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Japan may seem like a futuristic wonderland, what with its high-tech toilets and their array of functions that clean your bottom, heat your cheeks, and even provide sound effects to cover the natural ones that accompany your bathroom business. But technology is constantly evolving at a rapid rate, and each new innovation replaces something that used to be cutting-edge.

Case in point; every spring, thousands of young Japanese people leave home and move into their first, low-rent apartment to start school or a new job, and you can expect at least a couple will be shocked when they go to take a shower, discover this giant contraption next to the tub, and have no idea what it does.

Most of the equipment in the above photo shouldn’t be much of a mystery. There’s a bathtub with a cover to keep the water warm for the next bather (since in traditional Japanese bathing you wash your body before you soak and don’t draw a new bath for each person). Sitting on top of the cover are two baskets of soaps and shampoos, one for the husband and the other for his extremely beautiful wife, and on the far right, there’s a handheld showerhead.

But what the heck is that thing it’s attached to?

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That’s called a balance gama, or balance boiler, and don’t feel bad if you consider yourself a Japan expert but have never seen once before. While balance gama were common in the 1970s, they’ve become less and less so in the decades since, and plenty of Japanese people born after 1990 don’t know what it’s called, how to use it, or even what it does.

▼ With all those controls, is it some kind of water-proof karaoke machine for singing in the shower?

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Unlike American homes, Japanese houses and apartments aren’t generally designed to keep a large tank of water constantly heated and on standby. Instead, you have to manually turn on the water heater. While that might sound terribly inconvenient, it is more energy-efficient, and with more modern Japanese systems, all you generally have to do is press a button, mounted on the wall, and there’s usually even a digital display so you can set the water to the exact temperature you want as you shower or take a bath.

But before things got so computerized, Japan’s hot water needs were served by balance gama, which are large, floor-mounted water heating systems generally installed right next to the tub. They’re also a bit less user-friendly than their modern successors, as this video demonstration shows.

To use a balance gama, first you’ll need to get the gas flowing by opening the valve on the wall.

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The next step is to light the pilot light using the controls on the balance gama itself. This is generally done by pressing one of its dials in and giving it a turn. The exact method varies from unit to unit though, so be sure to ask your landlord for a demonstration when you move in, instead of just randomly twisting things around.

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Fancier balance gama have a light (which is red in the above photo) that confirms the pilot light is lit, while some older models instead have a clear window behind which the actual flame can be seen (this also doubles as a cheap way to shower by candlelight). Once the pilot light is set, slide the dial into the standby position.

▼ The dial on the left controls the temperature (clockwise for hotter, counterclockwise for cooler).

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Finally, since balance gama are generally hooked up to both a showerhead and an extended spigot for filling up the bathtub, the last step is to slide the selector lever over to whichever you want the water to come out of.

▼ Spiggot and showerhead

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▼ Turn to the left to take a bath, or to the right for a shower.

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▼ OK, time to get clean!

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Looks like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Actually, once you get used to it, it all becomes pretty automatic, and takes less time if you’re not also making a video to show how it’s done.

There’s even an advantage balance gama have over the less bulky systems that have largely replaced them. Once the pilot light is lit, the water heats up incredibly quickly, meaning you never have to spend more than a few brief seconds shivering after you strip down for a shower. So if you hate the cold, you just might love balance gama.

Photos, video: RocketNews24