I have to type fast because though Japan is on 110v electricity, they don't use a ground, so the three-prong plug is useless. I was able to get away with this at Marsha's fathers apartment with a skinny extension cord, but we ain't in Kansas anymore (took a little trip to Nikko) so I am running on batteries. I've had quite a few adventures since I've been here but I'll start with today, three quarters through the trip because its fresh in my memory.
Today we tried to get the first real relaxation out of this trip. We drove to Nikko in a loaner Nissan because Tachan (the wife's brother) had his car broken into. The thiefs, in true Japanese form, were polite enough to only break the smallest window when ripping off his $4K navigation system. The wife claims that they must have been non-Japanese, but as I said in an email, "Ninja please. We all know it was Tony Soplano."
So we drove three hours through the Japanese country side to a little town called Nikko. Nikko is an ancient town with a world famous shrine and an economy based on keeping you there once your shrine visit is done. The place is made up of steep jagged hills covered with trees that don't seem to have any foliage below 20ft, so the forest looks close up like a bunch of poles. At a distance, the whole region is blanketed in a uniform color of deep green.
The trees are somehow able to grow on near vertical inclines, but the people there are unable to match them and are forced to build at the base of the hills in valleys that are about half a mile wide.
We are here because this town happens to have my three favorite tourist attractions in the world. Toshogu Shrine, Edo Wonderland and Tobu World Square. Suffice it to say they are all worth the trip if you are already in Japan. Tachan and the wife have picked out the hotel and I shouldn't worry, I'm told, it won't be like last time. Last time we stayed at a "traditional" Japanese hotel where the beds were paper thin mats on the floor and the food was a combination of fish roots and pickled red bean flavored rice or something.
We spend the drive listening to California Dreamin and taking in the sights of small town Japan. This place is also known for the monkeys that live in the forest, so the town mascot is of course, a cute monkey. Traffic signs everywhere have this cute monkey saying "Drive safely!" and "slow down!" and "be careful, the monkeys in the forest are dangerous!"
When we get to the hotel, which I have been advised is much nicer than the last, they usher us into a large room that looks like a lobby set up to receive a few hundred people. It's empty except for us. Kimono clad staff members are all around bringing our bags in, bringing us tea, bowing constantly and speaking in Japanese. I'm wondering if there is a problem with our room. The wife finally advises me that they just want us to relax first after our ride. We should relax and have some tea and we can go to our rooms afterward. This is Japanese style. OK.
We finally go up to our rooms. They are same as last time. The door opens into a small common area that leads to the toilet room, the shower room and the main room. There is a little shoe rack to the left, and comically small complementary slippers for guests. We enter the main room and there is a large knee high table with tea brewing in the middle of a sea of tatami. I like this tea so I don't complain, but I know what dinner is going to be like. Dinner is at 7:30 and it is now 6pm.
The whole gang wants to go down to the hot spring baths, another thing this town is known for. they are on the first floor and from experience I can say the hotel probably has three of them of varying temperatures. I care nothing for the baths and besides have other plans, so I bid them farewell. With the place to myself, I head for the head.
So here I am, fully throned, my knees are almost touching the wall in front of me, the ever present toilet console to my right, full of incoherent but familiar symbols and buttons, the complementary pair of thong shoes big enough only to fit on my big toes have been brushed aside and my faithful Economist magazine that I've read cover to cover three times by now and is showing its age, is at hand. Life is good.
And then it starts. Just as I am settled in and ready to release the hounds, I hear the room door open. I hear feet pitter by. Another door slides open. Then closed. Then more feet. Now two people. Coming and going. This is part of the ancient Japanese tradition of constantly entering and leaving your room when they assume you are not there.
After ten minutes of doors sliding open and closed, and another five minutes of waiting for it to all start up again, I finally relax enough to deploy the troops and read about the Iranian nuclear program. I go back into the room expecting to see anything. Maybe they set up the futons? Maybe set the table for dinner? Maybe robbed the place? Nothing. No change in the room in any way. Money still there too. I'll never know what went on.
Dinner is served in the room. We're all around the knee-high table in chairs that have no legs. There is a kitchen on every floor to accommodate this sort of service. The food comes in and the table that i was until now thinking was a little too big, is full. Each of us has no less than 12 dishes, including a bowl made of ice and another on a sterno flame. Of this vast array of pickled this and sashimi that, I can find all of two things to eat (tofu and some sort of vegetable), and a saki drink flavored with citrus that came in a shot glass and should have come in a pitcher. The assurance that I can get whatever I want for dinner is a distant memory. Not to worry, the wife tells me, this is just the first course.
Tachan makes a phone call and the only words I can make out are "western style." The next course comes and more of the same, but instead of the whole cooked fish on a bed of rocks along with a whole cooked crab the size of a golf ball that everyone else gets, I get no main course. I'm told that Roast Beef(!) will be coming. With my hopes soaring, I knock off the bowl of miso soup I've received, and then find a tomato slice and some lettuce on some dish I cannot otherwise identify. I make short work of both veggies and wait for my beef while Tachan eats the little crab, whole, to the amusement of Chib and I.
The roast beef finally comes! Four plates, two slices each, along with a few chunks of carrot and what looks like a fried potato piece left out too long. Since the wife and brother have been enjoying the cause of my starvation, they graciously give me all four plates. Rather than waste time casually eating a veggie here and there, I go right for the cow. There isn't anything that resembles a knife on the table, so i pick up a whole slice with my chopsticks and stuff it in my mouth. Cold. Ice cold. Not take-it-back-it-isn't-hot cold, this is frigid. And rare. And chewy. The potato? Fried, then also chilled. The carrot too. And I have four plates of it. Yee-hah.
With dinner over (I managed to choke down about four slices of beef), I got a scoop of lemon sherbet the size of the previously mentioned crab, and then the entire anticlimactic meal was over. Chib had been ricocheting off the walls about going back down to the baths, so I decided to give it a whirl. We got down there after a little location trouble and entered the mens room to find a large, fat, jagged toothed woman in her early fifties, folding and preparing towels for people on their way out of the baths. Chib directs me to the alcove with the baskets that we are to disrobe and place all our things in except a small towel (and I mean SMALL). It now occurs to me that the woman at the rack is between me and the entrance to the baths, and she is apparently so captivated with the half Asian little boy that she won't take her eyes off us. I suck it up and pretend it doesn't matter, and the old woman joins the short and undistinguished list of women to view my adult body in full frontal nudity. In exchange, I receive a mostly toothless grin.
With that over, I inspect the surroundings. Just as I thought, there are three baths of crystal clear water and a row of showers. The first is inside just to my right. It is waist deep and as big as a small swimming pool. The showers are on the left, and the other two pools are outside. It is customary to hit the showers first, and though I just took one a half hour before dinner, I don't want to look like the dirty foreigner to my new spectator, so I wash up. I am shocked at how cold I can make the water. There's a river next to the hotel, but still, this is even colder than the roast beef. They HAVE to be chilling it. On to the baths. I step into the indoor one and discover it is painfully hot. My son has done it, so why can't I? I force myself to sit down it it. Chib approaches, sticks one foot it and yells "Achi!" which is "hot!" Feeling like a chump, I ask him why it didn't bother him before and he tells me that mama's bath was much more warm, not hot. Clearly I am in the wrong bath.
We head outside and approach one of the two out there. The first has steam coming off it at an alarming rate. The second, not at all. I go for that one. This is even hotter than the one inside. I head for number three, where there is an old man making sounds that old men the world over make to communicate to the rest of us that their old bodies are experiencing momentary relief. This pool, it turns out is downright sadistic. Chib is standing next to me, singing a song and spinning his towel as if this is exactly what he expected.
We go back inside and re-try the indoor bath. In comparison it feels quite reasonable. I get in and Chib plays with his towel at the edge. It's uncomfortable, but I can take it, so I play with my towel too, making it move through the water like a snake. After five minutes of quiet suffering like this, it hits me. What the hell am I doing? I am in a hot spring, experiencing uncomfortable heat in an oppressively humid town in Japan in the hottest summer on record, and this is supposed to be my vacation? The nanosecond this comes to me, I leap out into what now feels like cold air and run over to the showers. I turn it on at it's lowest level and then open up full stream at my chest. Suddenly it is Superbowl Sunday at Long Beach, LI and I'm rushing into the ice cold Atlantic, and for the first time, I don't want to come out.