Tawarayama. I have not yet seen this town by daylight. We arrived at dusk, with the very kind and gentle Mr Yamamoto, librarian and childrens author, who met us at the train station in Yamaguchi. Which, by the way, is a delightfully easy name to learn in Kanji: Yama (mountain) + Guchi (mouth). Not to be confused with deguchi (exit).
I digress, but you can see that the language enthusiasm is still strong. I have learned, however, to hold back on firing every question at Masako, who might have other things to do. Like work, or read, or think, or nap on the train. Lack of language throws one instantly into a perpetual state of nearly infantile dependency. I sit in Mr Yamamoto’s car, nearly oblivious of the conversation, interjecting from time to time with comments which can only be wildly off-topic in the conversation I cannot even begin to follow. Instead, I watch with wonder as the scenery unfolds. We are in Yamaguchi prefecture, at the western end of Honshu Island. I am struck, again, by the similarities to BC landscape: the conifer forests, the twisting winding mountain roads, the valleys and hills. There are even deer leaping out in front of cars, just like at home. Yet, again, it’s all on a completely different scale. Roads more narrow, woods more close, deer, if possible, more sudden. I begin to understand the lure of western Canada for Japanese travelers.
After an hour or so, we turn off the narrow highway and up a narrower little road which wends it way into a village, with a charmingly haphazard line of short buildings packed right to the edge of the alley-like street. We stop in front of a miniature covered courtyard, are greeted heartily by a jolly, exuberant innkeeper, and led inside. This is the second “rustic onsen” Masako has chosen for her “wild” Canadian friend. Immediately we can tell this is a different kind of rustic. Clean and calm, well organized and efficient. In fact an efficient serving woman is already halfway up an alarmingly steep wooden stairway with my heavy bag by the time I’ve got my street shoes off without touching the ground, and stepped up and directly into one of many pairs of waiting fuzzy mule slippers. Masako and I hurry after her and find our quarters: comfortable and basic tatami rooms with futon, tea table, and a separate space with 2 chairs and a table. I gather this is a standard layout for a room in a ryokan (traditional inn).
I’m eager to try the onsen (hot springs), but it’s close to supper time and there are things to sort out. The lady of many jobs is back with registration papers to fill out. Then we have tea in Masako’s room with Mr Yamamoto, until four other members of the local storytelling group arrive and we go downstairs for dinner. Yet another feast. I am welcomed as the guest of honour, there is much bowing and thanking, happy eating, discussion and laughter. When we have finished, I distribute strings and teach a few figures. It’s a delightful group, and I love to see everyone having so much fun with the strings.
After supper, Masako and I meet to discuss tomorrow’s show. She begs off the onsen for tonight. The hotel doesn’t have it s own onsen; in fact it doesn’t even have baths or showers. Instead, everyone uses the public onsen down the street. Restless, I decide to go for a walk. I make my way down yet another steep stairway to the lobby (this place is a little bit labyrinthine) but when I get to the entrance, I do not see my shoes. I do not see anyone’s shoes. There is only a long row of fuzzy slippers on the “indoors” level and below them, on the “street shoes” level, a row of plastic slippers. I glance around. Maybe I’ve stumbled upon a different entrance. I wander some hallways: polished wood; quiet; semi-dark. I look for someone to ask, but there is no one. It’s about 8:30 , 8:45 by now. I go upstairs to Masako’s room. What happened to our shoes? Oh yes, she says, they put them in the shoe box. Shoe box? Masako shrugs. She doesn’t know either. She says the innkeeper woman said to use the slippers when we want to go to the onsen.
I go back downstairs. Surely I can find my shoes. I am not convinced I’ll brave the onsen on my own (I don’t even know where it is) but I would like to go for a walk, and not in plastic slippers. I poke around for evidence of anything that might be a shoe box, then resign myself to the inevitable. I shed the fuzzy slippers and step down into a pair of pink plastic ones, slide open the door, and shuffle outside.
I walk down the street in search of the onsen, wondering what one would look like and how I might know it. I stop in front of a double glass door where I see many shoes inside. Maybe this is it. I slide open the door, step inside. There is no one around. It’s quiet. It’s not damp and steamy. Maybe it’s another hotel. I creep back out and continue down the street. More not knowing. More places that could be hotels. There aren’t even people around. One car passes. I turn and try the other direction. Finally I see what I figure must be the onsen. It just has the look of a building that deals with a lot of water. I go in and try to figure out if I’m supposed to take off my slippers. It’s a bit confusing because rather than a step, (street shoes below, inside shoes above) there is a gradual ramp. Hm. I’m puzzling over this when an elderly woman bustles in behind me and rather impatiently shows me to leave my street shoes on until the doorway across the room, which I take to be the entrance to the change room. By the time I find the words to thank her, she’s disappeared through that door.
I look around this very quiet place (should I pay somewhere?) and realize that there is a man standing behind a small desk just inside the entrance. I try to greet him but forget “good evening” so I babble something incomprehensible while he stands there looking like I’ve just complicated his life. I don’t know where to go or what to say but it occurs to me I should make sure this is in fact the onsen. “Onsen?” I say, rather idiotically. He confirms without showing much interest in helping a hapless tongue-tied foreigner who hasn’t even bothered to learn the language before showing up on his shift. “Sumimasen…” I preface apologetically, but I don’t know what to say after that. (Where do I pay? what does it cost? where do I go?) I want to say “I am sorry for not speaking Japanese, ” but I can’t get past sumimasen. There’s another “I’m sorry” word but of course I can never think of it when I need it. I am feeling more and more foolish, acutely conscious that I am embodying the worst of Western tourist arrogance, as the seconds tick by. It’s just me and him, and one more hour before the place closes. It occurs to me to wait and come back tomorrow with Masako, my faithful, steady, smiling, helpful, bilingual guide. But at that thought, there is a click of resolve inside me. I look at this little man and as if he sees the shift, he leads me over to a dispening machine by the door. He stabs his finger at the 420 yen button and the coin insert slot, and leaves me. I fumble around with my coins, trying to figure them out and still feeling ridiculously incompetent. After about three minutes the desk man comes back over and with abacus-trained finger flicking instantly determines I don’t have enough coins. I pull out a small bill, he puts it into the machine, hands me a ticket and my change, and shows me to the door to the changeroom. I remove my shoes and enter.
From the change room, I see through the glass doors that there are only about 10 women in the bathing area. I try to figure things out without staring. This is entirely different from the little private outdoor pool of two days ago. I undress, take my tiny mini-towel with me and enter the main room. Feeling several pairs of eyes on me, I take a spot in the row of wash stands and begin a very public and very thorough cleaning. When I have rubbed and scrubbed my way down to a hopefully acceptable base layer of clean skin, I don’t know what to do with the scrub cloth. (Since I’ve washed with it, it’s now dirty and not to enter the clean bath water.) I catch the eye of a woman in one of the pools and with gesture ask if it’s ok to leave it by the edge of the pool. She smiles and nods. I step into the water. Then to my immense relief she begins to talk to me in English! She is from this town but has traveled extensively and we chat for a while. As we talk, another woman is watching with great interest, and finally asks me (the first woman translates) if I am doing a performance in Shimonoseki in a couple of days. She saw my picture in the paper and recognized me when I came in.
After a very pleasant soak and visit, I dry off, dress, and walk back up the street to the hotel. I slide open the door and step inside but something’s not right. I look around. Most of it looks familiar, but the orientation of the slippers line is wrong. I step back outside, close the door quietly, walk on a ways, and find the right hotel. Relief. I go to slide the door and it does not move. This isn’t the kind of place that gives you keys. If they’ve already locked up, I don’t know what my options are. I see someone inside, heading down a hallway of polished wood. I rattle the door (gently. it would be easy to break.) The person inside disappears into the dark, but – wait – I have only tried one of the two sliding panels. The other one, on the left, opens easily. I slip inside and I am home.
Upstairs, I tell Masako about my adventure. She considers me quite brave. She has spent the evening battling the resident stink bugs. Twice the innkeeper came to the room to catch bugs with duct tape. On his second trip, he left her the roll of tape. While we visit, she hears another one rattling in the lamp fixture overhead. I know that living close to bugs is not Masako’s idea of fun and I am grateful to her for putting up with this so that I, her “wild Canadian friend,” can have a rustic onsen experience. For Masako’s benefit, I take a piece of tape, reach up to the light where the stink bug sits, and send it on to another realm. Back in my room, I settle in under a warm duvet. During the night I am awakened by a peculiar smell. Maybe it is a stink bug. Maybe it is looking for its shoes. I drift back to sleep.