I was on a blind date. Not with an unseen woman, but a destination about which I had not the faintest clue. I had been busy traveling and working through Southeast Asia and when my schedule turned up an unexpected free day at the end of my trip in Japan, I asked my office mate to find me a place to go within a reasonably short train ride of Narita Airport. She booked me a hotel in Yugawara. It would cost me 14,000 yen for two nights breakfasts and dinners included, plus an 800-yen “hot springs tax”. Sounded like a pretty good date so far. But when I Googled the hotel name and even the town itself, nothing came up.
The taxi driver squinted at the address, repeated it aloud a couple times, and then Hai! (Yes!) he knew where to go. We drove about ten minutes through what might be described as a Japanese hamlet tucked into a narrow valley by the sea. We crossed a river and followed a road the curled up around one of the hills until he stopped suddenly. Hai!
We were in front of a small house. So my blind date wasn’t a hotel but a homestay.
Two women in their 50s came out and greeted me with enthusiasm, but were stunned when I indicated I spoke no Japanese. (Later through translation I understood she ‘panicked’) But no worries. I moved my things into a room by the door with mats on the floor and no furniture but a television. Then we moved into the living room where I met one woman’s daughter and her six-month old grandson. From there it was a long lesson in ad hoc sign language. And how to live without furniture. I must be getting old because two minutes sitting cross-legged and my feet become needlepoint projects. The home’s tiny dog, Chihua (yes, it’s a Chihuahua) curled itself into my lap as I ate so I was even less inclined to move around to restore circulation.
Hot springs are everywhere in Yugawara. The three-level house is built on a slope and at the bottom is a nice little bathhouse with a tub filled with water almost too hot to bear. In fact, 80 C (176 F)! (A stuffed Turkey must reach 165 F just to give you an idea.) The tub continues to fill at a mere trickle and yet the heat never seems to dissipate. I tell you it was scalding, but I took the situation as a challenge and over a period of about 15 minutes, I managed to work my way into the boil. Needless to say, I didn’t stay completely submerged for long, but I did get in and out a bit and poured cooler water on myself.
Upon arrival I was shown my slippers, which needed to be taken off before entering my room, put back on for the hall, changed for a different pair in the restroom, and at the walkway to the bathhouse. Put them on, off, change them. It was like figuring out when to kneel sit stand kneel at Catholic mass. Mine didn’t fit and my left foot acted like a wedge forcing the slipper forward so that when I climbed the steps the slipper dangled from my big toe and I had to keep my leg straight like a limp to carry it up in this fashion. Another scene for the highlight clips.
It took a lot of effort among us to figure out what I wanted to eat. When they discovered I liked raw tuna, they were downright gleeful. The next meal they brought me an absurd amount. I’d estimate well over a pound of it and I worried that if I left any it would be an offense. (To be honest, I LOVE the stuff, so even personally it would have been a crime to leave any.)
In the morning I had a note from the daughter via an automatic internet translator (which is anything but accurate):
The daughter has gone to the car driving school morning.
The daughter comes back it in the afternoon.
Yugawara cannot be guided till then.
It is possible to guide in the afternoon.
It is in a small waterfall to go.
It is a beautiful park of the flower.
Please say no to me if the guide is unnecessary.
Unnecessary, but preferable, and the walk there was lovely. The house mom gathered wild plants along the route and back at the house we ate “wild mountain herbs” tempura, also good. I think there was a dandelion in there, possibly some crabgrass.
When I left for the airport the family tried to express their grief. Unlike much of the business ceremonious politeness, this seemed heartfelt and sweet. Looking for a nice homestay in a quiet little town not far from Tokyo? See the contact information below…
An Onsen in Yugawara
Hotel’s Name: Aoki-soh （あおき荘）
Address: 760-33 Miyagami, Yugawara-cho, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa (神奈川県足柄下郡湯河原町宮上760-33）
Phone: +81 (0) 465-62-5453
http://www.onsen-navi.net/aoki/ (in Japanese but browser translation works well)
You can take the JR Shinkansen to Odawara and then take a JR Tokaido Honsen to Yugawara. The homestay is a 10-minute taxi from there. Yugawara is two hours and a half from Narita Airport. The hotel accepts late check-in (till 8pm).