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Published: April 16th 2007
Five days after I arrived in Japan, I was ready to give my tender foot some R&R. Since Beijing I had little time or interest in ‘taking it easy.’ There were just too many fascinations to stay still. But now that I was in Japan I had reason to both stay off my feet and experience some authentic Japanese experiences. The 'Native' in this blog's title doesn't refer to 'going tribal.' No, I opted for a traditional Japanese lodging and traditional robes on the north island of Hokkaido. In Japan, the ‘onsen’ has a special role. Like the Turkish bath house or Thai massage, this is how the locals relax if they’re lucky. The ‘onsen’ are natural thermal baths dotted throughout the country. I suppose it is one of the few upsides to living on the ‘Rim of Fire.’ I chose an affordable but reasonably luxurious hotel for a week stay beside Lake Toya. Lake Toya was a beautiful cold lake with an island sleeping in its center. In warmer months I could imagine it bustling with sun seekers. The currently boarded up boathouse would have been emptied out and the large refreshing lake would be littered with bodies. But
this time of year the lake’s surface moved fiercely and menacingly. The black waves were torn apart by gusts of winter wind. From my alcove window I watched the snow covered island, hunkered down in the middle of the lake for a long cold winter. A large empty tourist boat made daily trips to the far side of the island where I imagined it was taking supplies to a Japanese Jack Nicholson on the verge of going crazy. “Heeeeere’s Kashagawa!” Now that I think about it, with so much time to my own thoughts, maybe it was me who was going crazy…
I certainly didn’t need to go very far during my stay. Large buffet meals were included in the price of the room. I would explore the very authentic buffet, usually selecting the more familiar dishes. I suppose I could have tried a few more new dishes, but sucking down a slippery cold piece of anonymous sea life just isn’t as fun unless there is someone there to witness it and pretend like they’re impressed. So I ate lots of salmon and mackerel sushi, miso soup, vegetables, etc. These were the only occasions I put on my
The Narcotic Designs
These 'maple leafs' look suspicious to me. And this hotel was DEFINITELY built in the late 60s or early 70s.
western clothes. Being the only white guy around I wasn’t quite ready to be seen in the dining room in my robe and slippers like everyone else.
Two or three times a day I would go to the top floor of the hotel to the onsen. Mind you this onsen was man-made so I missed out on the whole crutching through mud and hiding my head from freezing winds experience. But then again the whole idea was comfort and healing. I adapted quickly to the customs of the large public bath (although it was almost always empty.) I placed my towel atop my head when sitting in the hot pools (which supposedly cools you down. Explain that one to me!) Thankfully I don’t have a tattoo as that doesn’t go over well. Some onsen’s will even bar entry if you do, less you be the famed American Yakuza (gangster.) Only once was I confounded by the switching sides of women’s and men’s baths at 10pm. It would have been an honest and possibly fortuitous mistake, but just as I began my first step into the wrong changing room I heard men’s voices coming from the opposite entry. I
The Designer Duds
no, I am not standing in front of a fake backdrop or painting. That's the crisp blue view.
turned my slippers around just in time before the ding of the elevator signaled new arrivals.
My last day at the hotel was shared with a few hundred students who showed up out of nowhere. The Japanese tend to travel in groups as you may or may not have noticed. It’s a cultural thing. Less individualism, the greater good, et al. An exercise in group bonding that we all had in highschool or college days but rarely find as adults. Sitting alone it made me wish I too had a whole posse with me. But a posse of 500 would still be a bit much. As I wheeled my lonely bag out the sliding automatic glass doors and into the snow covered streets, I watched with intense interest and enjoyment at the site of 500 kids in the lobby putting on 500 pairs of identical rental ski boots, wearing 500 identical ski outfits, dropping 500 pairs of identical skis and poles as they made their way to a convoy of identical buses with, no doubt, exactly 500 seats.
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