About the Engakudou Hostel, firefly watching, an evening gathering and hostel culture.

I could see the relief on Muro’s face when I told her on the first evening that once I go to bed I put in ear plugs and I won’t hear anything.  She is my roommate in the three-mattress Japanese-style dorm room.  On the first night it was just the two of us; on the second night we had another roomie.

Her face lit up and she said that “they”, that’s five of the nine kids who are checked in with me at the Engakudou were going to “drink a little” and have a small party. You know what that means when you have paper walls…  But they must have had a quiet party or I must have been sufficiently tired; I really did not hear anything.

For the last two days, I had the full hostel Japanese style experience:  Engakudou is a word made up of three characters:  Friends — Fun — House.  I guess, that says it all.  It was located just blocks from the Himeji castle moat.  I could step out of the hostel and see it towering above the old section of houses where I live.  When I looked down on the town last night from a nearby Shinto Shrine it was striking how most of Himeji is a highrise modern town.  But then there is this little quarter with narrow roads, old homes and tiny gardens.  Like a leftover from the olden days.

Hirosh, the owner of the hostel made the most of two opposite old houses when he moved here from Tokyo to run this place.  He has several dormitory style rooms — some of them Western style, that is bunks; some of them Japanese style, that is tatami floors — and a couple of singles where his two staff members sleep.  Every inch of the place is utilized.  No matter how many guests there are, you have to make do with one bathroom and one toilet.  If you live in the annex, you have to cross the road for your various bathroom needs.  The staircase to my room was so narrow that my suitcase barely fit and so steep that we almost didn’t get the darn thing up there!  It weighs about 25 kg by now…  This place is not made for suitcases.  It’s a backpacker’s paradise.

Hirosh is the heart of the operation.  He lives with his family just around the corner.  He is young — likely in his early thirties and has a two year old son.  He really knows how to relate to his guests.

The Engakudou is a funky, hip place.  Nothing like the classy hostel in Kumamoto, nothing like the rule-driven hostel in Naha.  I should have taken pictures of all the do’s and dont’s there…  Everything was regulated.  The Engakudou is the opposite, laid back, everything goes, up to a point, of course.  But it seems like Hirosh has not reached that point or his guests are just all really nice.

This place is makeshift in many respects, filled with amateur drawings about love and peace on doors and walls, hand-written signs of welcome, and Buddhist artifacts such as prayer flags from Tibet.   It makes me wish I was 20 again — I would have fit right in.  When I arrived, the 20 year olds who were there seemed a bit surprised.  I don’t blame them.  But they were nice to me and the biggest barrier was not age, but language.  Most of the guests on the first night were Japanese, one was from Hongkong and only one them spoke some English.  So I retreated into a corner in the evening to write.  I did not want to slow them down.

But despite the differences, this morning I got invited to a noodle breakfast and then Muro, my roommate, offered to cook for the two of us tonight.  And when Allen arrived, a new guest, originally from New York, all was good since he could speak English and Japanese; he has been living here for 7 years now.

And so, on the second night when I returned from my castle visit, a lively gathering was forming.  More older folks had arrived.  In fact, our new roomie was in her forties and a mother of six!  We all gasped and told her how impressive that was.  And she was working as a school nurse on top of that.  Some people!   Another, a French guy, also located in Japan through his work and a few more Japanese tourists rounded out the group.  Before long Hirosh, the owner broke out some sake and the party was rolling.

One of the new arrivals, most likely the youngest of us all at no more than 16 or 17, developed an instant crush for Allen and kept telling him how handsome he was.  When she found out that I had a grandchild, she kept shaking her head and in Japanese repeatedly said (Allen translated that for me): Grandma traveling alone — amazing!  From here on out she kept calling me Mom — that was her extent of English.

Most of the conversation was still in Japanese and beyond me, but it was just cool to see how we all had a good time.  I like the atmosphere of these hostels; everyone sits around doing one thing or another at night and in the mornings, and it feels as if you are part of one big family if only for a day or two.  In fact, about 11 PM on the first night Hirosh asked if anyone would like to go firefly watching.  What?  I wondered if that meant something special in Japan and so I joined him and four others driving about 30 miles out of town to a pitch-dark half-emptied riverbed into which we stumbled to observe a few hundred fireflies lighting up.  Compared to Michigan in August and the field just down the road from our house, this was a big disappointment.  But it was fun to see Muro and the others getting excited as they had never seen anything like it before.

Where in the world would you find a hotel owner who takes his guests out for a spin until 1 AM in the morning to watch fireflies, or breaks out the sake for all, refusing to take money for it!

Way to go Engakudou!  Good night.