I feel unsurpassed happiness," Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek novelist, wrote in 1935 after experiencing a Japanese bath. "I have overcome impatience, nervousness, haste."
The experience of weightlessly blurring the body's boundaries in water rejuvenates and cleanses more than the skin. While bathing is not the ritual in the United States that it always has been in Japan, one American couple has found a way to incorporate the mystery of the bath into family life.Mary Lord and Woody Landay's Japanese soaking tub, which extends into the second-floor master bedroom of their Washington town house, has become the centerpiece of a renovated interior whose ingenuity reflects their years of travel and work in Asia.
Landay and Lord lived in Tokyo for four years, from 1983 to 1987, and traveled extensively in China and Korea. She was the North Asia bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report; he was a freelance videotape editor. Lord returned to the magazine's Washington headquarters in 1987, and her husband came back from Asia a year after that.
On their return, the couple bought the place they had rented from 1977 until they moved to Japan: a three-story house in fashionable but funky Dupont Circle.
They came home from Asia with some thoroughly altered perspectives and a taste for the Japanese way of life.
"You get it in your blood," Lord said."I aspire to the Zen simplicity of their open hearths, the deep bathing tubs, the tatami grass mats. The smell of tatami is so fresh - to me it's as comforting as chicken soup."
By necessity, Lord and Landay had lived simply in high-priced Tokyo in a cold-water flat. As a consequence, they discovered the pleasures of the Japanese bath-house.
"It would be a bitter cold winter night," Lord said, "and you would go to these fabulous public baths, do your laundry and sit in the big bathtubs, unwind and warm yourself to the bone."
The Japanese soaking tub, along with the tradition of bathing as a shared activity, was an idea they took home with them.
Their fiberglass whirlpool tub is surrounded by a trapezoid-shaped deck of matte gray tiles about two and a half feet wide at its widest point. Three tile steps lead up to a tiled bridge connecting the bedroom on one end and the bathroom on the other.
From the bridge it's another step up to the tub's deck. Inside the tub, a ledge permits the couple's children, Amelia Landay, 41/2, and David, 2, to sit at a comfortable level.
A wall of three-eighths-inch-thick white opaque plexiglass, which allows light to filter through like a shoji screen, separates the bath from the hall; at night, it glows like a lantern.
At the head of the tub is a sliding door leading to the bathroom, which contains a toilet, shower and sink. Another sliding door connects the bathroom with the hallway and the children's bedroom.
The 80-year-old house, when they returned to it, needed more than a bathtub. Over the years it had seen a lot of hard use. A previous owner took in foster children - more than 100 over a 30-year period - and the house was considerably worse for the wear.
It is a narrow house, about 1,800 square feet in all. A cramped hallway leading from the front door squeezed people from room to room, like toothpaste from a tube.
When Lord and Landay decided to tackle the house in 1991 and '92, they found they needed an architect who could translate the uninspired layout into a floor plan that would give them more living space and more storage, along with something even more important - the illusion of space and move-ment.
They found their man through a magazine article. Travis Price of Travis Price Architects in Takoma Park, Md., had designed a studio for a Washington artist based on the model of a Japanese teahouse, and the couple discovered that he shared their passion for Asian cultures and design principles.
Price did one drawing full of diagonals and sliding doors. "It was simplicity, all walls and angles," Lord said. "When it was finished, the space seemed sumptuous."
The plan called for revamping the front of the ground floor with a diagonal wall. It conceals lots of closet space and a powder room behind sliding doors, and it nudges traffic into the open living room, dining room and kitchen, which are full of the couple's collection of Oriental furniture and curios, along with Western clutter. "We're homebodies," Lord said. "We like a messy nest."
To the left of the kitchen is a large metal spiral staircase 5 feet, 6 inches in diameter. It saves space and links all the levels, from the basement (now a playroom and music room for the children) to the third-floor guest room and deck.
The house marries technology and nature, the modern and the ancient, and does honor to each. The soaking tub creates a restful transition from busy days to more tranquil evenings. "It's one way the house forces me to break from the day," Lord said. "It's the children's hour, a pause in the day."