I slept like a teething baby. I’ll never get used to those old bean-filled Japanese pillows – I woke up in the middle of the night with a wicked crick in my neck. After a bit of tossing and turning (and giving up and turning the heat on), I drifted off to curious dreams until about 6:30. At 7, I went downstairs, towels and camera in hand. I took some photos in the long, high-windowed hallways. On the way to the Hoshinoyu bath (here, upper left-hand photo), I passed the innkeeper’s wife, a small, quiet woman in glasses. She called me by name, although I’d never seen her before (everybody seemed to know my name: an innkeeper’s skill, I suppose). After a few questions about where I was from, where I was living and how long I’d been in Japan (the usual), she rushed off to the office and came back with an envelope full of postcards.
I lost my souvenir washcloth somewhere between my room and the bath.
The morning buses which connected with the bus to the shinkansen station were gone by the time I checked out. The innkeeper showed concern but was unflappable. I’ll call a taxi to get you to the bus stop, he said. It would cost about ¥3000, but a taxi to the station would cost something like ¥8000. Resigned, and with gifts bought (I have lived here too long), I settled into the traditional tea room, with a kettle hanging from a chain in the ceiling, boiling over the open fire below it. I was about to have a cup of the green tea that the innkeeper’s wife was making for the departing guests. I took a few photos, and she was just about to pour my tea when the innkeeper (unflappably) rushed in, and I understood him to say that a couple would be happy to share a cab to the bus stop. It was only after rushing out to the waiting cab that I realized it was for someone else, and the two had offered to take me in their own car.
It turned out to to be a couple I’d noticed in the ofuro (for the simple reason that they were a couple – although it is permitted at this traditional bath, husbands and wives don’t usually bathe together anymore). God knows, for as much as I try not to, I stand out in a place like that, so I’m sure they’d noticed me too. They were very friendly, if a bit shy at first. Anyway, it turns out they were from Nara, and often traveled around, stopping at onsens along the way. We made the standard friendly small talk (see above). I was just about to ask what they did for a living (odd for them to have Monday off – this being Japan; then again, so did I), when the missus asks me where the bus stop was exactly. We were chatting away and missed it. We stopped. After a second or two of “hmms” and “now where would it be?” and shuffling of the road map, the husband says, “Oh, well, it’s a nice day. Might as well just take you to the station.” I made my protests (as you must do, but I was delighted).
We drove over hill and dale, crossed bridges over ravines, and took the wrong fork in the only forked road in the county. An old man standing in front of a store, whose only function seemed to be to stand in front of the store and point strangers to the correct fork in the road every five years or so, did so, and within a few minutes, we were at the shinkansen station.
When we finally arrived, the husband jumped out of the car, reached into a cooler in the trunk and gave me a very cold Ichibanshibori to drink on the train back to Tokyo. Then, with all the bows and arigatous we could muster, I ran into the station and bought a ticket on the first train out. To my shame, in view of their kindness, I never thought to write down their name or get an email address (or vice-versa). What was their name? Takekawa? Takegawa? I guess I’ll never know now. It reminded me – I often forget, when life gets too predictable – that unplanned encounters are sometimes the best.
It was only when we were about an hour away, beer happily drunk and a warm, contented feeling passing over me, that I realized I still had the room key in my coat pocket. I would have to get it back ASAP. Got off at Ueno Station, and there went an hour of my life. Trudged around that labyrinth until I found the station master’s office. Asked him if there were any courier services in the station. No, but there was one outside one exit. He gave me a map of the elaborate station, and I resolved not to have an anxiety attack when I saw it. Eventually (and after asking again, and again), I found the exit, found the shop (in a convenience store), sent the key back via the courier, called the innkeeper of the Choujukan and gave a groveling apology, which he accepted (cordially and unflappably) adding he hoped I could visit again some time. A real pro – anyone else would have wrung my neck.
I called a friend who I knew would be in Tokyo that week. We met up for lunch in Ginza, with a former Osaka-dweller who had recently moved up to Tokyo. Ginza (why did we use to call it “The Ginza” in English?) was, needless to say, a far cry from the quiet mountain retreat I had just arrived from. It was nice to catch up (in the course of the conversation, I was finally convinced to get a keitai), to buy decent bagels, to get that international feeling you get in Tokyo that you don’t get anywhere else in Japan, but it was still very nice to go to Tokyo station and hop a train back to Osaka. Fuji, this time, was nowhere in evidence.
NB: This is obviously part of the sequence (Pt. 1, Pt.2, Pt.3) I wrote in March, but I only just remembered that I hadn’t posted it. Now you know how I got there and got home, but I still haven’t written up what I did when I was there. Well, stay tuned – I might someday.