Think of this as Volume 12, Number 47 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
I'm going to put the lesson of this week's Clue right at the top.
This is a personal story that starts 20 years ago. I was in Japan, and found myself staying with Hiro Nakamura (right). Not the Heroes hero, the real guy, a nice gentleman who was born in Yokohama but was then just starting to make his way in the world, with a small apartment in the Tokyo suburbs.
It was a tiny place, smaller than the first apartment my wife and I had 10 years earlier. It was split in two, with a bedroom on one side just big enough to fit a few sleeping bags, and a living-dining area on the other side featuring the world's smallest kitchen.
It also had a bathroom, in front of the bedroom. And in this bathroom it had a shower, a toilet, and a deep, deep tub. I was confused at first, but Hiro explained this was a soaking tub, an ofuro. The water was kept at a constant temperature. I could shower and get myself clean, then remove the cover from the ofuro and soak in hot water for a while. It was like being at a ryokan. It was very nice.
I thought about that tub often when I came home. I thought, if I ever make enough money to afford a bigger house, I want one of those bad boys.
After two decades of hard work by both me and my lovely wife, I was ready to go for it. We had the loan, we had extra cash. We hired an architect who gave us a design featuring just such a tub (she said) — from a company in Charlotte called Americh.
We began to build. This was six months ago.
There is an inverse-happiness law in renovations you should know about. You start happy, and you gradually get less happy. As time goes by and you're inconvenienced, with people trooping in-and-out of your home every day, you get cranky. And as the finishing time nears, you start getting picky, almost despite yourself. So that when the contract is near ending you feel like getting a divorce. So does the contractor.
We had a budget, $150,000 for a master bedroom, a walk-in closet, a real laundry room and a bathroom featuring, of course, The Tub. The bid came in at $170,000, so we said no thanks. No, the contractor responded, how much will you spend? Well, we have $100,000 in the bank right now, I said.
No problem. They offered a bid of $97,000.
Turned out this bid was not all it was quacked up to be. It was like buying a car without the wheels. It included a new water heater (for the tub) but not the price of hooking it up. It included the space, but none of the things needed to make it livable. And the bathroom was empty.
Still, we stuck with it. We added to the budget. We paid for the trim. We got in a heating guy. We bought a heater as well as the water heater connection. After a flood we bought two. We added a second electrical panel, and a few other things. The final bill from the first contractor was $120,000.
And still, no bathroom.
That would require a second contractor, who suggested (having heard of our first adventure adnauseum) that we buy our own stuff.
First thing I did was buy the tub. You want water jets with that or air jets, they asked. Oh, air jets I guess. Fine, $3,600.
I paid, and a few weeks later woke up in a cold sweat. I was buying a bathtub, not an ofuro. There was no heater on this unit, no cover, no way to keep the water warm. I ran to the phone next morning and canceled. I was told that despite the fact the tub hadn't left their warehouse they would demand a 50% "restocking fee." I got my credit card company involved, at which point they cut the fee to 20%.
It cost me $1,000 to get no tub, but I felt it was worth it. At least I knew what I wanted, and what I didn't. I had a story to tell.
I did some web surfing, and lo and behold discovered there was a company right here in the Atlanta suburbs that made just the tub I was looking for. Or seemed to. It was four feet square, with a deep well of over two feet. Sit down and the water laps up to your neck. Sweet.
I jumped in the car and drove up. I had time, I wanted to do this right. A tech worker (you know they have tech workers at tub makers) showed me around the empty factory (it was Friday — they make tubs 10 hours a day Monday-Thursday and use Friday to clean up), showed me the mold "my tub" would come out of, then took me into his office, all the while listening to my sad, sad story. He printed some spec sheets, circled some options, said these are the things you need. We have a store near downtown where you can place the order.
I was over the moon. I had the order placed that day. I was in 7th heaven.
Time passed. Finally, the retailer called. My tub was ready for delivery. Oh, joy.
It arrived late that afternoon. It was in its wooden frame, easy to install. The box was 4 ft. by 4 ft. by 3 feet. It was huge, sitting there in my living room. To just get it in the door took three of us a half-hour, and we had to rip the cardboard off it. It was my tub, like it or not.
I ran back with a tape measure. My kitchen door was 32 inches wide. The entryway to the kitchen was even narrower. And the windows into the new bathroom were smaller still.
I was despondent. We talked about having Goodwill take away the tub. We said we had learned a hard lesson.
I called my second contractor. We were still in love then, in a non-gay business sort of way. I said, my tub is several inches wider than the doors.
Let's see what we can do, he said.
Two guys came over, filled with the accents and brio of New York natives. Just like the people I knew back home. They said, let us do a little work. I turned my back, and the 90-year old entryway to my kitchen was torn apart. The contractor came over, sort of held my hand. He had a Bluetooth phone in his ear, and a salesman's bedside manner.
They ripped the entryway some more. "Oh, we can get a few more inches here," said one of the New Yorkers with confidence. Great, said the contractor. I don't want to see this, I said, and I went out to buy some coffee.
When I got back the tub was miraculously in the bathroom and the entryway was repaired, just a little worse off for the journey.
Work commenced anew. The tub was connected according to package directions. A shower was placed next to it, a fancy European one that keeps water at the right temperature and lets you run both the handjet and the overhead together. A vanity was installed, and a fancy toilet. Tile was laid.
The contractor came back, with his crew, and I called the tub maker. "Oh, that heater won't make your water hot," said the tub maker. "No, that heater is only 1,000 watts. Fill the tub and that will just keep it warm while you bath. You bought a bathtub, not an ofuro. I mean, it's an ofuro shape, but it's a bathtub."
But it's installed, I said.
Let us see what we can do, he said. A few days later came an e-mail, with a page ripped from an online catalog. For baptismal fonts.
I knew Baptists liked to dunk people. My wife was born one. My son became one. We have a big font behind the altar of our church. I had never thought before that they might like to heat it, but apparently modern Baptists do. And they do it up right. This page featured heaters in a variety of sizes, from a 4,500 watt job all the way up to a 20,000 watt monster suitable for revival meetings.
The heaters were each several feet high, and wide, and deep too. My tub had barely fit into my bathroom. I could knock out a hole in the bedroom, but then you're talking about this huge, noisy heater going on 24×7 right next to my bed head, for the rest of my life.
So we compromised. The plumber came back. He put in a valve that gives me hot water. To do this, his New York friend cut a hole in my bedroom wall, covered with a white plastic cover. The hole went past a stud, so the plumber spent several hours drilling through the stud to install the valve.
How do I fill the tub? Oh, you have to open up this other access panel, inside the bathroom. You have to get your hands on this valve several inches from the door, and twist it. Then twist it the other way when the tub is full. And you'll need to repeat this with each soak, adding some hot water each time, and buy a thermometer to check the temperature. And open the second access panel if you want to change the temperature of the incoming water — they wouldn't let us just run hot water to it — too hot. Then turn on the existing heater (which sounds like a dishwasher on its drying cycle) and you're good to go.
Can't I get that tap on the outside of the tub, if I'm going to have to use it all the time? Oh, no, said the plumber. That wouldn't be code.
And that's where we are.
I'm certain that were I Japanese I could just order an ofuro and have it installed in my little tiny Japanese apartment. In my big new Georgia house, not so much. They never heard of it. Don't know about it. Haven't got a Clue. They'll sell you a kludge, for 10 times what you think it will cost, but that's all it will be.
What they want to sell, what they're really willing to sell, is just what everyone else buys, wherever you are. If you're in California that's a California King bed 6 ft by 6 ft, with sheets and pillowcases to match. In Europe it's a fancy shower that really works. (Ours doesn't — not enough water pressure.) In Japan they know from Ofuros.
But while it may seem like a small world, running around on your Internet, it's not really. Even early in the 21st century it still is what it is.
It still has a long way to go.