My trip brought me to another remote area around Kyoto, an area one could easily describe as a lower class section of the population that couldn’t afford living in the city, but do could manage to stick around the outskirts. The houses in the streets were extremely small. The road took me to the second ryokan on my path which was a ryokan that seemed by far the smallest I will have stayed at during my entire trip. I will mention up front that the story about this stay at the ryokan is not of the story type full of shenanigans. Despite that, I still feel like sharing it as a part of the total trip experience.
I arrived at the ryokan and a Japanese woman in her fifties was sitting in front of the building playing an authentic Japanese koto. Her fingers were playing the strings of the instrument masterfully, hitting a perfect note with discipline and precision. Yet her play sounded tragic and there was no visible audience for her play. She greeted me warmly while she kept playing, offering me to sit down and listen to her performance. The moment grasped me, the only thing audible in surroundings was her play and the wind rustling the leaves of many sakura trees that stood planted among the small houses. There were no cars, no sound of traffic or bicycles. In fact the only form of traffic I had encountered on my way up was a rickshaw, a carriage pulled by a single man.
The ryokan was ran by group of sisters, each around the age of fifty. All of them were very hospitable and welcomed me very warmly in there home. Before I was led to my room they offered me to have coffee with them, which they had so delightfully made with the most artisan and ancient device you can possibly imagine. A couple of hours had passed as I got acquainted with them, the house rules and had enough time to chit chat about where I was from and what I was doing on my own in Japan. In the end I was shown to my room and left to my own before dinner.
Just as much as before, it was time for the customary bath before dinner and when I arrived at the men’s place I had the entire place for myself again. I placed all my belongings in the wicker basket and sat into the hot water of the pool. Water spilled over the edge and then ran to the nearest drain. It felt bliss. Especially since I’d been hiking all day again. It felt as if the hot water was burning away the aches of muscles.
My bliss was once more disturbed when another guest entered the bathroom. I could hear the guest put its personal belongings in one of the wicker baskets as well before I saw the shape of a very tall Japanese young man appear in the arc that lead to the pool I was sitting in. His body was extremely muscular, tanned skin and raven black hair. His face was sharp and his complete left arm depicted one large tattoo from wrist to shoulder blade.
Tattoos! My heart suddenly started beating faster since all the warnings I’ve read in brochures and internet alike that tattoos stood as a sign for a Yakuza member, Japanese mafia. I did not let any of the prejudice get to my head and decided to remain calm, yet alert. However in that second that the man had walked in he had also realized I was in the tub and suddenly I felt the tables turn as his reaction became apparent. The tall muscular man sudden shyly reached for his crotch and hid his private parts from me, took tiny steps towards the same pool I was in, and quickly went to sit down in it so that his shame was submerged in water as fast as possible.
I gave a nod at the man, slightly amused by his embarrassed behavior. This rather comical turn of events eased the tension I felt. The man nodded back slightly without making too much eye contact. Then a second man walked in, covered in tattoos that covered a lot of his corpulent body. He as well gave an embarrassed look when he saw me in the pool and sequentially hid his private region. I will say though, that there was not much to be seen with this guy, even less than the first guy. Both of the men now sat in the same pool I was in as a third guy walked in, tattooed as well. This man was the oldest of the three. Surprisingly this one wasn’t too embarrassed and exchanged eye contact with me. He now took place in front of me in the pool after the two other parted slightly to make space for him.
Before my eyes a Godfather scene was unfolding in my imagination. The tension that was suppressed for a brief moment now build up again as I began to feel intimidated by the setup. I decided to try and cut that tension by giving the men a good evening or “Konbanwa” in the best Japanese I could muster. The elder man smiled enthusiastic and returned the phrase to me, and added a whole string of other Japanese words that meant nothing to me. I responded very sheepishly trying to express I didn’t speak Japanese. This is one of the things I often end up in foreign countries when I tried to speak a couple of words but actually have no clue how to do a conversation with someone. It often feels like I’m making a hollow attempt to blend in, but fail miserably. This was one of those occasions again.
The muscular guy suddenly spoke to the fat guy and I could only make out one word from the whole sentence, and that word was “gaijin” or “foreigner” in English. The elder man didn’t give much of responds to him, but it was clear to me the other guy was saying something about me.
I pointed to myself and said “Berugi”, which is the Japanese word for “Belgium”. The elder man expressed a loud “Aahh!” with lift eyebrows and wide smile. He then said in simple English he used to be an ambassador located in Brussels during the cold war and that he now runs a small business of local ryokans including this one. He then shared his fondness of the Belgian people and that at first he thought I was american. The american part he said with a particular disapproval or dismay in his voice. There were questions on my tongue about this american dislike but a voice in my mind start warning for can of worms that should be left closed. It could be a second world war scar, but I really didn’t feel like finding out what upsets tattooed Japanese men these days.
The conversation went on a little longer, but I did look for opportunities to exit the scene without coming over as rude or disinterested. I will shamefully confess that on my way out I expected my wallet and valuables to be gone, but I was proven in this little bath moment I pretty much let my prejudice take the better of me since none of the bad stuff I imagine could happen actually did happen and in fact the men and the hostesses of the ryokan were kind people. In fact—and the reason I felt like sharing this story—was my that I was proven once more that information given to you might not always be as trustworthy as you would like them to be.
Then again, some days I wonder if I might not just dodged a bullet there…