David Notkin's and Cathy Tuttle's "Japan Stories" (1990-91)

Japan Stories #10: Autumn Excursions (Spas, Sento, and Wara)

Most people land in Japan for the first time and head right for the Ginza. Our friends Hania and Tom---complete with matching, incredibly automatic Japanese cameras---went with us to Ryujin Onsen (hot springs) the day after they arrived.

Wakayama Prefecture is filled with hot springs. We chose Ryujin because it sounded peaceful and quiet, in contrast to many of the onsen that are huge resorts filled with people who want to go to the famous places where everybody else goes. To get to Ryujin, we took the train south from Osaka along the pretty west coast of Wayakama, which is a large peninsula jutting into the Pacific. We changed to a bus at Kii Tanabe, for a two hour ride up into the mountains in the center of Wakayama. The bus was filled with Japanese senior citizens out looking for a good time. We had hoped that the leaves would be showing their fall colors, but instead we had to settle for gorgeous mountain vistas. The matching, incredibly automatic Japanese cameras recorded every curve of the winding road.

Ryujin is small town that relies entirely on its hot springs for survival. We had tried to get reservations in one of the traditional 17th century inns, but they were booked. So instead we stayed in the last room available at the government lodge. The lodge is a bit like traditional inns, except that the meals are served in a large cafeteria instead of in your room. Also, you don't get an special person to look after you and your room. The setting was stunning and the food was good---rice, pickles, seaweed, clams and fish for dinner, and rice, pickles, seaweed, and fish for breakfast. Of course you could have beer, sake or whiskey for dinner, or breakfast, for that matter, as many guests did.

The lodge overlooked a large, swiftly flowing mountain river. Across the footbridge from the lodge was the main part of town, including all the inns and, most important, the public bath. The bath was outdoors, hanging above the river about fifty feet. The mens' half of the bath was not nearly as enclosed as the womens', which meant the men had a better view of the scenery and the women had a better view of the men (from the footbridge). The baths themselves were really nice, made from smooth dark river stones, and were about 10 feet by 20 feet. Cathy and Hania stayed in the bath as the sun set and the stars came out. They felt incredibly calm, which is good since the baths are famous for treating hysteria. The only hysterical thing Cathy overheard was two women comparing anatomy.

Later that week, after we got back into the grind, we met a couple of other American friends of ours who were visiting Kyoto. We went to dinner at a place we'd been dying to try: "Knuckles", an allegedly New York-style deli. There were bagels and corned beef sandwiches, but it wouldn't quite cut the mustard on the Lower East Side. Even though it isn't the greatest deli, it's still nice to know it's there when you need a bagel fix.

The next weekend we met our Japanese friend Mayumi to see a movie and eat dinner. As usual, she brought another friend with her and, as usual, her friend spoke no English. We haven't yet quite figured out why she always brings a chaperone. In any case, we went to "Ghost", which is a huge hit in Japan. Cathy and I stood in line hours before the 5PM matinee to buy the 1600 yen (about $12) tickets. Mayumi and chaperone met us at the theater, but the crowd had been so big that Cathy went in beforehand to save us good seats. It turns out that this was smart, since all of the 1000+ seats were filled and hundreds more people stood through the movie. The Japanese tend to like either extremely violent or fantasy-filled movies, and "Ghost" fit the bill.

For dinner, the chaperone had made reservations for us at the "Seafood Carnival." It's an attempt at an American-style seafood restaurant, with crabs, salad bar, wine list, and singing waiters. But these aren't just regular singing waiters, these are trained opera singers. Every 45 minutes or so, they not only sing but they put on a small production. For example, our waiter, dressed in a colorful woodsman outfit, sang the part of Papagino in the duet from Mozart's "Magic Flute". In addition, the waiters grabbed kids who were eating with their families, dressed them up, and made them part of the extravaganza. We were thinking about how well a restaurant like this would do in Kansas, except for the seafood, of course.

One thing we've really missed since we left Tokyo was our neighborhood public bath (sento). We've taken long walks in our Osaka neighborhood looking for the distinctive black-topped, 20 meter high chimney that marks sento throughout Japan. The walks were great, but we had absolutely no luck in finding a sento. At the end of one of our walks (on a national holiday, Culture Day), we were sitting in an unusual park. It was unusual for several reasons: kids---including the cutest set of triplets---were playing freely (instead of studying for their kindergarden entrance examinations); there were some homeless people, complete with bedrolls and a colony of cats; a guy on one of the baseball teams was in his usual suit and tie; and, most exciting, a man walked past carrying his washbucket, towel, and shampoo. So we followed him, 20 paces behind.

He led us right to it. The sento. But, there was no distinctive chimney. This is a modern, four story sento in a commercial building about five minutes from our house. Later that night, we went to check out the inside. It's a wonderful water wonderland! For 250 yen, you get to use any or all of the following: all the hot water you need to clean your grimy body; a standard hot bath or two; a cold bath; a radon bath; a dry sauna and a steam room; an outdoor spot for cooling off; a pool with both a slide and also a strong jet of water coming straight down about 8 feet to the pool below (it's great for loosening shoulder and back muscles); and the heart-stopping electric pool. This pool, which is probably marked in Japanese, caught us both unawares. You move into the corner of an innocuous looking tub. Then, you feel this strange tingling that at first feels like lots of fast little water jets or pinpricks and then like a muscle spasm as you lower your body into it. Then your mind says, "I'm being electrocuted." Then you either jump out immediately like David, or you foolishly say, "Let's see what this is like", like Cathy did. Cathy has decided to do this no more, both because she didn't like the feeling after all, and because she no longer remembers her mother's maiden name. (Which is especially surprising, since it's her own middle name.)

On the weekend preceding the Emperor's Enthronement---he's now officially Emperor, presiding over the Heisei (lasting peace) Era---we were invited to a farm owned by a friend of a friend. Liz, the owner, is a British woman who has lived in Japan for 20 years or so. Her occupation is teaching English, but her avocation is taking care of every mistreated animal she hears about.

When we arrived at the train station, about an hour north of our apartment, our friend Diane picked us up in Liz's little truck. We went to a grocery store for some odds & ends. The most amazing thing in the store was a squid in the seafood case that could have had a starring role in "20,000 Leagues under the Sea." We're talking big. The ride to the farm was great, especially for me, since I rode on the open truckbed and could enjoy the beautiful views, changing leaves, and the cool, crisp air.

The first order of business when we jumped out of the truck was to bring in the pony and the goats. The three of us went down to the field, tethered the pony, and chased the goats up to the barn. The goats were good, until we passed the flower garden, which looked to them like an appetizer before dinner. The barn houses not only the pony and goats, but kittens, chickens and roosters, dogs, and who knows what else. Diane also pointed out the kennel, which has well over 25 dogs that Liz has rescued. As it was growing dark, we went into the house, leaving half a dozen dogs outside and finding another dozen or so inside. Apparently every dog has its place.

Liz's designed her house a couple of years ago. It's a Japanese-Swedish mixture, with sliding doors, a traditional Japanese bath, high wood-beamed ceilings, and, best of all, a huge, real kitchen where you can wear shoes. Diane was the cook for the weekend, which was a massive job since about 30 people were coming to help Liz out. Diane gave us lots of little jobs, like hunting in the pantry for ginger and slicing vegetables. She's been a professional cook (she worked at Jazz Alley, for those of you in Seattle), and she is incredibly efficient and proficient. Saturday night was easy going, though, with a relaxed dinner with the three of us and two volunteers, including Campbell, a Scottish artist who comes to Liz's four days a week to feed the dogs.

Cathy and I spent the night down the road with the Mukai family, a Japanese family that helps Liz out a lot. Their house too is beautiful, although completely in the Japanese style. It is also a little zoo, with three or four dogs (including a white Pyrenees that stands about six foot tall on its hind legs), a couple of cats, and a tanuki, which is a kind of Japanese raccoon. Inside we were greeted by a myna bird that says "konnichi wa" (which is "good afternoon" in Japanese). There are also several turtles, another cat or two, and who knows what else.

We were very comfortable, in a big tatami mat room with heavy futon that kept us plenty warm throughout the night. The house is heated by kotatsu: there is no central heating for this large, uninsulated Japanese house. Kotatsu are small tables that sit in the middle of a room, with a heater underneath and a blanket over the top. People sit at the table and stick their legs (and sometimes arms) under the blanket to keep warm. In winter, the family eats, does homework, writes letters, and everything else around the kotatsu. There were two bathroom stalls side-by-side, one marked for men and one marked for women, which we haven't seen before. It turns out that the "men's" room is just a urinal, while the "women's" room has a Japanese style toilet. Neither the urinal nor the toilet flush: both drain directly into an open-air tank under the house. Of course, there's no kotatsu in the stalls, so using the toilets in winter must get mighty cold.

Despite the comfort, Cathy had an awful night because she's allergic to dogs (and maybe myna birds). In morning, I tried to let her sleep late, but finally I had to wake her up because the Japanese family didn't speak any English and I had no idea what was going on. Of course, Cathy was exhausted and wheezy, which made speaking Japanese even harder than usual for her. But we discussed where we were from, what we wanted to eat (we got coffee, French toast, persimmons, and pears), and a few other things. The most remarkable thing about this family was that they seemed much more relaxed and balanced than other families we have met. For instance, they have decided not to send their 8-year-old girl and 6-year-old boy to juku, which are the cram schools that students at every level in Japan seem to attend. The reason is that they don't want their kids getting into the neurotic rat-race that virtually all Japanese strive to enter. The kids seemed bright, cheerful, and eager to find Seattle on their map. Of course, the little girl did wear a jacket that said, on the back, in typically inexplicable English, "Vigorous Throw Up." (We think it had something to do with her volleyball team.) Leaving the girl behind to keep warm under the kotatsu, the parents and the boy drove us back to Liz's.

That's where we first learned about wara. Acres and acres of wara. Wara is the straw left over from the rice harvest. Liz needs a lot of straw for bedding and feeding her animals. The Mukai's parents and other local farmers have lots of wara in their fields. The deal is simple: if Liz cleans out there fields, she can have the wara. Unfortunately, gathering wara is labor-intensive.

Six of us drove the little truck down to some of the Mukai's fields. When we got close to the fields, Paul pointed out several snakes. These were safe snakes, but there is a venomous snake, the mamushi, that also enjoys the muck of the rice fields. (Mexico has tequila with a worm in the bottle, Japan makes a liqueur that features one of these curled up, poisonous snakes in the bottle--mamushi zake. Liz has a bottle, but Diane couldn't find it so we didn't get a chance to taste it. Damn.) The wara was already gathered in bundles throughout the field. But getting to it, and getting it back to the truck, was adventurous. We'd each been assigned a pair of knee high rubber boots and work gloves. We waded through the muck, checked under the wara for snakes, and oozed back through the goop. Frequently, we were sucked into the muck and couldn't move. Paul, who had done this before, taught us the trick for getting out, which was to point your toe straight down and then lift up. This isn't so hard in theory, but it's pretty tough when you're carrying a big load of wet, heavy, smelly wara. We didn't lose our boots too often. Six of us cleared two fields in a couple of hours, filling the truck three or four times. We were happy to get back to the lunch Diane had prepared for everybody: cold cuts, oden (a rich, Japanese vegetable stew), pasta salad, brownies and pumpkin pies.

For the afternoon shift, we happily guided some unsuspecting newcomers to the wara fields, while we stayed behind and took the bark off of thin pine poles to be used as fenceposts. The job was not nearly as challenging, and we enjoyed the warm afternoon sun with women from all over the world: Scottish, Canadian/Japanese, Swedish/English, and Japanese. We didn't get entirely away from the wara, though, since we were responsible for unloading and spreading the wara to dry from the trucks when they returned from the fields. Since Cathy and I were now experts at it, we were asked to bring the pony and the goats in once again. Cathy ate the flowers on the way back this time. We went back to de-barking until long after nightfall, in part because Cathy couldn't breathe too well inside. After we finished, we laid on piles of wara and watched the stars come out over the dark country fields. When we finally went in, the house was filled with hungry, filthy people. And dogs. Luckily, the bath was available, and Cathy and I cleaned up and soaked in the hot stone bath for awhile. The bath, clean clothes, and a beer made us feel human once again.

Dinner was even more amazing than lunch. Diane had baked her own Indian nan (on a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the dining room) and had about six different kinds of curries. Everybody was in a good mood, having worked hard all day. We were lucky to get a ride home from a junk man whose favorite movie is "Repo Man." He's an American married to a Japanese woman, and he's lived her for five years. What he does is cruise the streets and back alleys, finding appliances of all kinds, most in excellent condition, repairing and selling them. It was nice getting door-to-door service because we were so tired.

We woke up the next day to a cold, crisp day. The leaves had changed colors overnight it seemed. We also woke up to really sore muscles so we headed off to the sento to warm up and relax -- avoiding the electric pool of course. Fall has arrived.