Days 61-63: Kusatsu Hot Springs, Japan

I’ve been following a few blogs every now and then. Not often, rather infrequently, just out of curiosity, and to see the style of postings. Mine tend to be pretty straightforward, while I find many blogs pontificate, pyschoanalyze, or philosophize about the meaning of life. I am not trained to do any of those, so I try to steer clear. However, today brought new meaning to life. Staying in a real ryokan, or Japanese style inn, has renewed my ability to appreciate and understand life. That’s a pretty tall order, considering the whirlwind of activities that I have thrust myself into over the past couple of months. But slowing down and being in an exquisitely beautiful area has given me cause to pause and reflect.

Good things come to those who wait. I guess it’s hard to see all the offerings life has before each of us. As we grow older, we are able to differentiate and discriminate. Many think that growing old is a sad process but I am finding it to be uplifting–not always, but the quality of what we see is so different. Once you have perspective on many experiences, you draw from them and can detect what is bitter and what is sweet.

We should have realized what an occasion coming to Kusatsu Hot Springs was going to be. Once we arrived at the bus terminus from the train station (3 hours travel west from Tokyo by 2 bullet trains), we asked the information counter how to reach our hotel. All I had was an address in Japanese. We asked if we could walk there. “Of course,” said the receptionist. “But I can call the hotel and they will come to pick you up. Just have a seat in the lounge and they will find you shortly”. Sure enough, within 5 minutes an older gentleman appeared to whisk us in a van to the hotel about 5 minutes away. Now that’s what I call service.

From the arrival at the entrance to the ryokan, we knew it was going to be special. Soft voices, infinite courtesies, and true hospitality catch our attention. Maybe after Russia and even Mongolia we are sensitive to the manner in which humans greet each other. Not so much the degree of warmth as the presence or absence of it.

The Japanese have the hospitality covered. In this case, it’s a business. But so are the Marriotts and the Goyo Travels (our guide company in Mongolia) and the Zemzuchinas (our hotel in Vladivostok). Everyone makes the effort, but no one knows respect for the customer like what we are getting here.

We were shown to our Japanese style room. Every detail in the room is exquisite–from the carved and lacquered wooden post that trace the inherent knots and wood grain, to the miniaturized proportions and tea service in the room. Every detail is taken into consideration. I don’t know where I heard this before but the thought of “economy, purpose and delight” come to mind.

After casing out every joint (literally, the choice of thickness for wood trim, the depth of niches, the size off doors, the thinness of wood recess handles, etc etc, we tore ourselves out of the room and to the house baths. The hot springs eternal here. As one of the many features, you go to separate quarters for men and women to wash down , then soak in tepid splendor.

Our dinner, with the complete set (see menu), was another version of perfection. I’m not sure how you can produce and consume every item on a menu but they produced and we consumed. They only thing we could do afterwards was roll over and flop into bed from overconsumption. Bad for the heart but great for the head. Anthony Bourdain was right to say the best food in the world is Japanese.

The early morning concert of birds reminded me of how Japan is or was, a tropical island. The wide leafed bamboo, lotus roots, and array of bird life are evidence. The Japanese not only have nature in their DNA, but in their history. It leaves me very envious that the Chinese were not as able to inhale the environment the way the Japanese have. Despite the disarming blight everywhere, the shibui or exquisite beauty seems to well compensate for the shortcomings.

Finally, a brief visit to the art gallery adjacent to the hotel reinforced Japanese compatibility with the sublime modern:

A Note on Travels with Myself and Others

I have been pondering my recent travels. They seem to gravitate on the 38th parallel north or somewhere between 35-40 degrees latitude. It’s not an accident that the San Francisco Bay Area (I was born in Oakland, across the bay), lies on this imaginary line. I probably mentioned that a year or two ago when I traveled along the Silk Road in Uzbekistan, and how everything felt so natural and comprehensible to me.

The beets, carrots, peas and potatoes were reminiscent of home. The Mediterranean climate is easy to get hitched to, but people do not associate it with further flung places like Beijing or Tokyo. The 38th parallel traces through of course Greece, Italy and Turkey, but also parts of China and Japan, Iraq, Iran, and Uzbekistan.

Granted, the culture and weather are different, but I still regard these environments as hospitable and liveable. You can read more about the countries along the 38th degree north here:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/38th_parallel_north.

The Japanese have an infinite respect and appreciation of the environment. It is highly cultivated, but created for the enjoyment of all. They are natural at landscape design, architecture, and planning. Nothing less than awesome is what I’ve just witnessed on a brief morning walk behind the ryokan. This post is for you, Sara and Jim (my professors at Berkeley, to whom I am eternally grateful), and all my Japanese friends).

I have been contemplating what’s next. I’ve toyed with the idea of visiting countries along the ring of fire, but I haven’t convinced myself just yet. Alternatively, I considered tackling the countries along the 38th parallel south. To my dismay, it touches two countries where I have already been: Australia and New Zealand. That leaves Chile and Argentina on the list.

For a video on Vladivostok, click here:https://youtu.be/_i4E0wh-b9k

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