Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sakura no Yu

I woke up with a start. It was still early, just after 7 a.m., but everyone else seemed to be up. The futon was warm in the cold room and I had slept soundly. I quickly pulled on some clothes and hobbled down the narrow stairs. My mother-in-law was already busy preparing breakfast with her daughter, Yoko, helping less effectively. Warm fumes of miso and rice hung in the air of the cold kitchen. The father-in-law was not to be seen.

The breakfast consisted of red miso soup with mushrooms that were so slippery that it was impossible to get them out of the bowl and into the mouth with the chopsticks; delicious fried aji fish; a bowl of rice; the ever present pickled vegetables or tsukemono; and green tea. The food was heart warming in the rainy morning and the steam rising from the miso soup felt good on the face as I raised the cup to my lips. I found myself accepting a second bowl once I had poured the contents, including the slippery mushrooms, of the first into my stomach.

The womenfolk had already packed bags with towels, snacks and other necessities for the daytrip to a nearby hot spring spa or onsen. Yoko had even put my pullover into the bag, so the only thing that I needed to do was to add the camera and a novel for the moments of waiting I knew lay ahead. The rain was but a drizzle when we exited the house immediately after breakfast. According to the schedule Yoko’s mother had consulted, the bus to the onsen hotel would leave – with Japanese precision – from a nearby stop at 9:02 and it was important to reach the place in good time so that we wouldn’t miss it. We walked briskly through the small streets of Mizusawa towards the bus stop just blocks away. My father-in-law had joined the group in the last moment and was now walking silently behind me. The only thing he had uttered thus far was ohayoo, the good morning’s greeting. I knew his silence had nothing to do with me: my wife’s father was a quiet man.

By 9:01 my mother-in-law was getting visibly nervous. There was no sign of the bus. She became overly worried that the schedule would be different or entirely cancelled as today was a national holiday, Sports Day to be more precise (it wasn’t quiet clear to me what exactly was celebrated, but there was nobody on the road indicating that this was, indeed, a serious holiday). It would be a major blow to the plans if the bus wouldn’t go. We could easily take a taxi as the place was not far away, but that was not how it had been planned. Luckily, with everyone holding their breath, the blue and green bus was sighted as it turned the corner at exactly 9:02. The disaster had been averted.

We entered the short bus through the backdoor and took our tickets from a machine. The uniformed driver nodded a welcome to us. The bus calmly meandered through the city of Mizusawa. Its size was designed so that it was able to navigate the small streets and corners where it was tight even for two small cars to pass. There was only one other passenger, a young female with short hair and a long sleeved t-shirt (whether she was a child or a young adult was difficult to decide). The bus left town, drove a short distance through sprawl with used car dealerships, pachinko parlors and other small shops before entering a farming area. We were still in the same wide valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains in which Mizusawa is located. Closer to town, in the transition zone to agriculture, the land was dominated by small vegetable patches. Further away, the landscape consisted of small rice fields with traditional looking farmhouses scattered in between them. In the Tohoku part of northern Japan, farming villages seldom had clear centers. Now, in the autumn the paddies had been drained and the rice harvested. In places, farmers were preparing the land for winter and their wives with heads wrapped in scarves under straw hats were bundling the rice husks. The fields were wet after last night’s downpour. Big black jungle crows were finding things to eat amongst the puddles. At one location, two white egrets shone bright white against the rain soaked grey paddy.

The bus moved at a pace that I would have found excruciatingly slow at other times. Today I felt it suited the languid mood perfectly. Anything faster would have been almost sacrilegious. The driver carefully turned onto a small road with rice fields on both sides that led to a country store. Two tiny old ladies were sitting in front of the store with a vegetable cart. They both had round faces with dark slits for eyes. They were bundled up in layers of clothes, so that their shapes were almost perfectly round with only little feet protruding from underneath the ball. They greeted the driver with nods and smiles but did not want to enter the bus. Our driver stopped, reversed, turned the bus around, and returned the same way to the bigger road. It served an important function to provide public transportation to the remoter villages, even if the routes had to be heavily subsidized by the more centrally located taxpayers.

After some time, we arrived at the hot spring onsen. The compound was located on the plain, a sprawling modern one-storey building. The young female who still was the only other passenger apart from us leaped out of the bus and ran to a side door on the left side of the edifice. She was obviously an employee of the establishment and, thus, an adult.

It was still early autumn and rather warm despite the drizzle. The trees still had their leaves although most were starting to change color. Especially, few mominoki maples were already bright red in the grey morning. The Japanese live by the season demonstrating a close affinity with nature. Kouyou is one of everyone’s favorites, the season when the leaves change their color. It makes the Japanese feel so sad and melancholy, feelings that I as a Finn can well relate to. Like the joyful and light-hearted summer has gone so fast and we must prepare for the little death. In the Japanese sensibility, things ephemeral represent the only real beauty.

There were already a few people sitting in the lobby of the establishment when we entered. Yoko’s mother communicated with the red-cheeked young woman at the reception. The girl was wearing a brown uniform with a vest and knee-length skirt. On her feet she wore thick white socks and no shoes. The reception was already considered onsen area where shoes were forbidden. All visitors had also deposited theirs in small wooden lockers at the entrance balancing precariously with one foot on the wet entrance while stepping up to the elevated floor where shoes no longer where acceptable. I had had some trouble fitting my oversized flippers into the boxes designed for much smaller shoes.
The smiling receptionist motioned us towards a group of sofas to wait until our resting room would be ready. This was the first period of waiting for which I had brought the novel. The windows from the entrance hall gave over the rainy landscape to the direction where I presumed a river was running.

There was a wall length of vending machines. Yoko and I – the urbanites – chose hot coffee with milk. Despite the inevitable paper cup, the coffee was most enjoyable and had a strong but not bitter aroma. Japan was a country underestimated for the quality of its coffee. Any small coffee shop – and even the vending machines – could beat Starbucks hands down! The older generation took warm canned green tea. In the next sofa group, a young family was also preparing themselves for a relaxing time at the spa. The youthful father had already opened a large bottle of Sapporo Black Label beer that he was sipping from a tiny glass. The Japanese have an uncomplicated relationship with alcohol: when you’re off work, cork up whenever you feel like it.

The lobby was getting crowded as buses brought more and more people in for holiday fun. Virtually everyone looked local. After all, this was not a famous onsen, so it wouldn’t attract people from the big cities of the Tohoku region – such as Morioka or Sendai – or from further away. There were other much more famous onsen further north, in places such as Hanamaki. Sakura-no-Oyu – the name translated to “cherry blossom hot water” – was just a simple local place of relaxation for the farmers and other people from the area. The water was genuinely from an underground mineral spring – Japan was a volcanic country and it wasn’t difficult to find hot springs – with all of its healing qualities and the setting was beautiful enough. But this was not such a traditionally romantic setting like some others located deeper in the mountains.

The red-cheeked girl reappeared to inform that our room was ready. She led the way across the lobby and through a corridor hurrying with small steps hardly lifting her feet so that her socks made a sweeping sound on the carpet. The four of us entered the tatami room that was small but clean and fresh looking. The window gave to a small yard.

Soon after, I entered the large bath area through sliding doors. It was so steamy there that all shapes were blurred. It was quite crowded with many men and some children. I found a free space in one of the long lines of wash places. I splashed water on the low plastic stool and sat on it. On all sides, men covered in soap foam were scrubbing themselves vigorously. Cleanliness is a central virtue in Japan. Most of the men had the appearance of farmers: weathered faces with eyes permanently squinting as if the sun was shining even here inside the baths. Their bodies were sinewy with decades of hard work on the fields. The hot mineral water that smelled like sulfur would be melting the knots in their strained muscles. Some of the men were stocky with slight potbellies, but all looked like they could definitely hold their own in a situation. Close by, a young father was soaping up a little boy. The father belonged to a new generation and probably to one of the small towns in the area. His hair was dyed reddish brown and he had a tattoo of a dragon on his right shoulder. Despite all of this, he looked very benign.

After having satisfied myself that I was clean enough – and having made a show of washing myself carefully because the Japanese always fear that the gaijin are not equally careful with their personal hygiene – I stepped into the large ofuro bath inside the bathhouse. The water was scalding hot to my feet but I knew that the best way of getting in was simply to sit down until the neck without hesitation. The little by little approach might be better for the heart, but it was too painful to expose one’s body to the slow boiling.

There were some fifteen other men in the tub, many of them with a damp washcloth folded on top of their heads to keep the brain cool. If anyone noticed the entrance of a gaijin, nobody made a fuss about it. Up in Tohoku, it’s egalitarian country. Poor farmers share what they have with any traveler and nobody has any pretensions of being higher than others.
Once I got used to the heat, the water was soothing to the weary bones. One could feel how the mineral water from deep in the volcanic land penetrated the skin and beyond. The sulfuric fumes penetrated the sinuses. It was impossible to be sick if one took these baths regularly.

A man in his 50s with old-fashioned black-framed eyeglasses, a serious comb-over and an exceptionally long member between his skinny legs entered the bath. He smiled broadly with a mouth full of crooked teeth and nodded a friendly acknowledgement when he sat next to me. I responded with a smile and a muted konnichiwa or good afternoon. No more verbal communication was needed between us, or any other bathers. In our natural nudity, we were all equal in our private relaxation.

When the heat of the water became too much, I stood up, nodded to the comb-over, and went outside to the garden where the smaller outdoors pool, known as rotemburo, was located. The rain was falling steadily now and the large drops cooled down my overheated body nonetheless startling me as they hit me with a splash. A mominoki with bright red leafs stood a few yards away, vivid against the grey sky. The river that I had expected to be there ran nearby beyond the slope behind the garden, the sound of its water flowing over the rocks clearly audible to the rotemburo. A low wooden wall separated the women’s bathing area from ours. The sounds of their chattering and laughter mingled with the trickling sounds of the river. Three men who looked like countryside yakuza gangsters with rather large beer bellies were lounging in the tub, laughing and exchanging stories from horse races in the city of Morioka.

Having let the rain cool my body to the point that I started shivering, I went back into the bathhouse and decided to enter the Finnish sauna. I took note in passing that it was actually manufactured by a company from Finland. It appeared genuine enough, with wooden walls and benches and heated rocks in the corner, except for the TV set that had been installed behind a glass for the entertainment of the bathers. A program showing the fate of a tuna from the time it was caught by a trawler, to the fish market and, partially, to the fisherman’s dinner table (the fisherman who had caught the fish chose to keep the eyes, which he considered a special treat for himself), was on, with its typical details of cooking and people exclaiming how delicious it all looked: Eeh! Oishii! One could never open the TV in Japan without seeing a food program at least on some channel.

After a dip in the cold-water pool I returned to our room. Yoko’s father was back there already. He had bought cans of Asahi Super Dry beer and offered one to me in his typically incommunicative manner, just handing one over to me. After the baths, it tasted heavenly. The TV was on in the room, too. It seemed that the TV would always be on. Yoko’s father was watching a marathon race, another of the perennial favorites on Japanese television. How many marathons do they run in Japan every year, anyway?

Soon the women arrived and food was ordered from the kitchen by telephone. I settled for hot ramen noodles with roasted pork slices and bamboo shoots. It was tough to eat at first because the broth was so hot that it burned the tongue. First the outside, now the inside was getting scalded, I thought. The bath, beer and food made everyone sleepy and soon the four of us were sprawled over the tatami mats fast asleep. Yoko’s head was touching mine and I felt a wave of warmth go through my body.

The second time around, the bath was even more enjoyable. My body was cold after sleeping on the floor without covers. But entering the rotemburo was ever so much more difficult as the temperature difference between the chilled body and steaming water was bigger. Entering slowly, I thought that my feet would be boiled. But once I was in the tub my body temperature adjusted and I could feel the heat seeping through my deepest buried organs. It couldn’t feel more relaxing.

This time there were many more children. Apparently, having done their hair and make-up, most women had decided against a second round of baths and, thus, the children followed their fathers to the baths. A little girl of about three or four entered the bath with her father. She was amazingly pretty with big dark eyes and a small nose in an expressive face. Her black hair was held up with elastic ribbons that had small red butterflies attached to them.

The rain had stopped and the air was distinctly cooler now. A wind had picked up and it brought with it the sound of the river racing down from the mountains towards the distant sea. The day was quickly fading away. Dragonflies were still cruising the air in their odd fashion, hovering in one spot, then suddenly spurting to the next, only to continue hovering there. The mountains had come into view at a distance when cracks appeared in the cloud cover and the last rays of sun lit them up in shades of grey. A string of small lights glimmered on the small pine tree in the garden.

[Published also on on March 8, 2006.]

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