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hai chee zu
鶴の湯 Tsurunoyu: Gentlemen

15 January 2002

I went into the baths at 5pm or so. Spent a long time in the large outdoor bath, the most mesmerizing to watch. Possibly waiting for women, just to see. But a pile of men came. And with them I spoke - they were primarily サラリーマン salarimen from 秋田 Akita, from 東北 Tohoku. One spoke English well; we spoke of his children and my work. With all of them, I spoke of living in the jisui, I joked about eating a bowl of rice a day, and maybe some ドンキホテ donkihote uni. I dream of 鍋 nabe, I said. One of them said well your dream is true now. I didn't get what they were saying; I chalked it up to language troubles.

So I climbed out at the same time as them, having been in so long that my hands were clenched into claws. I went to buy my nightly rice from the hotel, and the innkeeper at the desk gave me a covered bowl of 鍋 nabe - a give from 糸井-さん Itoi-san, she said. I said I want to give thanks. She observed where they were having dinner, in a large room in a long hallway. Ten of them sat, three women and seven men, kneeling before trays of fantastic looking food. They invited me to come sit with them and eat!

Left Side | Right Side
(can you spot a polite Japan no-no? I'm sharing the soles of my feet with the photographer)

So I ran back to my room, put on some long underwear to cover myself some, grabbed by camera and my notebook, and ran back to meet them. And I sat with them, next to Itoi-san, I believe. He was a man who was very easy to speak with. Even with the same subjects and vocabulary, some people talk too fast or too inflected for me to understand. Notso with Itoi-san; it seemed we understood about 80% of what we said I believe. It was fun - we talked about America and Japan, China and Japan, 小泉 Koizumi, Baseball, California, food. He shared with me some rich raw horsemeat, buri (wintertime favourite sushi), nabe - I had my own tray of food. They clapped when I came in the room! I realized I was like one of the three women perhaps; 偶々 entertainment.

Deluxe Tsurunoyu Dinner:
From upper right, around clockwise:
  • 生馬肉 thick bloody horsemeat sashimi
  • vegetables mix in a sort of mealy brown sauce
  • buri sashimi (buri is a kind of fish), but heck if I know which kind in English
  • cloudy sweet Akita-sake. One of the men said the ladies ordered it. I liked it, everyone drank it. I drank a lot
  • octopus in a vinegary vegetable mix
  • fuki - some sort of celery in vinegar
  • delicious roasted or fried chicken with lettuce
  • spinach with shrimp flakes on top
  • not pictured: nabe - hearty Akita stew ladled out of a big iron pot hanging over a small firepit in our dining room. Delicious - mostly little side dishes. I was passed all this food as a late arrival.
  • One of the gentleman came to sit near me; he had a daughter in high school in America, in Arkansas! Somewhere they didn't have email. Arkansas - that blew my mind - wouldn't that be particularly far from Japan? I was excited by the idea to interview her when she returns in July. I traded cards with him, and a number of the other folks.

    I was served much sake, and some beer. I drank in earnest, determined to join these folks in their moment, and having watched some Japanese drink before, watched without participating. Often my drink was served by the 25 year old ひであき Hidaki, who was charged with kneeling around the room providing libation. Upon exiting the baths together, he asked me, What is your favourite idiom? (idiom, proverb = 諺 - ことわざ - kotowaza) So we shared - I thought for a long time, and finally came up with "It's nice to get up in the morning, It's nicer to lie in bed" - from my Grandfather. Which is ironic, because neither Grampa nor I could spend much time in bed awake before getting restless with something to do around the house. But it's an English idiom, and it can be sung. Hidaki shared, "like old dog, new tricks" he said - わかいうちにまなべwakai uchini manabe.

    We went to the front desk and wrote these down for each other; then as I entered the dinner room later I saw one of them holding this piece of paper where I had written my grandfather's phrase.

    (Who is who in this group? There's an identification key).

    We all took photos together, my camera and one of the ladies. Her's was much larger than mine. I never spoke a word to the gals, except maybe across the room during some group exchanges.

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    After a deliciously long time, people made a signal that we were leaving. We were leaving? I stayed until the end, when Hidaka pointed out the door: 行きましょう "ikimashou" - let's go. I said, おやすみなさい oyasumi, because I thought this was the end of our time together; in fact we were retiring to a room between two bedrooms; a small sitting room (ie, a floor) with a firepit in the center. There we ate okashi (snacks), kiwi fruit and the orange colored fruit with large seeds in the center that Mimi Ito served me that I've forgotten the name of, little bits of meat; snacks to go with more piles of sake. And Itoi-san I sat next to, it was his 誕生日 birthday! So we sang a sort of stilted but enthusiastic "Happy Birthday" in English to him. The English speaking man pointed out that this man that I enjoyed talking to was considered a "truth speaking man" - "truth comes from him."

    There was some storytelling by the man who seemed (by his gray hair, not disposition) to be the oldest man in the group; I didn't follow much, though I appreciated his effluvient demeanor. He made 判子 hankos, Japanese name stamps, I was lead to believe. The most まじめ majime man, a teacher who lives near Iwata, he invited me to live with him this month, since I want to learn old Japanese culture. The others urged me to do it; why not? But I said I would stay at Tsurunoyu until the end of the month, and then I would like to see him. Now I write a book I said. (I did end up visiting Itoi again and learning some old Japanese culture in Yokote.)


    I noticed my うかた ukata was more open at the collar than the rest of theirs. I tried repeatedly to close it further. Itoi-san shared two cigarettes with me. Whew! I started to feel woozy and retired for a long time to sit on a very nice electric toilet in a room after the room where we left our shoes. Finally I felt as though I was going to pass into the gates of hell; I stuck my pinky down my throat and gave greetings to the toilet. Large vehement multicolored greetings. I was alone in the toilet for some time. I heard "oyasumi" and "goodbye" and many rustlings outside. So I opened the door, and Hidaki met me, asking if I was okay. I swabbed at the bits of food and such around the toilet bowl; getting most all of it I hoped. I left in time to see Itoi-san heading to bed, and nodding sympathetically. Then I returned to the room where we had sat; the teacher, who was hard to understand, observed that Japanese sake can make you throw up if you are not careful. I bowed and nodded and apologized and left, carrying my nabe present and my bowl of rice. "Breakfast and Lunch tomorrow" we had earlier agreed.

    morning lovlies in the pool

    The next morning I was hungover and feeling inclined to lay in bed, nursing a sorry stomach. But I figured the Japanese must consider these baths a hangover cure. On the path on my way to the baths, I ran into the English speaking gent leaving for work; he bid me "auf weiderzein."

    In the pool was Itoi-san and a gentleman who said he was the president of a home construction company (who isn't most of these photos). We discussed some of the various animals that might be likely to visit these hotsprings along with us (deer? bears? monkeys?). Also, they related that hanko-man had been at the baths at 4am, and he had seen two pretty young ladies (美人).

    They were as chatty with me in the morning as they were the night before; I was glad to see that my party behaviour was not an impardonable affront. After watching so many Japanese people throw up on the subway platforms in Tokyo, I'm inclined to believe that drinking too much is widely forgiven here. Still no more pleasant - I hope I wiped that toilet down enough. Maybe Hidaki covered for me. Very nice people these were! At one point I had the urge to sing some songs, I suppressed them. I wonder if I should have? I'll save them for next time; the construction president says he's been here upwards of thirty times, for "business meetings."

    A teacher, a propane gas salesman, a construction company president, a consultant, a hanko maker - I don't know how they knew each other, why they were there together, and who these three women were. I asked more than once! I didn't get the answer. Maybe the answer was Itoi-san's birthday. Happy birthday!


    PostScript: I talked with Motegi-san, and showed her these photographs; she knew all these men; they come once a month for a kai-gi - meeting here, coordinated by the sensei. She had taken some of the photographs of us eating and I hadn't recognized her or remembered! (I hadn't met her yet). She gave me their names - sugiyama-shatcho (glasses), yamada-san (sensei), odashima-san (arkansas), horie-san (hanko). The food was special for the occasion; not the usual from Tsurunoyu.

    鶴の湯 Tsurunoyu | 秋田 Akita | Japan | trip | life

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