Going to the Onsen with Makoto

Harima Makoto is one of the most colorful characters in Shakotan. A large man in both stature and girth, this firefighter would make for quite an imposing figure, if not for his cheerful temperament. When it comes to making an impression, his powerful body and bald head are no match for his constant, warm smile and jolly, giggling laugh. Constantly upbeat, and at times downright giddy, Makoto-san is a gentle giant if ever I met one.

I first met Makoto-san at the Yosakoi Sōran Festival in Sapporo. At some point, he began greeting me with a fist bump and saying, “Nice body!” which is still the most unique welcome I’ve ever encountered. Yamazaki-san, Yasuda-san, and Makoto-san are all classmates and close friends to this day, so there have been plenty of occasions where I’ve hung out with everyone together. Since everyone is so nice, they quickly made me feel like one of the gang.

Makoto-san is probably the most socially outgoing guy that I’ve come across in the area. He’s one of the few people that will call me up on the phone without hesitation, even though with my limited Japanese, the conversation is bound to be a bit awkward. One such time, he called me up and asked if I liked tomatoes. When I confirmed that I’m indeed found of the fruit often confused for a vegetable, he brought me a massive bag of baby tomatoes (ミニトマト) from his family’s farm. They were the sweetest tomatoes I’ve ever tasted, and when I used them to make pasta sauce from scratch, the results were incredibly delicious.

One day Makoto-san called me up and asked me if I’d like to checkout an onsen (温泉 – hot spring, spa) in Yoichi, a nearby town. Since the only onsen I had been to previously was Misaki no Yu (岬の湯) in Nozuka, I enthusiastically took him up on the offer. He also asked me if I wanted more tomatoes, since the season was almost over, which I also accepted.

On Wednesday, October 19th, Harima Makoto’s black Mercedes Benz pulled up to my apartment. After I deposited my new gift bag of tomatoes, we were off to Yoichi. The drive to Yoichi takes about half an hour, and we stopped for soft drinks along the way. Once in town, we ran a few errands, going to the video rental/media store, Tsutaya; and the many stores within a store, Aeon; and even driving through a carwash.

Before the osen, we stopped at this little shop above a grocery store for dinner. The place had very inexpensive dishes, and yet the quality of the food was amazing. Having driven right past the site many times, I had no idea that the gem of a restaurant was hidden just above the often crowded grocer. We had hokke (ホッケ – Atka mackerel) as a set with rice, miso soup, and tsukemono (漬物 – pickled vegetables). Makoto-san had ordered grated daikon (大根おろし) on the side, and following his lead, I mixed the radish with soy sauce the dumped all of it on top of my fish. While this proved to be quite delicious, later digestive complications led me to think that my body has trouble dealing with that much daikon at once.

With our bellies pleasantly full of fish, we made our way to the Yoichigawa Onsen (余市川温泉), which was located near Yoichi’s Space Apple museum. The onsen was a two-story building with a space shuttle on top. (No seriously, there’s a large-scale model of space shuttle Endeavor on the roof of the building.) Admission was very cheap and the onsen was small and cozy inside. The atmosphere seemed more like a bathhouse on a budget.

One point of interest was a tub that looked distinctly different from the rest; it was bubbling and the water was bright purple. Makoto-san explained that this particular tub had special fruit-infused water, like taking a bath in herbal tea. There was a menu on display, organized by color, of the various herbal infusions the tub had. The flavor du jour appeared to be blueberry. I made sure to hang out in the blueberry bath as long as possible, experimenting to see if my white skin would come out with a pale lilac tint. After a long, refreshing soak, I emerged unchanged and was plum disappointed.

On the way home from the onsen, we stopped at 7/11 for some ice cream. Makoto-san, who wasn’t letting me pay for anything, also insisted on paying for the conbini (コンビニ – “convenience store”, shortened from English) snacks. In fact, Makoto-san told me to pick out a couple onigiri (おにぎり – rice ball) to take home and have for breakfast the next morning. What a guy!

The next week, on Monday, October 24th, Makoto-san and I headed back to Yoichi for more onsen relaxation. This time the plan also involved meeting three women for dinner. What seemed unusual about this plan was that Makoto-san had never actually met these women in person before. Apparently he had met them online somewhere and they agreed to meet face to face. (A third guy was supposed to come with us, making for an even three-to-three ratio, but he had bailed on the plans.) Now, it wasn’t the part about meeting new people from the internet that seemed weird to me, it was the fact that Makoto-san was happily married. On face value, the setup sounded like a group blind date, except that apparently everyone was simply looking to make new friends. It was like the inverse of Facebook.

This time we went to the Tsurukame Onsen (鶴亀温泉), a much bigger place than the last. When I recognized one of the kanji in the name, Makoto-san explained that tsuru (鶴) means “crane” and kame (亀)—which I recognized—means “turtle” or “tortoise”. The crane and tortoise are both symbols of longevity in Japan. There’s even an old saying like, “The crane lives for 1,000 years, the tortoise lives for 10,000 years.” (鶴は千年亀は万年。) Apparently as symbolic figures of long life, the crane and tortoise appear quite often in traditional Japanese culture.

Not only was Tsurukame Onsen big, but the water in the baths was brown. Makoto-san san explained that it was a true hot spring, hence the dirty-looking water. I can report that I couldn’t feel any sediment or grit in the water, it was just brown. He said it was full of minerals, which I just assumed made it good.

To my surprise, and Makoto-san’s surprise as well, there happened to be three other gaijin (外人 – foreigner) visiting the onsen that night. It’s not every day that you see four white guys together in the Yoichi area—let alone four naked ones—as smaller towns usually have only one foreign resident or none at all. The mystery foreigners appeared to be a family, with one significantly older gentleman and two younger guys, probably in their early twenties.

Makoto-san and I headed to the outdoor tubs at the same time as the older gentlemen. He said ‘hi’ to me at door, speaking first in Japanese, which was kind of cool because it demonstrated that he wasn’t making any assumptions as to where I was from. I said ‘hi’ back, also in Japanese to be consistent. Outside, Makoto-san and I ended up in the same pool as the foreign gentleman, and there was a fourth Japanese guy relaxing there as well. The old man made some short small talk in Japanese, and after I told him I was from the States he starting speaking English.

His name was Hans and he was from Norway. One of the young men with him was his son; the other was his son’s friend. He explained that he was a born-again Christian and had come to Japan over 20 years ago as a missionary. His son had actually been born in Japan, but the family returned to Norway soon afterward, so his son didn’t remember any of the Japanese language. He was now revisiting Japan, seemingly on holiday, although a missionary is always working, or so it would seem from where the conversation headed.

He asked me if I was a believer, a follower of Christ. In hindsight, when a self-proclaimed born-again Christian missionary asks you if you believe, your automatic answer—if simply to avoid conflict—should probably be “yes”, regardless of the truth. I gave him an honest “no”. When his agape expression communicated shock and repulsion, I quickly backpedalled a bit, adding, “I was raised in a good Catholic family.” Luckily, he interpreted this statement to mean “I’m Catholic”, when I really meant the statement in the completely literal sense, i.e.; “my family is Catholic.” Hans started expounding on your typical fundamentalist bible nonsense. Sitting naked in an outdoor tub, I felt a bit more vulnerable than normal and this superstitious talk of God and hellfire wasn’t helping.

While I pretended to listen to Hans’ proselytizing, I contemplated why so many Christian missionaries continue to try and convert people in Japan. In Japan, a person could simultaneously subscribe to several different Asian religions/philosophies (Shinto, Confucianism, Taoism, countless different sects of Buddhism, for example) and each one would more or less be compatible with the next. Or they could choose Christianity, which by design excludes and negates all other religious views. Culturally it’s such a bum deal that I don’t know how anyone could ever sell a Japanese person on it. The aesthetic appeal of a Christian wedding, which is very popular, is about all that Christianity has to offer. Inexplicably, I’ve met plenty of missionaries and Christians in Hokkaido. At this point, Hans was speaking to me in English and I envied Makoto-san, who probably couldn’t follow a single word.

Then Missionary Hans said the unthinkable. “People need to have faith in God and He sends us signs to remind us. That’s why Japan has so many earthquakes and tsunamis. The recent disaster was a sign from God. Japan ignored the Lord’s word and he shook the earth to remind them.”  Makoto-san, seemingly interested in what the man had to say, asked for clarification. “The Lord shakes the earth,” Hans said in English, and then he translated it into Japanese!

My blood was boiling. How could anyone blame such a horrible, cataclysmic disaster—one easily explained through science—on the country’s lack of faith in Jesus? How could anyone try to blame the Japanese people for such a thing? Entire cities were destroyed, over 20,000 people died, and according to Hans, it was because Japan didn’t pick Jesus as their lord and savior. Such a statement would be outrageous enough if made in one’s home country, but to actually verbalize it here in Japan—right to the locals’ faces—that was unbelievable! Even if you are a believer, isn’t the Christian God supposed to be benevolent and loving? When did he go back to his Old Testament smiting ways?

The urge to punch Hans in the face was strong, but I resisted. I contemplated at least telling him off, verbally laying into him for being a disgraceful, opportunistic bastard, but ultimately decided it wasn’t the time. Instead I would just ignore his heresy and hopefully he wouldn’t draw much attention. Luckily, at that moment Makoto-san suggested we move on, so I had a very convenient escape. We bid Hans adieu and I avoided him for the rest of the time we were there.

After leaving the bath area of the onsen, Makoto-san and I hung out in the lobby. We drank some tea and enjoyed some salt gelato, a flavor I hadn’t tried before. It was good stuff. We proceeded to dinner at an izakaya called Tsubo Hachi (つぼ八), meaning “Eight Jars.”

At Tsubo Hachi, we met the three ladies from internet, already seated and waiting for us. When I sat down, I ordered a large beer. There were three sizes, so I figured “large” was your standard pint mug, but it was actually closer to one liter; gigantic! As the evening went on, I also had some plum sake (梅酒) and a Tori’s whiskey and ginger ale (トリジンジャ). The drinks were delicious, but since it was only Monday, I tried not to go overboard.

Everyone at the dinner was older than me, so at first I felt like a kid at the adult table. After some conversation and drinks, I felt more like part of the group. They ladies were very nice and they asked me questions about America and living in Shakotan. At one point, Makoto-san brought up how I disliked Nicholas Cage (something him and Yamazaki-san still laugh about), and one of the ladies asked me what I thought of Michael J. Fox. I was shocked, as Michael J. Fox starred in “Back to the Future”—my all-time favorite movie—and is one of my favorite actors. The shift of discussion from something you despise, to something that you love, is always a welcome change in conversation.

The food at Tsubo Hachi was served in small dishes, the typical style of an izakaya, and the food was quite excellent. Makoto-san made sure that we ordered a plate of yakisoba, and I also asked for some okonomiyaki (お好み焼き – savory vegetable pancake, with varying ingredients). Both were good, but it was the bulgolgi pizza (ブルコギピザ) that stole the show. Bulgolgi is Korean barbequed meat, and it’s quite spicy. This was the first time I had seen it used as a pizza topping and the results were spectacular. I think I’ll make it at home back in the States one day.

We said our goodbyes to the ladies at the restaurant and started our journey back to Shakotan. Much like last time, we stopped at a combini on the way home, this time a Lawson’s General Store. (While 7/11 is the biggest convenience store chain in Japan, Lawson’s is number two.) Again, Makoto-san insisted on buying me two onigiri for me to have for breakfast the next morning. He’s just a ridiculously nice guy.

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1 Comment

Filed under Yoichi

One response to “Going to the Onsen with Makoto

  1. Kevin

    Yes, I’m going to ignore everything Japanese and just comment on the Korean things you post.

    Bulgogi pizza, oh yes B-)

    haha, you still have a sweet blog. That guy Hans sounds like a real hoot – I love those situations!

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