Ode to the onsen and the solo karaoke

“Good news, the wind’s blown the smog away this morning.”

“Shall we switch the air purifier off?”

“Why, do you want to open the window?”

“Nah, I guess it’s still ‘UnhealthyForSensitiveGroups.'”

We were back in Beijing, and sounded it. After 9 days seeing family and friends in Tokyo, a while longer than DD who came back early for his Chinese lessons, I landed at Beijing airport on Friday night into a block of smog, so thick I could see it down the Arrivals hall. By the time I got home my hair smelt as if I’d been out at bonfire night, the result of the government turning on the heating across the country on 15 November. To car emissions and factory smoke the third big polluter, heating by coal, had added a touch of grit to the atmosphere and an extra sting to the eye.

We’d hopped over to Japan last week ideally to ship some clean air back in bottles, but failing that, to escape to the seaside and hide away for a couple of days in a Japanese-style hotel room with a hot spring bath on the balcony.

From Narita airport we took the express train through peanut fields in Chiba, my home prefecture, changed on to the bullet train, then made our way down the Izu peninsula on a single-track local train with the Pacific Ocean on our left disappearing into the evening light. At the station we asked for directions to our ryokan, the Japanese name for a traditional hotel, and pulled our suitcases 15 minutes up the hillside to an old wooden building. Brown plastic slippers were neatly laid out on the tired carpet, the gift shop area was in darkness and the lobby was deserted.

As we stood at the entrance, a man in his 60s wearing an old suit came out and welcomed us.

“You should have called,” he said, “we would have driven to the station and picked you up.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, as he picked up our luggage. “I did call but no one answered, but it’s not a problem.”

Another friendly man, also in his 60s wearing an old suit, came out and welcomed us.

“You should have called, we would have come and picked you up,” he said.

“Erm,” I said, as we followed the two men and our luggage down two flights of stairs. “We did call but… Anyway, it’s lovely to be here.”

Our room was just as we’d hoped, simple and shabby but quiet and comfortable: a bamboo-matted room with a low table, a carpeted area by the window with rocking chairs, and a big wooden balcony with a wooden bath tub looking out over tops of trees and other buildings and out to the sea.

A quick functional wash in the communal indoor bath for me, and a not-so-quick failed outing down dark country lanes to find pre-dinner beer for DD, and soon we were dressed in the ryokan’s light cotton kimonos and sat eating a multi-course Japanese meal in our room, feeling slightly guilty that we were being served by local residents who seemed older than our parents.

If soaking in a hot spring bath on a cold day is the best feeling in the world, the first sip of ice cold beer after the bath is the second best, and not long into the meal we ordered our second glasses of Asahi. One of the men who worked at reception brought them to our room.

“The smog in Tokyo used to be terrible,” he said suddenly. We assumed he was carrying on an earlier conversation, and listened. “It’s clean now, but when the Tokyo Olympics was on it was really bad. They only started cleaning it up in the ’70s with Tanaka-san, you know Tanaka-san.” We nodded, recalling the prime minister who had come up a lot in DD’s PhD thesis on post-war Japanese politics.

“You’d go up to Tokyo and your eyes would be red by the end of the day, and your nostrils would be completely black. The river was bubbling with gas,” he continued, “Beijing might be bad but Tokyo used to be bad too.” We nodded furiously in appreciation. “Well, not as bad as Beijing actually,” he added, “but still bad.”

Having made good work of the ten plates of food, we heaved our full stomachs on to the rocking chair, and another man who looked at least 70 pushed the table into the corner and laid out the futon beds for us. After a couple of hours of sleepy reading we headed to the large communal outdoor hot spring bath – or onsen as it’s called – that had been booked out for us for half an hour. There, we placed the flask of sake that the hotel had given us on a small wooden boat and let it float into the steam, and we sat side by side in the stone-lined bath that was big enough to fit 20 people. We sipped sake from our tiny cups, feeling steadily hotter and hotter.

Back in our room we turned on the taps in our private onsen tub on the balcony, and soaked in the water with our hair feeling the chilly night breeze, listening to the distant sound of waves and gazing at the stars in the sky. Over the next two days we dipped in and out of this bath every few hours, not even needing to change the water every time as the hot spring minerals had so much energy the water stayed steaming for half a day. One thing we failed to do though was to watch the sunrise from the bath, a major attraction of staying in a ryokan on the east coast. The local pensioners gather by the concrete coastal wall every morning and pray to the rising sun, the ryokan staff had told us, but we, being lazy sods, only managed to get up in time to watch an already bright morning sky get slightly brighter.

A few days later, I was alone in Tokyo with an afternoon to kill. DD and I had visited my relatives, had a merry heavy night with DD’s friend and his wife, and I’d met up with an old childhood friend. I’d bought the books I wanted to buy, eaten the food I wanted to eat and revisited old stomping grounds. Coming back home – as Tokyo is to me in a different way to London – is always packed with celebrations and sad news, and sends my mind back to memories of the place that are happy and hazy, painful and precious, and remind me that I don’t quite belong there anymore. Feeling bored and slightly emotional, I got off at a random station on the circular Yamanote Line and headed to a karaoke box.

It’s easy to be anonymous in Tokyo, with its 24-hour neon lights, packed streets and polite service staff with their robot voices. This makes it comfortable for me to do things on my own, such as walk into a karaoke box at 3pm on a Tuesday. My booth stank of cigarette smoke and there were no disco lights, so I turned off the lights completely, ordered a melon soda, an illuminous drink I only drink in Japan, and punched in the two songs that I could initially think of into the system and picked up the mic.

Partly due to my taste and partly due to living outside Japan most of my life with only my parents’ music collection and the odd Japanese TV programme for reference, my karaoke repertoire is largely limited to Japanese folk songs from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, plus a few recent pop ballads. I like their straight but sincere sentiment and lyrical tunes; the swelling melody allows me to let rip, and the slow tempo gives me time to remember how our school music teacher taught us to sing and I can fancy myself a good singer. With barely 15 songs up my sleeve, I finished the lot in an hour but I wanted to carry on, so I sang them all again, some twice, some three times, some four or five, until I’d stayed there three hours and daylight was fading when I finally stepped outside. Head achy, throat smoky and lungs hot, I blinked and slipped into the crowd.


Copyright © 2013 followingdrdippy

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