflection from somewhere, or a dying ghost. “You mean this little thing?”

“Yes, that’s it. Now turn this knob to here. Okay, if the water gets too hot or cold, adjust that knob over there. NEVER turn it past this point, or you’ll get burned. Enjoy your shower.”

So I took my first shower in my new home. The funny thing was, with five different knobs, there was still no way to adjust the water pressure. It was either barely on, or off.

During the course of my shower, occasionally an arm, thin and yellow as an egg noodle, would squeeze through the crack in the door, check the water temperature, adjust the knobs accordingly, and then slip back out.

When my shower was done, I had tea with my girlfriend, the owner of the helpful arm. She explained that the shower was like a person; you needed to get to know its moods. If the water was just the perfect temperature, then it would soon be too hot or too cold. You had to anticipate this and act preemptively.

For the first shower, the arm took care of things for me. The second time I showered, the arm was at work, so everything was up to me. I struggled with some knobs and got the little blue ghost to appear. Then I played with more knobs and got the water going. Sometimes it would be so hot it could give you second degree burns, other times it was ice cold. Eventually I started to get the hang of it.

That night, I talked to my girlfriend. I took a shower today, I told her, but I’m not sure I did everything right…

She looked me up and down and said solemnly, “Well, you’re still alive, so you probably did okay.”

Pictured Below: The shower unit, in all its wonderful, horrible glory

  • For some strange reason, this reminds me of a nightmarish Dr. Suess illustration.

  • Crackersen

    Yeah, they have the same type of showers in Russia! Sometimes its better to just go with the polar bear shower instead of autoclaving your skin.

  • I had a similar unit when I lived in Japan. It wasn’t quite as fickle as this beast however.

    I will never forget my introduction to Japan which involved the owner of the school I worked at giving a flurry of instructions as he walked my wife and I through our new digs.

    His instructions for the hot water heater must have been fairly good because we got by without the aid of a helpful arm. He did however tell us that a box of tampons left by the previous teachers was laundry detergent.

  • I encountered a strange shower situation in London once. In that case, the shower temperature could only be controlled when the water pressure was at full strength. Unfortunately, the shower had no door, so my choice was soaking the hosts bathroom or a freezing shower.

    Later, I asked her how it worked. She shrugged and told me she’d never figured it out.

    I feel better now, knowing that more nightmarish showers exist.

  • thekevinmonster

    That is horrifying. Is it mounted next to an electrical panel, too? (on the left)

  • viv

    I thought that the Japanese were good at making gadgets!

  • Rezmason

    Are you sure that was intended to be a shower? Someone might’ve bait-and-switched your then-girlfriend into buying some sort of industrial boiler. It looks like something you’d find in a basement.

  • Damn, but that’s a hard way to get clean. That shower-a-tron thing looks like it’s out of Gilliam’s BRAZIL!

    Congrats on the Xeric grant! I better bookmark your site and go order your comic!!!!



  • What are you talking about, it was actually a DNA clonning device cleverly disguised as a shower. When in fact those knobs he was turning was clearly taking snap shots of his DNA. As for the water, it was just as if he would get a hot or cold shower, opening those poors to release his DNA then shutting them.. lol

    Anyways, I see why they still have bath houses.

  • Zafner

    Any reasons given for why this was such a big deal? Did it heat the water using septic tank waste gas, or something like that? Was it a shower off a boat?

  • benny

    What is the advantage to having a shower like this? Like is it space saving or energy saving? There must be some advantage or they would just go to the western style. And do they just sort of put it where ever in the home or does it go in the bathroom with the toilet? So confused!

  • Lars Martinson

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    I’m no expert, but I think part of the reason it was so complicated was that the shower unit was a shower/mini-water heater rolled into one. There was no hot water in any other part of the apartment, which meant doing dishes and laundry with ice-cold water. Brrr…

    I’d also like to mention that in my experience, Japan is a seemingly irreconcilable mix of ultra-modern and hopelessly archaic. Another place I stayed at had a toilet with a control panel and a heated seat, but had no heat in the rest of the apartment. So you could see your breath in the winter when you were inside, unless you were on the john.


  • i’m reading this while in tokyo..i just spent a month in a subletted apartment that had one of those contraptions. sans yellow noodley arm. I like to think i’m mechanically inclined, but that thing baffled me. i was trying to be traditional and would keep the morning bath water in the tub and re-heat it for an evening bath, but I couldn’t figure out how to regulate the heat and almost melted the tub a couple of times.
    i ran to the bathroom when I smelled burning plastic and found little black bits floating in the tub.
    i’ve now graduated to a more modern set up. Mybe one day i’ll tell you about the device that heated the water in the kitchen sink….now that was fun.

  • Tankless tanker

    It’s just an ancient tankless heater, nothing exciting here, move along.

  • When I was in Japan in the early 90s (JET), we had one of these. The starter on ours was a little slow, and so we would get a mega-boom when the gas lit up, especially when it was windy out.

    To address some of the questions above: the panel on the left isn’t an electrical panel, but a vent for the heater to the exterior. The reason it can be moved up to *scalding* is that it is intended to heat (and keep heated) the blue bathtub beside it. The shower is merely an added feature.

    Yes, maintaining temperature with the thing was hell, but worse for me was the fact that you couldn’t actually reach your head without doing the standard shower squat. I suppose I could have gone to the local hardware store and tried to extend it, but I figured that was just the gaijin in me, and I should work harder to acculturate.

  • It’s a old water heater. Gotta agree with Tankless tanker on this one.

  • When I was living in Japan, I was lucky enough to be in a brand new apartment building. Tiny as a paperclip, but top of the line. The shower was awesome. The best part was that you could precisely adjust how hot the hot water could get, so you’d get the perfect heat from day to day. Sweet. Of course, the laundry machine was a glorified salad spinner, but that’s another story.

    perfect description by the way! i personally didn’t think “industrial age”, i thought “livestock”, but similar idea. japanese people have a good laugh every time they remember i have a shower like this. i swear they only install these to have fun with gaijin.
    mine has eleven knobs though.. are you sure you counted them all?

  • Lars Martinson

    Thanks again for all the comments, everyone!

    People over at the Boing Boing comments section about this blog entry had a lot of interesting things to say as well, with comments ranging from the positive environmental implications to a set up such as this, to an explanation about how Japan’s public-bathing culture factors into the prevalence of these shower/water heater units, so check that out if you haven’t already:


  • Sounds like a puzzle from Myst. :)

  • Thanks for sharing