Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bathrobes and Beer: The Japanese Ryokan Experience - A Year in Fukushima #9

Japan boasts a considerable array of accommodation options – to put it in cheesy tourist pamphlet terms. Capsule hotels, business hotels, love hotels; the Hilton and the Hyatt and the Japanese versions of such; you have your youth hostels (thirty dollars with membership) and your campgrounds (thirty dollars without); and on the traditional side, you’ve got your minshuku, with tatami floors, futons and green tea to make yourself comfy as you watch your coin-operated 13-inch television, and then you have your more upscale ryokan, with tatami floors, futons and green tea to make yourself extra comfy as you relax and watch your wide screen high-definition plasma television.

In the course of my travels around Japan, when not camping (illegally) or sleeping on a beach or a gazebo in a park (maybe legally), I’ve rucked up to many a minshuku. They give you those robes to hang out in, and dinner and breakfast are included so why not? I’m not much of a TV guy however so I never sprang for the more expensive ryokan. And if my wife hadn’t finagled a sweet deal at Azuma-So up the road in Iizaka last weekend I might very well have ended up leaving Japan – or dying – without ever experiencing a wide plasma screen while hanging out on the floor drinking tea in someone else’s bath robe.

The word ryokan has always conjured up images in my mind of something like this. So it was a tad anticlimactic when we pulled up – an hour late because minor things (like one-page translations) tend to make me forget about more major obligations (like mini family vacations) – to what impressed as a converted gymnasium. It had this arched roof which made the building look like a long, fat shiitake mushroom with the rounded ends lopped off. The front entrance consisted of wide, automatic sliding glass doors flanked by more glass, offering a generous view of the red carpeted lobby. On the tiled floor, lined up neatly below the step up to the carpet, were four pairs of wooden sandals. This being Japan, I couldn’t discount the possibility that these people just knew, could feel when we would be arriving, and set those slick lacquered flip-flops there for us and buggered off out of sight again while we were still in the parking lot, distracted by the architectural wonder of this big cement toadstool. But missing there in the vestibule was the standard shelving for guests to place their shoes. Were we expected, allowed to walk from the muddy parking lot up onto that carpet? My wife took her Asics off and went inside to check, our little boy bouncing around in her arms. I stayed behind, holding my older boy’s hood as he strained to slap one wet and dirty Thomas the Tank Engine boot on the carpet. There were forty-yen beers in there waiting for me, I didn’t need my kid’s footprints getting in the way.

As he switched feet and lunged forward again a jaunty silver-haired couple stepped through the doors and walked right on into the lobby and out of sight. ‘Okay, I guess we can go in,’ I said, half to myself, half to Pig Pen. I let go of his hood. He went tripping and sprawling into the lobby. I followed, grinding his mud splatters as deep into the carpet as I could. I wanted those beers.

The lobby was long and brightly-lit and could have passed for a cheap Vegas hotel. Or a nice Hampton Inn. Outside the row of floor-to-ceiling windows along the back of the room sat an uninspired attempt at a Japanese garden, soaking in rain and melting snow. At the top of a staircase with no risers in between the steps so your kid can slip right through and down on top of the stacks of boxes and hastily-stored panel dividers beneath if you aren’t watching him (because you are thinking about forty-yen beers) we reached a dim hall with the kind of hard, gray carpeting you might find in the little alcove in the DMV where you get your picture taken. In one corner were a half dozen wooden armchairs; on the floor next to a door with a brass plate engraved with a lackluster nick-name for a banquet hall was a rolled-up projection screen, minus the stand. The faint discolorations in the carpeting here and there made me wonder when my New Jersey license was set to expire.

My wife’s mother was already in the room, waiting for us for the last hour. (‘We’re ready to go,’ my wife had said rather impatiently when I’d gotten home after the translating gig, leaving me to remember, if I had indeed forgotten, as she suspected, just where in the blazes we were going on a Monday afternoon.) ‘Come on in,’ my mother-in-law said, all smiles seeing her two little nephews. She was decked out in her official green and white Azuma-So bath robe. There was green tea and a variety of snacks on the low table in the middle of the room. The huge flat screen was showing a samurai movie.

We sat for a while on the floor, drinking tea and sharing cookies and chocolate and rice crackers and strawberries. Soon, though, and with a subtle giddiness, my wife and her mother began suggesting we get ready for the main event, the great purpose for our congregating there (which, incredibly, was not the forty-yen beers). Yes, it was time for the rest of us to get our robes on and head downstairs to take a bath.

Of course it sounds silly to put it in such coarse terms. This Azuma, this lopped off mushroom, was a ryokan in Iizaka, one of the best-known hot spring (‘onsen’) areas in all of Tohoku. People come from all over Japan, and even overseas, to enjoy the mildly alkaline waters, known for their magical therapeutic powers including the mitigation of your neuralgia. (This, coincidentally, is a line from the translation bit I had just finished a couple of hours earlier – and it still didn’t occur to me that I was forgetting something.) To sit and soak in these natural spring waters is, in all honesty, a fantastic way to spend an otherwise cold, wet and dreary afternoon. Stick it in between a table covered with snacks and a table with forty-yen beers and it becomes something like poetry.

That’s not to say the experience wasn’t befitting an hour inside a concrete fungus.

My wife and my mother-in-law like sitting in scalding water more than I do; figuring I’d be done and headed back to our room first they quickly elected me keeper of the room key. ‘Here, put it in a locker,’ my mother-in-law said, pointing to a cabinet of tiny metal lock boxes. I stuck our room key in one, shut and locked it and took the numbered locker key, which I would leave sitting in a wicker basket on a shelf in the men’s change room along with my boxers and my towel and my green and white robe, safe among all the other wicker baskets with underwear and towels and robes and keys.

There is a whole handbook of rules for proper onsen etiquette, but this should not discourage anyone not intimately familiar with the process of onsen bathing. For the most part you just watch what those around you are doing and do the same. (The toilet located just inside the door to the actual bathing room, on the other hand, is a good example of a conceptual clue, i.e. having an accident in the water is generally, and quite literally, frowned upon.) But when the piped-in music floating through the damp, misty air sounds not so much like Kyoto as it does Venice one can get the feeling one really has no idea what the hell is going on.

I strode into the bath room (after slipping stealthily into and out of the toilet), self-assured and buck-naked. One elderly man sitting in the water had a small white towel folded and perched on top of his bald head; the man across from him, slightly younger and much more blessed upstairs, was wringing his out; a third man stepped gently down the two steps into the bath, his little white towel held strategically in front of his little naughty bits. I had no little white towel – and suddenly felt only slightly less awkward than I would had I walked into the women’s bath by mistake. No matter, the row of spigots – and my link to cultural conformity – was only a few feet away. I sat down on my plastic bucket and put my plastic wash basin under the tap and pressed the lever – and a tepid spray rained down on me from the hand shower thing on the wall.

The guys on either side of me washed their bodies with their soapy white towelettes. I had to make do with my hands, lathering up and rinsing off, for this is what you do before you sink yourself into the onsen water that is ostensibly clean and pure due in large part to everyone’s proper use of the plastic wash basins and the toilet. Sitting in the boiling water I watched the steam rise in swirls to the ceiling and tried to forget that I had no towel to rinse and wring and balance on my head.

Periodically one of the other men – most of them seemed twice my age – would get out of the water and go sit on a bucket and rinse off. Then he’d get right back in the water. I think they did it just to confuse me. They do the same thing out on the street (no not rinse off naked). At that socially ambiguous time between 10am and noon I never know whether to say ‘Ohayo’ or ‘Konnichi-wa’. There seems to be no set delineation, no acknowledged rule – and these people, deep inside I am sure, or maybe not so deep, get a kick out of their ability to keep me eternally in the dark about it. ‘Ohayo,’ I’ll say cheerfully as I am hauling the trash to the designated pickup spot at the end of the street. Old man Sato looks over – ‘Konnichi-wa.’ – and continues on his smug, elitist way. Then when I am toting the recyclables out the next morning – at the same time – you can bet Sato-san will pull a fast one on me. ‘Konnichi wa.’ ‘Ohayo…(bakana gaijin…)’. It’s no different in the evening. Konnichi wa. Konban-wa. When is the switchover? When it’s dark at five pm in December is it considered evening? I’ve never gotten a straight answer on this, so I have to be crafty. ‘Konnnn….’ And I wait for surly old Sato to commit one way or the other. It’s been a while since I’ve run into Sato-san in the evening, I think he deliberately avoids me. When he appears in the morning I just say ‘Hey.’

So these old men are running this rinse and soak game on me, going through exaggerated motions with their little white towels for an extra bit of salt in my wounded pride. I had no choice; I sat up on the edge of the bath, the water only halfway up my shins. No sense in trying to hide behind an itty-bitty washcloth, ay gentlemen, what do you think?

Within ten minutes the place had all but cleared out. One of them, on his way through the door into the change room, said to another something about dinner time – obviously an excuse for leaving that I was meant to hear because in a real conversation they would have been talking about forty-yen beers.

On the tatami step leading into the dining hall was a free-standing banner with what at first glance looked like the Kanji for ‘draft beer’ and ‘graduation’. On closer inspection I saw I was right; the fine folks who would be serving us tonight had passed through a rigorous training course on serving beer to people enjoying some exquisite Japanese cuisine in their bath robes. There were even individual certificates of achievement, framed and hung proudly, official statement of congratulations printed in English as well as Japanese. ‘You have gained many knowledge and skill in an art of draft beer…’

For forty yen a pop I wasn’t really expecting that much anyway. But nor was I expecting my mother-in-law to take her beer coupon and use it for herself. Suddenly I was faced with the ponderous task of making two big fat mugs of Kirin Lager last through the innumerable fish and vegetable dishes – prepared so delicately, placed so perfectly on their stylish plates and bowls of food they made the digital camera in my hand look like a stone arrowhead from the Jomon era. With the entire flock of soft-spoken guests moving gently toward their pre-assigned tables in their green and white bath robes I wasn’t sure what time period I had slipped into.

At the far end of the room, over my wife’s shoulder and past approximately twenty meters of flawlessly-aligned tatami mats boasting flawlessly-woven pieces of straw and just the faintest evidence of beer stains, a large frame hung on the wall. On the canvas – or shall I say the secret Japanese paper (secret because in nine years I have not yet found the time to find out the proper name for it) – were written in that typical sweeping style four Chinese characters. On the surface, and to the uninitiated, this sort of reckless behavior with a ten-pound brush may seem incongruous at best, and oh for heaven’s sake how silly-goosey at worst. What’s the point of creating such dramatic, beautiful and (one might assume) Confucian-esque wisdom-cum-art if no one can read it? Well, I may not know the correct term for that paper but in nine years I have learned a thing or two, and I can decipher that cryptic script over there. It reads ‘Nose City never wins.’

Throughout our delectable dinner, through the light, flaky fish with the subtly tangy sauce, the surgically-sliced vegetables and the soba grain soup and the individual-sized clay pots of more fish and vegetables fired to perfection with the open flame burners underneath to add a subliminal element of danger to the gentle atmosphere, all I kept thinking was How do women manage to sit comfortably (or at all) without their skirts riding up to their torsos? Granted the slit in my bath robe went up a bit higher than on anything Sharon Stone ever wore but still I couldn’t get it out of my mind that I was flashing the people diagonally across the way. To cover myself (so to speak) I had to demand that my son stay in his chair, kneeling and turned slightly sideways and don’t worry too much if you spill your soup on yourself okay buddy?

As my wife struggled to feed our little one I plowed through my first beer before my debauchery-minded mother-in-law had a chance to snag my wife’s beer coupon ahead of me.

That evening my older son couldn’t have been any more excited as he destroyed all order among the futons the kind people at Azuma had so lovingly laid out for us while we were downstairs eating. This had initially instilled in me a sense of unease; these people knew exactly when we would not be in the room. I threw my son from my futon onto his and reached for my backpack to check on my secret chocolate stash. In retrospect, this might have been what sent his hyperactive wheels in motion in the first place.

As soft and freshly-laundered as those futons were, my little pre-toddler isn’t completely accustomed to sleeping in foreign environments just yet and for most of the night my wife would barely have a chance to get back to her snoring before the critter would resume his routine and wake her up. ‘He’s thirsty,’ my mother-in-law said at one point from the depths of her comforter. Three seconds ago she too had been sawing bamboo, now she sounded like she’d been up and doing laundry for hours. My wife grunted in agreement, my mother-in-law grunted in acknowledgement, and six seconds later she was working her saw again.

Sitting in the corner of the room under a soft spotlight, I poured myself another cup of green tea and got back to my book.

The tea Azuma provided, by the way, was a bit of a disappointment. I expected, or maybe just hoped, despite the indications inherent in the lobby and the carpeting and the mushroom motif in the architecture, that we would be getting that fine powdery stuff, kept fresh in a carved wooden canister, the figure of a stork or a chrysanthemum perhaps inlaid on the top. Instead we walked into a pile of green aluminum packets, with tea bags inside that all but said Lipton. On the back of each packet even were directions on ’How to Enjoy Delicious Tea (Standard Version)’ This is likely kind reciprocation for the thoughtful ‘Lather. Rinse. Repeat.’ we extend to foreigners not accustomed to using shampoo.

Despite my littler kid’s nighttime antics my wife was up and in the bath again and back before I’d emerged from my futon. She didn’t have to say she went, I knew from the fading first-degree burns on her cheeks. ‘Did you hear the announcement?’ she asked, smelling ever so faintly of sulfur. ‘No,’ I said into my pillow. But then I thought yes. I had a dream about a loudspeaker that had no business being in my life. ‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘7:15, breakfast is ready!’ my wife sang in whispering imitation of the monster who I remember roaring the same thing in my dream.

My older son destroyed the futons again, my younger son tried to punch a hole in the wide screen with the key to the safe and we shuffled off to breakfast – though this time I put on pants.

I love Japanese food, I truly do. But rice and miso soup and fish just don’t do it for me in the morning. I left satisfied, surely enough, but still I found myself pining for the Hampton Inn. The Azuma did offer soft-boiled eggs to go with the rice (no toast, the Azuma sticks to eastern tradition – except for maybe the coffee, and the ping pong table – ‘First Hour Free!’ the sign in the elevator proclaimed). I powered down three of them despite the fact that they are called ‘radium eggs’. This of course brings visions of Nagasaki and incinerated chicken coops but naturally this is ridiculous. Iizaka would get their radium eggs from Hiroshima, which is much closer.

I failed to mention one major difference between a minshuku and a ryokan. At a minshuku, you are expected to fold up your futon and slip it back into the big closet in the wall before you check out. At a ryokan they do it for you. This leaves you with a palatable aura of luxury as you pack up and leave your room, the wide screen plasma television disappearing as you close the door.

Then it’s back to the industrial carpeting, the stray projector screen and the Vegas hotel lobby. And your fond memories of all that Azuma-So had to offer.