Tuesday, April 27, 2010

#16: Kei and Sam's Almost Excellent Adventure in Kotohira (Including the Fish that Ate Me): Part II

I will wrap up my almost excellent adventure in Kotohira with this posting. Don't want to make too much of a good thing. The first thing we did when our taxi arrived was drive to the train station to wait for Russell Lifson. Russell is the 22-year-old grandson of my wife's cousin, and, serendipitously, is teaching English at a school in Miyoshi-Shi, about a half hour from Kotohira. He is the only American there and is clearly hungry for some up close and personal with someone from home. Russell is a sweet, very intelligent young man who went to Bard, where he studied Japanese for three years, and decided to join the JET program to teach English in Japan. But JET is more likely to send you to the most out-of-the-way places to do this, not to some wired city like Tokyo or Osaka. It's practically the equivalent of bringing a young Japanese person to teach Japanese somewhere in the Ozarks. You can imagine the feeling after the initial excitement wears off. But at least Russell has the benefit of owning a used red Toyota (if a Toyota can be a benefit). He had to learn to drive Japanese-style, which is British-style, with the driver's seat on the right and the driving in the left lane. Russel blogs his life here at Best English Teacher in Japan.

Russell and Kei.

After Kei and I checked in to the Grand Hotel, an upscale Japanese inn (ryokan) with an elegant lobby seen in this clip, he, Russell and I climbed most of the 700 steps to the top of Kotohira, where the famous Konpira-San Temple is located. We passed dozens of souvenir shops and restaurants. This video shows us descending into the real world again. The area was crawling with Japanese tourists, many of them there for the kabuki performances at the Kanamaru-za, described in my last posting. Those steps are very steep, but we made it nearly to the top before deciding to descend so Kei and I wouldn't be late for the afternoon program. We passed palanquin bearers seeking passengers to carry either up or down the steps. Two men carry a single person in a small bamboo seat, which would be hard enough on flat ground. But up and down these stone steps? It looks like a job for superman although these guys didn't seem especially strong-looking. Whatever they earn is worth it.

Russell walked with us to the theatre and said his wistful goodbyes there, wishing he too had a ticket for the show. I felt sorry for him, although he'll soon be visited by his girlfriend from home--she's already been here--and then will finally leave for home at the end of July.

That evening, back at the inn, I ventured with Kei into the public bath (onsen). In other years, I'd taken hot springs baths in Japan, which is famous for them, but only once before in a public one. They are inevitably to be found in Japanese inns. I simply like my privacy when I take off my clothes, even at the gym. But Kei is an avid bath lover, so I went along for the ride. Each room (Japanese-style, of course, with futon quilts for beds on tatami mat floors) comes with very nice lightweight kimono (yukata) and Japanese-style jackets, as well as split-toe socks and bamboo thongs (zori). You put one on that fits you and head for the onsen, which here was on the 7th floor, against the side of a hill. We put our clothes onto open shelves and, butt nekkid, sat on low stools at individual spigots equipped with small bamboo buckets. Soap and shampoo bottles are there for each customer to wash away all their dirt, and the buckets are for pouring water over yourself to rinse away the soap. Then you traipse over to the beautiful baths, which at the Grand are only about a foot and a half deep, and soak. The baths are NOT mixed; women have their own, although Japan still has some mixed bathing facilities, usually in rural communities.

My name is actually pronounced Samurai-ta in Japanese.

I'd like to mention that some Japanese men, like myself, lean toward modesty when it comes to exposing their private parts. While some jauntily let it all hang out, Kei included, others tend to beard their lions with a towel, large or small as the case may be.

After soaking luxuriously in water that was not as hot as in other baths I've been in, we moved outdoors to a hot tub in which a group of 4 or 5 middleaged men were lounging. They turned out to be a group of volunteer firemen, their "chief"--a man of around 60--sitting higher than the rest on the top edge of the tub, his dignity protected by a small white towel. He kidded about his baldness being from his hair having been singed during his fire-fighting duties.

Kei and I had eaten a substantial dinner of gourmet Japanese cuisine and had a couple of beers as well. Now, for some reason, sitting in the tub, trying to sustain the banter with the firemen, and still digesting my meal, I suddenly began to feel very dizzy. I staggered from the tub into the next room, sat on one of the tiny bathing stools, and tried to come to myself. Kei said he thought I surely was going to faint, that my eyes had stopped moving, and he was envisioning calling my wife in New York to tell her I'd passed away in a Japanese hot tub. I remembered the scene in the kabuki play Banzui Chobei where Chobei is lured into a private bathouse and, when he is naked and at his most vulnerable, attacked by his enemy's men. Would I go the way of Chobei, albeit from dizziness and not a lance thrust?

The fire fighters were all very solicitous, and Kei kept plying me with cold water. At one point, a young woman bath attendant entered this haven of male privacy and brought me ice water. I wasn't feeling especially nauseous but one of the cups I had emptied was soon full again with the remnants of the evening's lovely repast. And then another cup held its share. Finally, after about half an hour, my strength returned and I made it back to my room, got into my futon, and was soon dead to the world--but in a good way.

Our room, by the way, was equipped, as are most modern homes and establishments (not my place at Seikei U., though), with one of those ultramodern Japanese toilets I've alluded to elsewhere. Folks, if you haven't tried one, you're missing one of life's great experiences. You sit on the gently warmed seat and when you're finished with your business press one of two buttons--for a fine stream of warm water or a more gentle spray of the same. The former aims with Robin Hood accuracy for that special target and shoots its liquid arrow in a nonstop stream of cleansing delight. I assume a bidet offers equally pleasurable sensations, albeit to another anatomical treasure. These toilets also have bidet functions, of course.

The next day, after the show, Kei and I killed time waiting for our airport taxi by exploring Kotohira's backstreets. At one point, as this video reveals, we came across several "soaplands," a euphemism for brothels, where you presumably go to get soaped down by young women but end up doing something else entirely. After my bathing experience of the previous night, this was not something I would have been especially interested in, married man or not.

The red characters say "Doctor Fish." Read on to learn what this means.

Being eaten alive.

Town Hall, Kotohira.

During our wanderings we came across a rather imposing building suggestive of an oldtime daimyo's mansion, directly across from the theatre and our hotel. Upon inquiring, we learned that it was actually built in 1925 and serves as the town's hall. Despite its antique-looking exterior, the inside is in typical modern bureaucratic style. The staff from the kabuki productiion is using it as living quarters while they're in town, so we were told we couldn't go inside to check it out.

Finally, while walking down the main tourist street, we came upon a small establishment advertising "Doctor Fish." These, I learned, are small fishes that are used for therapeutic purposes. After watching other people get their lower extremities scoured clean by these tiny critters, I took the plunge with Kei. You soak your feet in a shallow pool and they swarm all over you, actually nibbling at your flesh and eating away whatever impurities may reside therein. They come from Turkey and, despite my feeling I'd discovered something really unusual, seem to have inspired many other YouTube videos before I ever posted mine. The feeling when you first are "attacked" is totally strange--a weird combination of electricity and tickling, and I couldn't stop giggling from the effect. A ten-minute immersion costs about $5.50, and the place was doing a brisk business, although only four people can use the pool at the same time.

And that, good friends, concludes my almost excellent adventure in Kotohira, one I hope you will yourself one day experience.


  1. Hi Sam,

    Sooooo you were almost eaten by a fish is just a fishy tale. You scared me. I was prepared to hear that you'd been swimming and attacked by a whale or at least a shark! I must admit to feeling relieved. Are you feeling all better now (not the fish part, but the dizzy, sick part)? Stay well, my friend!

  2. The scene in Banzui Chobei sounds like that scene with Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises. I wonder if it was inspired by the Kabuki play?