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Friday, Aug. 11, 2000


Sticky slippers and other time-honored traditions

The phrase yumizu no yo ni kane o tsukau (spending money like spilling hot water) is an apt one to describe lavish spending and always comes to mind when I'm soaking in the hot waters of an onsen ryokan (hot springs inn), smack in the act of spending money like spilling hot water. Nothing like a ryokan to remind you of the deep and fundamental link between cash and things like clouds of vapor and water gurgling down drains.

Born of parents who had an unerring eye for picking out the seediest places to stay this side of the Kanto Plain, I have the knack of turning up, tired and aching, on the steps of some decrepit but overpriced ryokan, knowing with a quiet sense of doom that this is the kind of joint that has peta peta surippa (sticky slippers).

There they are, laid out like animal pelts at a furrier, on the floor at the front entrance where guests take off their shoes. Pair upon pair of soft plastic slippers whose colors are invariably vomit blue or fungus green, and whose interiors are permanently humidified by years of wear. You shove reluctant feet inside and immediately feel the resident bacteria clan whoop and prepare to throw a block party, somewhere in the region between your toes.

As you pad down the long, dark corridor, the nakai (ryokan staff member, always female and wearing a kimono) walks ahead and explains the various amenities.

"This is the otokoyu (gentlemen's bath), this is the onnayu (ladies' bath). The gentlemen's is a rotenburo (outdoors bath) with a spectacular view and the ladies' is located in a windowless, airless basement area. The two switch between the hours of 8 to 10 p.m. and again between 6 and 8 a.m. Both baths close at 10:30 p.m. Are you taking all this in?"

Not really.

"Oh, and this is the communal o-tearai (honorable toilet), two booths for 53 guests. And this is the communal senmenjo (washing-up area, usually one long sink with plastic basins placed in it) where you can brush your teeth, wash your face and do all the other things you don't normally do in public." Great.

Then you and the nakai arrive at your room, which always has a name, like "Kaede no Ma (Maple Room)," "Yuri no Ma (Lily Room)," or "Natsukusa no Ma (Summer Grass Room)." These names may strike you as vaguely White House, but the rooms themselves are eight- to 10-tatami mat affairs with a small chabudai (low table), a potto (hot water thermos), a couple of old zabuton (floor cushions) and a scratchy TV.

"Goyukkuri! (Make yourself comfortable!)" the nakai says, and leaves. The appropriate Japanese response at this point is to drop everything, lie back on the tatami and groan "Tsukareta (I'm tired)." But soon one is up, rummaging through the luggage for one's onsen gear. It's time for a bath.

After splishing and splashing among other vacationers, one dries off and dons the ryokan yukata, which functions as bathrobe, walking outfit, dinner wear, pajamas and breakfast wear the next morning. It's amazing how much mileage you can get out of such a skimpy, threadbare piece of cotton.

In this yukata, you go out for some fresh air wearing the ryokan geta, and see that like-dressed and -shod persons are doing the same, all wearing the vulnerable, uneasy expression of those who know they are drastically underdressed. A sudden tornado, snowstorm, band of muggers on motorcycles -- any one of these could wipe us out in a nanosecond.

Dinner, the supreme event of the evening, is held in the ohiroma (communal big room) with many low tables already laid out when the guests file in. Nakai and their helpers then come to take the order for o-biiru (honorable beer) and look affronted when you ask for plain water. Someone at the next table starts to sing. Small wonder that people often choose pricier ryokan with heya-shoku (room dinners), the Japanese version of room service.

The fare at a typical onsen ryokan consist of many fish dishes (raw, steamed, boiled and grilled) and one meat dish, cooked over a portable burner. If nothing else, one becomes so full it's necessary to burn off the extra calories with a few more dips in the bath.

Getting thirsty, you reach for a cold drink from the room refrigerator, affectionately known to frequent travelers as the bottakuri bako (swindle box). One takes a drink from the box and immediately this act is logged in by the computer at the front desk. Next morning when you settle the bill, you are apt to release a mental yelp of indignation: "600 yen for a can of beer? What the. . ."

But it's checkout time (10 a.m.) and there's a line of people waiting behind. You pay, you pick up your bags and stumble out into the morning light, dazed from many soaks, many beers and a lot of spilled water.

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