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Yamagata and the ‘eco’ hotel.


Our planning for this challenge had been somewhat compromised by busy schedules and a last minute mad rush to say goodbyes, shop for forgotten items and host one hell of a wine party at our house. As such, we had planned Hokkaido’s leg thoroughly, looked at Aomori closely, thought about Akita deeply and that was where it had stopped, for during that final hour of madness, both of us were plagued by serious doubts about whether we would even make it past the first day. As such, little was known about the prefecture called Yamagata other than its name and the fact that it came somewhere after Akita.

On our fifty seventh day, as we walked under blue skies and the shadow of Mt Chokai, the Mt Fuji of Akita, Yamagata’s border sign appeared out of nowhere like a mirage on the horizon, leaving us scratching our heads and doubting the progress that we were making. Had we really walked this far?

In 1689, Basho Matsuo, perhaps Japan’s most famous Haiku poet, ventured through here on an epic 2400km journey that took him to the remote heart of the north. The beauty he encountered inspired his most famous work, the Oku no Hosomichi or The Narrow Road to the Interior which has since inspired the likes of many to follow in his steps in search of the same beauty that his poems captured so clearly. For us, stumbling upon his route was a significant moment, for the Oku no Hosomichi was a path that had also been walked by the only other person to have travelled as far on a pair of stilts – our mentor Iizuka san. At 73, his 2000km walk had taken him almost 4 years to complete, with the aid of a campervan and his equally gutsy wife who faithfully walked alongside for much of his journey. That we were now following in his steps was strangely comforting, for we knew that the road that lay ahead was not the impossible stretch that it seemed on our photocopied maps.

The kilometers passed by as quickly as the pine trees that lined much of the coast. As we moved in land on our way toward Sakata, the towns began taking on a ghostly appearance, many the victims of ambitious dreams that had suffered with the collapse of Japan’s economy at the end of the bubble. Restaurants lined the roads, their once polished entrance ways now overgrown with weeds. As we walked past, we could see that the tables were still adorned with cutlery and sauces, as if ready for another day of service. The overturned chairs that lay strewn across the floors were the only things that told the real story. It is a strange feeling to walk past so many lifeless shells in what might otherwise have been a very pretty part of the world, but in Japan, it has become a common scene, with many owners preferring to leave their failed businesses to the elements rather than part with the money needed to clear them from the more valuable land on which they stand. For us, it was always a shock to find a town that had obviously been flourishing at the time of our map’s printing, in such a lonely state. To see so many dreams crumbling before our eyes had a powerful influence on our own motivations and as the doubts began to creep in about whether we would be able to make the remaining 10kms to Sakata, we were confronted by a sign before us, so unexpected amongst the decaying surrounds, so unbelievable against the experiences of our last 2 months, that we at first walked past it. But the thought of a double room in a hot spring hotel for 19 measly dollars was too big a chance to miss. After hopping down from our stilts, we returned and as we stood outside the 4 storey, marble tiled front foyer, we scanned the sign for any catches in the fine print. ‘Is it really 19 dollars?’ we asked the groundsman as he walked by. Despite his apparent lack of Japanese, his confused nod was enough for us to pack up our stilts and skip inside to see what lay ahead for the price of two meals.

As we handed over our money to the receptionist, another man who seemed not to grasp the meaning behind some of our other questions, we rushed to throw our bags in to our room and make use of everything before someone realized their mistake. I entered to the bath and immediately noticed how dark everything seemed. The lights were off, but considering the early hour of the day, I guessed they weren’t really needed until later, and had just begun washing myself when I was interrupted by the slam of a door to my right. ‘Is this some sort of a joke?’ cried the only other bather as he emerged from the sauna, clearly upset by the lack of any steam. His blood pressure rose with each button he found to flick, and when each failed to elicit any change from within, he stormed out to confront the manager with only his towel and his frown for company.

After wallowing in the warm bath for what seemed like an hour, I bumped in to Miki in the corridor outside of our room, reading a note that had been posted on the wall.
“You are staying in an environmentally conscious hotel. In order for us to maintain our high environmental standards, we request your cooperation in using all electrical items responsibly. Thank you.”
Having not discovered what had become of the frowning naked man and his earlier pickle, I presumed he too had come across this poster somewhere downstairs or had at least been explained its purpose by the staff at the reception. Maybe they only turned on the sauna’s electricity when it got busier?

As we walked down a long winding hall to our room, we noticed too that all the lights were off, and that the deeper we went, the darker the hotel seemed to get. Once inside our room, both of us fumbled around for the switch to the lights, first on the left side of the door, then on the right. High and low we ran our hands along the walls, starting at first from the door, then expanding in an ever widening circle that covered the whole room. There was not one switch to be found anywhere. In our panic, we retrieved our torches from our bags and lit up our surrounds. It was Miki who first discovered the reason for its absence. Looking up we both received our first taste of what an environmentally friendly night in a Yamagata hotel was to be like. Apart from a tiny, candle sized study lamp tucked away in the desk, the rest of our room it seemed, was without any kind of illumination whatsoever. In their desire to be green, they had neglected to put in any lights in any of the rooms along the entire wing of the hotel. Not only that, but as night fell, each room in the deserted building was a black void, lifeless apart from the soft green flicker from the emergency exit signs above the stairwells. As the only two guests in the place, it was a spooky feeling and apart from a quick bite to eat and two quick dashes to the toilets at the other ends of the floor, we were happy to confine ourselves to our rooms away from whatever may have been lurking outside.

A day later, as we ate noodles in a nearby restaurant, we were able to discover the answer to some of the mystery surrounding our ‘eco’ hotel. The eco tag was nothing more than a ploy to hide the thriftiness of the North Korean owner, the hotel’s fourth in 2 years. As the noodle shop owner remarked, “No he’s not eco. He’s just a tight bastard.” Thanks to that tight bastard however, we were able to enjoy our first stay in a real hot spring hotel, even if we weren’t able to see what most of it actually looked like.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 12:26 AM,

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