About once or twice a year my wife and I spend a few days relaxing far from home. Usually, we head off to the country and stay in a wooden bungalow where we enjoy a camping experience without the hassles of tents. Either that, or we go to a traditional ryokan and enjoy a bit of snoozing interrupted only by meals and bathing. It’s lovely. Last summer, though, we decided to do something we had never done before and stay in a Japanese pension.
We had booked a night in a small place in Kiyosato, a declining tourist resort in the prefecture of Yamanashi. It was August and the weather was unrelentingly hot and sweaty. Our car’s air-conditioning wasn’t working properly but with the windows open the drive was pleasant enough. We drove between forested hills of broccoli green and we passed peach groves and small vineyards in Yamanashi. It was rather nice. Until I got out the car, that is, when it looked as though I had soiled myself, such was the clammy wetness of my arse.
On the way to the pension we stopped off at an area of sunflower fields, which my wife was keen to visit. As soon as we stepped out of the car we knew we were no longer near our home.The air had no taste! It was simply clean fresh air and I felt like one of those kids you hear about in Mexico City who get bussed out of the city every so often to get a fix of proper oxygen. It was wonderful but did make me worry all the more about what sort of damage we were doing to our insides by continuing to live where we do.
Where we live, you see, has rather too much air pollution for my liking. The stench in summer can be awful and it is almost impossible to believe that there can be no ill-effects on the health of the local population. Unless you are keen to have a child with fascinating body proportions and perhaps an extra limb, I wouldn’t recommend it. People who have lived there all their life tell me that it is getting better; that it was far worse twenty years ago. I think when they tell me this, they are trying to cheer me up and leave me with a less negative image of their hometown but, to be honest, taking heart from that would be akin to getting in a lift at the gym with a fat bloke who has just finished working out and is rewarding himself with an egg sandwich and a fart and being told that you should be glad because yesterday he had a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch too.
Anyway, the air was clean and the sunflower fields were lovely. It was simply several fields of very tall sunflowers, and perfect if all you want is five minutes looking at lots of tall flowers. We took a few photos – it seemed to be the done thing – had a bit of a stroll in the fields and I pretended I wasn’t afraid of the bees while wondering if I looked weird holding a bag over my bottom. Then it was on to the pension.
Twenty-odd years ago Kiyosato was a popular tourist resort. I’m not sure why, because from what I can gather its main claims to fame are nice milk, ice-cream and various other dairy products; hardly the kinds of things that have Brits flocking to Ibiza, Mallorca or the Greek islands. There are apparently some pleasant treks in the area, but I think most people probably came for the same reason that we had come now – because they didn’t actually want to do anything. We just hoped to have a night in a nice, peaceful place that didn’t stink. For whatever reasons, though, the town’s popularity has been slowly declining and the road in evidenced this with a couple of boarded-up restaurants and a closed-down amusement area which lent the place a slightly forlorn air of faded glamour.
The pension was down a rough dirt-track road and nestled cosily between another pension and a small forest full of the electric buzz of cicadas and the soothing chirrups and whistles of other insects. We removed our shoes at the entrance and were greeted by the cheerful owner, a small chap with thinning hair, a round face and smiling eyes. He asked my wife if I spoke Japanese and when she said I did, he told her that I was absolutely enormous. I hate to think what he’d have said if he thought I couldn’t understand him. Then he asked me where I was from and when I said I was from Britain, he told me he had thought I was Canadian.
‘Why?’ I asked, for I had no backpack and I wasn’t proffering him a small maple leaf pin.
‘I know a woman who owns a cake shop and she is married to a foreigner,’ he explained, ‘and he’s huge and he’s Canadian. So I thought you were probably Canadian, too.’
He gave us a small tour of the pension, showed us to our room and announced that dinner was in the dining room at six. Our room was not as conducive to lolling around as a ryokan’s would have been. We had no yukata, the floor was carpeted with what looked suspiciously like office-flooring and there was only one chair. There were two beds but the television was between them, right next to the pillows and headboards, so you couldn’t even watch television without lying in bed the wrong way round.
We went for a short walk up to one of Kiyosato’s main tourist attractions – a Teutonic village of sorts. It is really a shopping area where several of the shops are slightly Bavarian or Alpine Lodge in appearance, although the goods they sell range from sausages and meats and jams and preserves to tofu and milk, pet accessories, garden ornaments, and Christmas decorations. I’m not sure what the German / Swiss / Austrian connection is but there must be something because near the sunflowers I had noticed there was a ‘Heidi Village’ and in this shopping complex there was a large bar-restaurant which included quite a few potato and sausage dishes on its menu. We popped in for a pint of Pilsner and were served by a French waiter. Perhaps it was just a sort of generic European resort.
Back at the pension we relaxed in our room until the owner called us for dinner. The dining room extended through some open glass doors onto a wooden deck and we were fortunate enough to be seated at one of the outside tables. The owner apologized that his wife was out for the evening and that two of his children would therefore be serving dinner. His daughter was a happy girl of about ten and his son a shy boy in the second year of elementary school. They brought us a lovely dinner of clam chowder, followed by white fish in a prawn sauce and a chicken main course. The only concession to Japanese cuisine was a side dish of rice, although even this was served on a plate and not in a traditional Japanese bowl. It was a lovely meal and it was with full stomachs and a happy frame of mind that my wife and I went off for a post-meal soak in the pension’s baths.
As with its ryokan cousins, the baths in this pension were to be shared by all the guests but, in this instance, not at the same time. You simply went down to the bathroom and, if the room was free, you could go in, alone or with your family, lock the door, have a shower and a wash and then soak in the tubs until your heart’s content. I say tubs, because there were two – one, a small but deep stone tub which was inside, and a slightly larger round tub which was outside on a second wooden deck and in which one could lie back, listen to the insects and stare up at the moon in the darkening sky. It was wonderful. Even the spider precariously hanging from its web directly above my head did little to spoil the experience. My friend did his best a few weeks later, though, when he detailed just how much he and his girlfriend had enjoyed such a bath on their last ryokan trip. I haven’t been able to feel quite as comfortable about such bathing facilities since. Still, I hadn’t heard his tales then and we soaked lazily for about three quarters of an hour before, feeling clean and refreshed and flushing red in colour, going back to the room to share a bottle of wine and watch television.
By nine o’clock we were ready to sleep but the owner of the pension was not. He knocked gently on our door and told us he was going to sit out in the deck and have a drink and eat some cool cucumber with miso and would we care to join him. I don’t know why he picked us – I think perhaps the other guests had gone out for the evening, and with his wife away he was a bit lonely – but we were happy to accept. Over several glasses of shochu mixed with barley tea the owner told us his story.
After graduating from university, he had become a salaryman and spent five years working for Mitsubishi in Tokyo. The lifestyle didn’t suit him, he said, and so he packed in his job, moved to Kiyosato and built this pension himself. That was twenty-five years ago and it was the time of the Kiyosato ‘boom’. Pensions were springing up everywhere. Now, he said, there is half the number of pensions that there once was, but he has survived and is happy with his life here. He even met his wife through the pension. She was a customer, he said, and as we would see for ourselves tomorrow she was a bijin, a real beauty. He told us that she was fourteen years his junior and he was very lucky to have met her because she is a wonderful person. He added quickly that he could never tell her that, though.
His daughter came out in her pyjamas saying that her room was too hot and she couldn’t sleep. She seemed keen to talk and told us about the big snake she had recently seen in the nearby fields. Then the owner’s son appeared. He was eager to show us his pet beetle. He produced a large, black, somewhat lethargic beetle and placed it on the table, before prodding it in a an attempt at encouraging movement. The beetle looked more dead than alive, but it did wiggle its legs about for his amusement when he lifted it up and turned it upside down. Bored with the beetle, he then showed us his father’s two jars of dead bees soaked in shochu. His dad told us that every time he killed a bee he added it to one of the jars and that whenever he or one of the kids got stung, he rubbed the alcohol on the sting and it was an effective cure. He swore that it worked.
The kids were sent back to bed, the owner poured us some more shochu and we spent an agreeable evening getting into a fuzzy state of mind on a balmy summer evening.
The next morning we woke early and went for a brisk stroll in the forest and I tried to ignore the mild hangover which was lurking somewhere deep inside my head and periodically making itself known to my bowels. It was hot again, but for once not accompanied by the humidity which makes even the effort of breathing cause you to sweat. Breakfast was served on the deck, but this time by the owner, his daughter and his bijin wife. She certainly had a prettiness in her face but like the town in which she had made her home, she had a bit of past glory in her features. We were served bacon and eggs and bread rolls with butter, which suited me perfectly because, much as I enjoy the miso soup, rice and fish which often constitute a Japanese breakfast, the bacon and eggs were certainly just what my recovering body required to soak up the alcohol lingering in my system.
By the time we checked out I was once again in fine fettle. The entire family came out to wave us off and the owner urged us to return next year. I think I might.