Japan has been like a second-home for me for over ten years now, but I still don’t seem to know the way in. I always seem stuck on wrong side of the window, forever an outsider. Being free of entanglements and complications has many benefits – it is a choice I have made, but I sometimes I crave a few moments inside.
The other day I was in Kurokawa Onsen, a high-class hot spring resort high in the hills of central Kyushu. A proudly picturesque riverside village surrounded by forest boasting over 20 ryokans, each with their own natural hot spring baths. But I didn’t take a 5 hour round trip bus ride to Kurokawa just to have a bath. I had come on a much more important mission – to collect the souvenir biscuits I had accidentally left there two days previously.
And, why had I gone 2 days before? To renew acquaintances with some of the ryokan owners who I met on a 7 day tour of England in 2005. In theory, on that particular trip I was their guide to the glory of the English countryside; in practice I was little more than extra luggage, providing them with nothing more than a few mumbled crumbs of barely-digested knowledge in between scones and lamb sandwiches.
The highway bus dropped me off just above the village. Looking down from the road, all I could see was lush green tree-tops and dark clumps of grey cloud threatening to explode at any moment. I bought a towel and hunted down a bath, as good a hiding place as any. The red sulphur-stained stone bath Daikan no Yu (The Magistrate’s Spring) was warm and welcoming. A tree offered shelter from the hot sun rays forcing their way through the clouds. The only thing that fell on me was a furry caterpillar.
Returning to the Tourist Information to collect my biscuits I bumped into Kousuke, the Kojak-lookalike ryokan owner who I had got on so well with in England. We had shared a love of stupid jokes, being ridiculous and pretending that nothing really matters.
For the few minutes I had available, he put on a fine show for me, inviting me inside and ordering me THE finest coffee, topping up my cup when he noticed the tide had gone out then forcing a souvenir t-shirt on me before chauffeuring me back to the bus stop. He has gone through tough times, with personal health problems, and now the impact of the recent earthquake and landslides on his business, but he was still so positive, talking about the past – his fond memory of an ivy-strewn courtyard in Castle Combe where an old couple were sat sharing tea, his plans for the future, about trying something a little different – but not too different. He’s still looking, and so am I.