Friday, September 25, 2009

A Home Away From Home

I should have known better. Waiting for a ride in the middle of the city ... What was I thinking! Trying to hitchhike in an urban center is about as useful as trying to hail a cab in a cornfield. And it was raining, and windy. Imagine this, but with a cold, driving rain:

Yep, I should've known better, I thought as I walked through the rain back to the train station. I decided to take a familiar page out of the hitchhiker's playbook and take a local train to the edge of suburbia. Not seeing any options on the station's train information board, however, I asked an attendant for some help.

"Excuse me -- hi -- I want to take a train to Kikyo station, but I don't see it on the board."

"That's because it doesn't leave for another hour and a half. I'm very sorry."

As is typical in Japan, he'd apologized for something that wasn't remotely his fault. Since coming to Japan I've started doing it too, almost unconsciously. For example:

Person I'm with: "It's too hot today."
Me: "I'm sorry."

Anyway, I forgave him and considered my next move. Faced with a 90 minute wait, I decided to try hitchhiking once more (I know, what was I thinking!), again standing out in the rain waiting for a ride that didn't come. It's alright, I assured myself, I'll get a ride at Kikyo.

And did I ever. Two of the friendliest people I met in Japan stopped in their blue Subaru. They were Mr. and Mrs. Shimizu -- a husband and wife from Shikabe. After five minutes of casual chit-chat, Mrs. Shimizu changed my outlook on hitchhiking in Japan:

"Would you like to spend the evening at our house, in Shikabe? Our daughter speaks English. We have a spare bedroom. We'd love to have you."

"Wow, yes, thank you, yes, of course, thank you!" I said, astonished by their kindness and trust. "I'd love to go with you! Where's Shikabe?"

It wasn't far. I was a bit surprised as we pulled into their neighborhood - most of the houses I'd seen in Japan were packed tightly together, arranged in neat, but cramped rows. Hokkaido has more space, however, and the Shimizu family home was surrounded by tall trees and rich greenery.

From the driveway I could see that the house was very nice ("A Swedish design," noted Mr. Shimizu), and it was even more beautiful inside. Rich hardwood floors lay under leather furniture and high ceilings. What a change from my stuffy tent and musty hostels!

I walked in the house and met their daughter, Keiko, a very friendly girl who'd spent time living in England. She spoke excellent English, but humbly denied this fact, as is expected in Japan. Her bilingualism would prove invaluable later on -- I'd studied Japanese, to be sure, but I was simply unequipped to discuss the Iranian election results or MJ's possible overdose without a translator (I can usually replace unknown vocabulary with gestures, but gesturing a drug overdose and subsequent death over dinner is usually best avoided).

Mrs. Shimizu asked me if I'd like to take a bath before dinner. Hmm, I thought. I diverted my hosts' attention and sniffed my armpits, but only the pleasant aroma of Gillette filled my nostrils. Ah yes, I recalled, having a bath before dinner is traditional in Japan.

The bathroom was a standard setup in most ways -- a little seat for washing, and next to it a big tub for soaking. But in one respect, this was no ordinary bath.

The water came not from a city pipeline, nor from a well. It came from a natural hot spring deep in the earth. The water was steaming hot and pure as the driven snow. Even in Japan it's very rare for a household to have a hot spring bath. You might call it a bath of kings, though technically it was a bath of Shimizus.

Clean as a whistle, dry as a bone, and happy as a dog with two tails, I sat down with the family for a delicious dinner. We ate, drank, chatted, and watched TV.

It was a perfect evening. I hadn't embarked on this trip expecting to be drinking sparkling wine on a leather couch in a Swedish-designed house watching a 50-inch LCD TV after a hot spring bath. But more than all that, I felt ... at home. It had been over a year since I'd seen my family, and that night I was reminded of them. I couldn't have asked for more.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Where to begin? First of all, to go hitchhiking in a foreign country takes guts. Props to you! Second, it's absolutely amazing that you were picked up by that couple. They sound like lovely people. Your style of writing is very eloquent. Short. To the point. But you give enough detail to make me feel like I'm there too on the trip.
    Good luck on your excursion and I can't wait to read the next installment of your adventure! :)