2014
06.04

OITA

SYNOPSIS:  An uneventful walk through town  Transit to Hiroshima.  A look back at a business hotel which defies description:  chicken coop or spa?

After I had used Oita as a hub for two nights, I felt I could not turn my back on this city before at least giving its cultural sites some attention.  So, I boarded a bus in the morning and embarked on the recommended cultural walk for tourists, passing by a couple more stone Buddhas — one of which was definitely bigger than anything I had seen at Usuki — a nondescript peaceful Shinto Shrine, a couple of quiet neighbourhood streets and a sizeable Buddhist temple — what else is new?

Oita’s hotel!  So, instead of boring you with second rank sites, I will tell you about my chance encounter with Japanese bathing culture.  Of course I had heard of the many hot springs or Onsen in the country and even splurged and booked a more expensive hotel which advertised the use of one.  Somewhere down the road.

But this was different.  I had arrived from Kumamoto two nights ago without booking a hotel and if you remember, it was too late for me to proceed to Usuki.  At the tourist information I asked  for anything under $30/night and there were few choices left.  One, a single room in a hotel, but the clerk gently shook her head — no good, no clean.  The other one, a business hotel.  No single room, but a compact.  I was unfamiliar with this designation, but what could be wrong?  I had my own space and a shared bathroom.  I had done that before. No problem.

To save on the expenses for a taxi I rolled my suitcase along the tracks for about 20 minutes until I reached Hotel Toyokuni, one of those that I try to avoid — nondescript, huge, impersonal.  The opposite spectrum of the homey Japanese-style hostel I had just left behind in Kumomato.

The first sign of “welcome” is that you face hundreds of tiny lockers and are requested to take off your shoes.  I get the Japanese tradition not to step into living spaces with your shoes.  I have seen it everywhere when you enter your room.  But here this turned into a near phobia — every hotel guest and every clerk was walking around bare foot or in socks everywhere.  OK.  #66 it is; I said goodbye to my shoes.

Nobody spoke English, but the word “compact” got me what I wanted.  I was handed a little bag full of goodies (towel, earphones, ethernet cable) and given a choice between a 2-piece pants/shirt nightgown or a one piece more dress-like.  I chose the 1 piece.  I began to notice that people not only walked around in socks but most people also walked around in their green or pink night gear!  How weird! I began to wonder if I was in the right place, but among the mostly men there were also women and children and the place did not radiate any danger.

Off to my room #8825.  I have never seen anything like this.  The hotel had 8 floors.  The main hallway lead into about four huge rooms subdivided into 40 chicken coop style bed cubicles with “cardboard” doors and without ceilings.  Picture the office cubicles we know in the states and now make them tiny — exactly bed size, and with walls that do not connect to the ceiling.  It was sticky as I walked in; there was no window.  Theoretically, everyone could hear everyone else.  40 people…  Yet, as always in Japan, there was no noise.  Except for a couple turns of the keys and one hesitant cough there was silence all night!  I don’t know how they do it.  At the head of the bed I had a tiny shelf.  At the feet a small TV was swivelling, which I was to use via ear phones. Next to the bed 2 feet of space had to suffice for my luggage and there was even a small locker at the end in which I could store any valuables.  I had my own ventilation coming down via a vent above my bed and so it was not quite as sticky in my “room” as I had imagined.  And there was a sprinkler suspended above me.  What else do you need?  I felt a bit claustrophobic and most of all concerned about the lack of air, but at this point I could not be choosy.  It was late.

For 8 floors I had been told there was one bathroom facility at the first floor aside from the toilets provided on each floor.  One!  How was that going to work?

I was not about to wear that pink nightgown and so I threw on one of my dresses instead.  I had been given a voucher for either beer or noodles and chose the noodles for dinner.  Then off to the showers.  But the room I was sent to had no showers.  Instead there were rows of mirrors for women doing makeup or drying their hair.  And once again there were hundreds of lockers.  Now what?

I stood in utter confusion looking for the showers.  All I could find were a few more toilets.  A woman about my age entered and saw me standing there.  She did not speak English, but she smiled and gestured to just follow her.  To the lockers we went and in no time she had taken off all of her clothes, put them in the locker and was ready to move.  OK, if that’s what you do here, so be it.  I followed her to a misty glass door and behind it was “the bathroom”.  It was a full-blown spa with more than 10 different basins of bubbling or still water! Each pool had a temperature gauge ranging from 16 to 43 degrees Celsius.  Along the side were stalls with little footstools and shower heads where dozens of naked women were scrubbing down.  Now that was not what I had expected.  But it was cool.

I just did everything my kind guide did and so we went from scrubbing down to a bubbly hot tub, from there into the cold tub, from there into the sauna where you would put salt all over your body and back and forth.  After a while she sent me off to explore the rest.   By then I had gotten the hang of it and went swimming for a while.  There were three saunas:  dry, wet, and one with a heated stone floor and areas to lie on which I was not familiar with.  From hot to cold, from relaxing to stimulating I spent a whole hour there having fun.

And that for two nights.  In the mornings, I only went scrubbing and swimming.  You would not dare enter any of the pools without having scrubbed down visibly and thoroughly, no matter how clean you might be.

Believe me, I did not care any more that I had to go to a chicken coop to sleep.  I slept like a baby both nights.  And you can’t say I did not get my money’s worth out of this.  Noodles and a spa and a bed for $30 per night.  Not bad.

And so went my first encounter with a business hotel and an Onsen.  Good night.