4 Shirabu Onsen: The Hobby Hermit

Shirabu Onsen is a scattering of hot spring resorts on the steep, thickly-forested slopes of Mount Azuma.  At the far back of a tired-looking grocery store that lacked both customers and groceries, a bent-backed old woman was sat busily knitting. I interrupted her to ask for directions.

“The guesthouse? It`s over there,” she pointed me to a dark wooden building opposite an abandoned wooden elementary school and stone tablets raised to ward off evil spirits.

“He`s 80 years old you know.  All alone running the place.  Keep him company will you?”

Minutes later I was in the front room with a reedy, tired-looking, tiny old man watching an old detective show.  Kneeling at a foot-high wooden table I looked around the room: an irori, sunken hearth, a few stained glass lampshades and some photos of a man with his arms raised in the air. No signs of any family. There were 3 other large low wooden tables; all were empty – I was the only guest.

I could not think of anything to say. We sat in silence.  As well as deeply unhappy, he seemed slightly uncomfortable in my presence.  His life felt like a blank page at the end of a book I`d never read.

I escaped up the road to Nishiya for a blissful utaseyu, a waterfall of hot spring water (lit. hit by hot water). 

I joined him again as darkness fell, watching TV while he tinkered with some glass. I was not sure if I was welcome. Then I noticed that each time I lost interest in the TV program and began to flick through my notebook, without saying anything, he changed the channel.  He was discreetly trying to entertain me.  

After an hour or so, he cracked open a can of Asahi beer and began to talk.  The glass tinkering, he explained, was for the stained glass lampshades he makes, Hobby 1.  Hobby 2 was running. He took it up at 55 and ran in races all across the world: the Himalayan 100 mile race, the Everest marathon, the Athens, Rome and New York marathons.  The photos lining one wall were of him, crossing the finishing line with his arms raised and a huge smile on his face. Hobby 3 was Pottery. He took me out to see his potter’s wheel.  Hobby 4 was Knitting. He raced upstairs to fetch his hand-knitted sweater,

Before becoming the Hobby Hermit, for 14 years he`d had his own little empire in Kabukicho, Japan`s biggest red light district, running a nightclub, bar, Chinese restaurant and Mah-Jong parlour. The tiny hermit was getting bigger by the minute; he no longer seemed without hope.

The phone rang., an old friend calling.

>>>>>>>>>>>> “Yeah, I`ve still got that girl in Komatsu. We go to Kyoto together sometimes”

>>>>>>>>>>>> “I don`t have long left……………..just another 20 years. Ha ha ha ha ha!!!”

>>>>>>>>>>>> “My old man? 55”

>>>>>>>>>>>> “My Mum? 90”

>>>>>>>>>>>> “Yeah, I have to beat her. Ha ha ha ha ha!!”

He was pacing up and down the wooden floorboards like a stressed stockbroker

>>>>>>>>>>>> ”Don`t worry. I`ve got plenty of objectives left.  I still want to go up that Skytree, Ha ha ha ha ha!”

The tiny man still had big dreams.

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