I know that with my night in Niigata and my stay on Sado, I've already been in the region for a few days, but only now that I’m settling down after a period of frantic travelling and trying to push as much content as possible into each day do I consider myself to have truly arrived in…
Chuubu (中部”Central Region”, also known as Chubu or Chūbu, depending on which transcript you like to use) is the second-biggest region of Japan after Hokkaido, which makes it the biggest Region on Honshu. At 72,572 km², it surpasses Sierra Leone in size, and its population of almost 22 million people is the third-biggest in Japan after Kansai and Kanto – where Tokyo is located – and closest to the Republic of Niger on a global scale (not to be confused with Nigeria, which has significantly more inhabitants). Density-wise, there are about 300 people living on a km² here, which is roughly the same as Grenada, and higher than for example Germany or the United Kingdom.
At this point, it should be noted that unlike the Regions of New Zealand, which mostly covered either the east or the west coast, almost all regions of Japan stretch all the way across the mountains and from one coast to the other, which naturally makes them a good deal bigger. In fact, since Chuubu is so large and there are so many people here, the Chuubu region is generally divided into three distinct subregions: Toukai (東海 “East Sea”), Koushinetsu (甲信越 “Armour Faith Exceed” = The first kanji of the three prefectures making up this subregion) and Hokuriku (北陸 “North Shore”). While I was in Niigata and on Sado, I was in the Hokuriku Subregion, while now I'm in the Koushinetsu subregion.
And within Koushinetsu, I am at a town by the name of Yamanouchi (山ノ内 “Mountain Home”).
…I mean Yudanaka (湯田 “Hot Water Field”), the famous snow monkey and hot spring resort town…
…that is actually called Shiga Kougen (志賀高原 “Aspiring Joy Highlands”)…
…unless its name is Shibu Onsen (渋温泉 “Astringent Hot Spring”).
Okay, so apparently having one clear name for a place is a thing of the last century, but let me try to break it down. Yamanouchi seems to be the administrative district, Shiga Kougen the geographical location, Yudanaka the name of the Station, and Shibu-Onsen the name of the hot springs. I've heard people refer to this place by a variety of these names, and while I’m sure it would be excessively fun for you, the readers, if I just randomly used one of those four names throughout the chapter, I think I’ll limit myself to “Yudanaka”.
Anyway, with that having been cleared up my stay place in Yudanaka is located at the upper end of the town, shortly before it gradually converts to farmlands and then forested mountains.
As for the climate…
You’d think that being 100m higher than Appi-Kogen would keep the temperatures at a tolerable level, but apparently being 400km further south is more than enough to counteract the effect. Fortunately, I should spend most of my time here indoors, but the effects of the heat are still… palpable.
Befitting the hellishly hot humid temperatures of this place, my stay here should not be the most pleasant of experiences. Instead, it should become the locale for my own, personal re-enactment of…
This is the story of a little fox who works in a traditional Japanese bathhouse…
…that is run by an evil witch…
…who steals people’s names and makes them her slaves.
Oops, those were the wrong pictures. But the gist is essentially the same. The bathhouse is actually a hostel with an integrated Onsen, and it’s not quite as glamorous…
…although the Kanaguya (金具屋 “Gold Tool House”) hotel, which is said to have been the inspiration for the bathhouse from Spirited Away is just 200m down the road. In fact, a picture of this much more lustrous place was uploaded to the HelpX profile describing the hostel, so I am a bit disappointed when I find out that’s not actually the place, but rather a picture of the surroundings. Oh well. I wouldn’t be a fox if I couldn’t appreciate a bit of relatively harmless trickery.
The evil witch who runs this place is also probably neither evil nor a witch, but she not lack a certain amount of valiciousness. Her name is Anna Morita, and she runs this entire four-storey, 23-room hostel without any paid staff, only with the assistance of volunteer helpers. As for the name-stealing part: Upon arrival all helpers are assigned a diminutive one-syllable nickname by Anna Morita for the duration of their stay, so I became Ki-chan to her. The Japanese suffix “-chan” is usually used for girls, little kids or animals, and I am instantly upset by it. However, since I am sort of dependant on her goodwill, I choose not to say anything about this, and it’s much the same for the other helpers.
Speaking of trickery, let’s talk about how I ended up at this place. I first came across it using HelpX, and seeing the large amount of negative reviews it got chose to make it my absolute last priority. Instead, I used WorkAway to contact a different, more promising place, which was located in Nagano and offered free accommodation, WiFi and facilities in exchange for 15 hours work per week. Anna Morita, the host of said other place answered my message on WorkAway and said she was also running a different place where food is included in exchange for 25 hours a week. She said it was on a different website (and cunningly provided no link), and being the naïve and trusting little fox that I am I accepted her proposal, not yet realizing that it would spirit me away to the place that I had previously placed at the very bottom of my list, and with good cause too. Again, well played, Anna Morita, and you have my respect as a fox and trickster. As a result, this should become a hard time for me that I was only able to bear to a point thanks to the other helpers who stood by my side during the ordeal.
As for said other helpers, first there’s Pat from Maryland, USA, who should leave a few days after my arrival. He is pretty chill and approaches the situation with a very relaxed attitude. His work might not always be up to Anna’s standards, but of all the people here I think he has found the best way to deal with the circumstances here. His motto is “It's easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.”
Jessica from Mexico has my deepest sympathies, since she’s been here for over a month and should be staying longer than me. Unlike the other helpers, however, she mostly helps out Anna Morita with administrative duties, which I can only guess are either significantly more enjoyable or better regulated than what we others have to do, or I wouldn’t be able to understand how she managed to hold out this long.
Aurelie from France is a much more rebellious nature, and the two of us should spend a lot of time regulating our frustrations about the situation at this place by ranting about it together. She would leave this place only a few days before me and go on a carefree journey into the wild blue, with no plans made whatsoever. I wonder where the winds have taken her?
So much for the helpers who were here before me. The next helper to arrive after Pat’s departure would be a Chinese girl by the name of Phyllis. She is also clearly the smartest of us all, for she leaves this place on short notice only a few days after her arrival, using the opportunity when Anna Morita is out for a day to shop for groceries to stage her escape. Godspeed, Phyllis!
And finally, there’s another girl from China who arrives the day after Phyllis’ departure. Her name is Ariel, and she should stay until after my own exit. I hope she’s alright.
So much for the cast. Now, many of you will be wondering just what made my stay here such an ordeal. The answer to that is complicated, but I think it’s best to start with…
On its own, the locale is not quite that bad, and could almost certainly be transformed into a serene sight of staggeringly sparkling splendour if Anna Morita was willing to put some actual paid work into it. As it is, however, that is not the case, and this hostel is a place that you should neither support by staying there, and especially not by volunteering to work there. Never forget! Always remember! The name of this dreaded place is: Nozaru Hostel (の猿 “ ’s Monkey”).
A shame indeed, especially since the neighbourhood is also quite idyllic.
But anyway, let’s start with a tour of the big place, featuring mostly the more presentable aspects, but also a few unsightly ones.
Now, since I realize this would have been confusing even with the lights on, here’s a map of this place detailing the route I took through the hostel during this tour.
My room is actually quite comfortable, despite being located in the basement and a wee bit shabby. At first, I have to share it with Pat…
…but then I have it all to myself. Fortunately, it has a working AC, because it’s located directly beneath the Onsen and with the heat freely radiating from it in all directions, and the outside temperatures being a heat-stroke-to-go, the room quickly turns onto a subterranean hell unless the AC as running. Pat figures that Anna Morita would probably object to us using the AC, but since the room turns into an oven without it, we use it anyway and very carefully avoid her trick questions about the temperature in our room. My bed, by the way, is once again only a simple futon. By now I've more or less gotten used to it, but having slept on both futons and mattresses, I can say that I clearly mattresses.
As for the guest rooms, they share the same Japanese style of my den…
…yet feature clearly better views.
And here’s the scenic hallway captured in a much better light. All of us helpers agree that this is the most beautiful part of the hostel since it has a rustic, traditional flair to it.
Now, moving on to the less glamorous parts: First, there’s this place that I lovingly like to call “the dungeon” which is not only used as an incredibly well organized storage space, but also to dry towels and other hostel-related laundry that we need to do as part of our duties. Fortunately, I manage to avoid having to come down here all that often. The other helpers are not as lucky.
We already had both the messy kitchen and the garbage pile during the place tour, but since they are two unsightly features that upset me on a daily basis, I want to
Meanwhile, the garbage pile is frankly an unhygienic outrage. Now, I must admit that I have never tried running a hospitality franchise myself, nor have I ever worked in a place this big before, yet somehow I find it hard to believe that “piling up all the rubbish bags in one corner” is an approach that would qualify for best practices. What’s more, since rubbish bags are apparently excessively expensive, Anna Morita routinely scolds us for not making the bags full to the point of bursting, as if one or two bags more would make a difference with the amount we’re already handling. Eventually, Garbage Mountain as I like to call it (Jap.: 塵山 Gomisan) becomes so big that it completely blocks off one of the paths in the kitchen, and almost makes it impossible to get in and out.
The changing room for the male Onsen, meanwhile, may look nice… until you find out what the bath mat covers.
And speaking of “broken”, guess what’s up with the second-floor public toilet.
Also, apart from us helpers and the customers, the Nozaru hostel is also prone to a host of other inhabitants that are neither helpful nor paying.
My personal favourites are the itty-bitty teeny-weeny little lizards that can be observed in the most unlikely of places. Their survival strategy appears to be the original Zevi-brained “hold still and hope it didn’t see me”-approach.
It goes without saying that Anna Morita can’t charge to much for a place like this… or can she? At 2,400¥ for a dorm bed and 3,900¥ for a single room, this place is clearly more expensive than most of the dorms I've stayed in, and at a comparable rate to most single rooms I've had. Also, in addition to these base costs Anna Morita is not shy to monetize via micro transactions as well. In her defence, however, compared to the ungodly high rates that other places in this region charge (we’re talking about 9,000¥ to 82,000¥ per night here), the Nozaru Hostel really is dirt cheap, which might account for its lack of paid staff.
Anyway, so much for this lovely little place. I really don’t want to say that running it this cheaply is a mistake and that it would be better to charge more and have a proper staff, using the helpers for support – such as certain other places do (see Book II ~ Chapter 9 ~ Amicable Appi-Kogen)… so instead I am going to comment that offering accommodations and commodities to discount prices like this results in a suboptimal situation which could be ameliorated by levying elevated fees and compensating with a ledger of core personnel, relying on volunteers for secondary assistance – which is a practice successfully employed by marked disparate establishments. On a completely unrelated note, I miss Pension Mutti.
I’ll get more into detail about the surroundings in the next interlude, so I don’t want to say too much right here, but at the very least I want to give you a quick overview of the immediate neighbourhood, which is located between Yokoyugawa (横湯川 “Side Hot Water River”) in the south, and a forested hillside in the north. There is a little grocery store with a very limited selection nearby which we mostly use to buy vegetables, and the nearest Konbini is all the way back at the station. As for a supermarket… there’s no such thing around here. The closest one is over 9,000 meters away.
Instead, there are plentiful of Onsen around, even outside the hostels, hotels, Ryokan and bathhouses. In fact, there is a tour of 9 numbered public Onsen, and although I did not specifically seek them out, I should still randomly run into over half of them during my time here. Had I had more free time, I would have made a point of tracking the remaining ones down as well.
Now, I’m not an avid Onsen-goer (especially not in weather that feels like the next best thing after dying in a fire), but for those who are into it I hear you can buy a “Rally Towel”, stamp it with the seals of each of the nine Onsen after bathing in them, and receive a price once you’re done! And it's completely free of charge! All you have to do is stay in Yudanaka’s ridiculously overpriced hotels for a number of nights and a cheap souvenir is all yours (generously sponsored by the Yudanaka Onsen & Hotel Lobby)!
So much for the place, which is, as I mentioned before, not all that bad, and could certainly be turned into something great with a little bit of effort. However, there would be little time for that, and that is largely thanks to…
Just like the place, the job in itself isn’t so bad. It's just what Anna Morita makes of it for us helpers that’s the problem. But let me start at the beginning.
The most basic task is cleaning the rooms. For that, we have to fold up the tatami mats, wipe the surfaces, clean the bathrooms, open the windows but close the curtains, unplug and open the refrigerator, check the lights, as well as a number of other little tasks in order to make the rooms look good and ready for the next guests again. Exactly how much time that takes highly depends on how neatly the Okyakusama (お客様 “Honoured Customer”) leaves a room behind – and the bandwidth for that goes from “easy peasy” to “inexorably horrible”.
Also, let’s not forget about the trash. The amounts of empty cans, bottles, wrappings and other waste products that some Okyakusama leave behind bothers absurdity. Fortunately, most (but regrettably not all) customers have the grace to neatly tie them up and arrange them by the litter bin, and some are even proactive enough to go through all the trouble of disposing of them in the bins in the lobby.
And all that is done, the floor needs to be cleaned. Initially, I am told to do it with a broom, but after giving it a try I quickly realize that this method is not only slow and unreliably, but also takes way too much time considering just how many rooms we have to clean. So within the first day of duty, I initialize the technical revolution and start using readily available and fully functional vacuum cleaners, and within a week everyone else follows suit and complaints of customers about dirt and hairs on the Tatami mats miraculously stop.
To do all these tasks, we use a little cart to carry around all the supplies. Actually, Aurelie tells me that the cart is a new addition to the tasks, and that previously the helpers had to carry brooms, garbage bags, cleaning supplies, wiping towels, spare tissues and what else all by themselves. I can only imagine how inefficient that must have been. Incidentally, one of my first inofficial tasks should be to fix said cleaning cart: The pegs connecting one of the lower crossbars to one of the legs had come out. Fortunately, just like the broken of tail of a wooden fox toy (see Book II ~ Chapter 7 ~ The Sapporo Strawberry Stay), this, too, is nothing that a little UHU universal adhesive can’t solve, and my fix should prove to last at least for the duration of my stay, making it a pleasure to work with the little cart.
In addition to the rooms, we also have to clean the mini kitchen – which is available for use by the guests – as well as the shared bathrooms for the dormitories and on the first floor. Neither of them are big tasks, but they do add up…
In fact, let us make a quick balance at this point. Despite the utopic manager-like phantasies that Anna Morita displays, cleaning a room takes about 30 minutes on average. The number of rooms to clean on a given day varies, but averages out at about ten rooms per day, staging the daily effort for the rooms at about 5 hours. Add to that the time required for the toilets and the mini kitchen, and we’re at about 6 man hours. Some days I should work alone, and on others, I should have one, rarely two of the other helpers to assist me, so let’s say that each day an average of 1.5 persons are working on the rooms, bringing down the average to 4 hours. So far, so good. 4 hours per day for 5 working days a week is still well within the agreed frame of 25 hours per week.
Next up is the Onsen. This is one of the tasks you can’t get right, and Anna Morita should repeatedly spend time (which I’m perfectly sure she could have used more productively) complaining about it and micromanaging tasks to the point where it would be faster if she had just done it herself. The first step – cleaning the changing rooms – is pretty much the only one I manage to complete to her satisfaction.
Before that, we have to start draining the Onsen, which takes quite some time, and then cleaning them. Once again, the method that Anna Morita prescribes for this – using a brush to scrape out all the mineral condensate that naturally accumulates in the hot spring – is painstakingly slow and inefficient, and she routinely critics me for using more efficient methods such as washing down the dirt with a rotating ledger of water buckets (fill a bucket with water and empty it uphill from the dirt, thus washing it down the drain while you simultaneously fill a second bucket of water so that it’s full once you return from the three-steps away pool) or using the showers as makeshift hoses. With proper equipment, such as an actual hose, the cleaning process could have been done within minutes. As it is, however, this takes at least half an hour for all the Onsen combined.
There are four Onsen in total: Male Inside, Male Outside, Female Inside, and Female Outside, and the person in charge of cleaning them for a day has to do them all. As a perk, that means I get to see the females’ Onsen as well as the males’. The female outdoor Onsen is particularly cute.
Afterwards, we have to refill the Onsen, which is not as easy as it sounds.
Anyone who has ever filled a swimming pool – or even just a makeshift garden pool – will know that you need two things: Time, and water. The tricky part with the Onsen is that we only have a very limited amount of water coming down from the hot springs through a little falling pipe…
…which also changes in quantity and temperature on a daily basis. Using a complex system of plugs with different sized holes in them that we insert into two different water tanks (which are about three minutes apart from one another since there is no direct route between them and we have to walk all the way through the hostel, changing shoes twice on the way), using gloves because the water is scalding hot, we have to make sure that each Onsen gets just the right amount of water and is just the right temperature to make Anna Morita happy. Needless to say that the latter never happens. Either this Onsen is not getting enough water, or it’s too hot so it should get less water (yet still be ready by the time the Onsen is supposed to open up), or hat one is too cold, or another Onsen (chosen apparently at random) has a higher priority. As such, no day on which I'm in charge of the Onsen should pass without Anna Morita actively looking for me, telling me to stop what I'm doing and change the plugs for the Onsen pipes. Occasionally, it should also happen that she’d tell me to use a bigger plug on a pipe that I had already left completely unplugged in order to maximise the flow of water, which should usually result in a lengthy optimization discussion about which other Onsen’s pipe should get a smaller plug to increase the flow to the unplugged one. Also, regarding the temperature of the Onsen, some people would use advanced technological temperature measuring devices to ensure the correct temperature. We, however, are on a “put your hand in and see if the temperature is right”-basis, which should yet result in more complaints from Anna Morita.
Anyway, doing all that should only take 30 minutes according to Anna Morita, but it actually takes at least an hour, not counting the little extra interruptions for changing the plugs. I have to do this about every second work day, so let’s be generous and say this increases the daily work time to 4.5 hours. Still okay for 5 days a week.
But we’re not done yet! In addition to cleaning up the rooms, we also have to set them for the next guests. Fortunately, the bulk of the task was already done in the cleaning section, but we still have to prepare fresh linens, and more often than not adjust the number of futons in a room, putting extra ones in the cupboards, or pulling out additional ones and folding them up neatly. Especially the latter is something that can escalate if there aren’t enough futons available in a room’s cupboard, and we have to search other rooms for (matching) spares. Altogether, that adds an average of one hour’s worth of work to the daily tasks, bringing the daily work hours to 5.5, and the weekly work hours to 27.5 for a 5-day week. More than agreed on, but still short of the general consensus of 28 hours of volunteer work for food and accommodation.
Incidentally, the whole process should start out to be rather chaotic. In the mornings, Anna Morita would just randomly assign room keys to helpers as the guests check out, completely disregarding that we have only one set of cleaning supplies, and also not telling us which rooms were expected to check out later, thus (hopefully unintentionally) maximising the time we should spend changing floors.
I wouldn’t be the fox that I am if I let such a chaotic and inefficient system stand. Within a week, I have not only worked out a way to efficiently organize us helpers so we won’t get in one another’s way when there’s multiple of us or forget tasks in the heat of battle (or the heat of Onsen-cleaning), but also procured state of the art materials to create a management device so advanced that Anna Morita has apparently not yet heard of it: A List!
At first I’m hesitant. Decades of having various people in my life tell me “you're arrogant” whenever I proposed an idea for an improvement have discouraged me from trying to improve situations such as these. However, this time should be different. Aurelie is instantly delighted by this system which allows us to parallelize our tasks and also helps avoiding accidentally doing the same task twice, and before I know it my system is readily adopted, and the other helpers proactively create their own list on my days off. Words cannot describe how good that makes me feel.
But moving on. Apart from the regular tasks, there are also irregular tasks such as vacuuming the corridors…
…emptying the ashtray outside the entrance (editor’s note: EEEEEUUUUUGGGGHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!)…
…and manually lugging sacks of rubbish from Garbage Mountain to the collection point, which is located a hundred meters away at the river side. In fact, along the river there’s a series of these little overhanging constructs, which I guess make it easier for the garbage service to collect it, but certainly is a long ways of the convenient trash containers in front of each house.
And in addition to all this, we also have do lovely tasks that “don’t count as work” but still have to be done, namely cooking food for Anna Morita and the other helpers and washing the dishes. Now, maybe my feelings here would have been different had Anna Morita occasionally pitched in with either of these tasks – and in fact we mentioned this to her – but during my entire stay she only prepared a total of three meals, two of which were pretty much warmed up leftovers, and did not help with the dishes a single time. That’s not a situation that I would consider fair, especially when contrasted with Pension Mutti where I got three meals a day prepared for me, or Sapporo, where Seina practically banned me from doing the dishes, considering that task her chosen duty.
Altogether, that amounts to an average of over 7 work hours per working day, as well as some hours on non-working days as well, which is definitely too much, but would still have been tolerable if it had not been for Anna Morita herself. Maybe the worst part is that I never see her doing any work, and while I can imagine that she must be busy doing organizational tasks, I simply can’t believe they keep her that occupied, especially with Jessica to help her. Add to that the fact that she likes to spend time nitpicking details of how we do tasks and complaining about things that she could have easily fixed in half the time had she wanted to, as well as the fact that you never hear something like “well done” or “thank you for your hard work” out of her mouth, and you have a very poisonous and demotivating working environment. I try my best to counteract the effects of this by maintaining a cheerful and positive mask around the other helpers and thanking them for the effort they put in. After all, we’re all working together to make this place as good as possible, and I sincerely hope I was able to improve the general morale of the place at least a little bit, but still…
…eventually, it becomes too much, and I begin to experience effects of psychological degradation that I had not felt since I stopped working for MegaZebra over two years ago. So eventually, I drawn up a sum of all the hours I've worked (which should turn out to be 38.5 hours for the first 6 days alone, significantly over the agreed-upon 25 hours per week, and also significantly over the limit of what I would consider appropriate or even tolerable), factoring in the fact that I only got one day off during my first week instead of the agreed-upon two days, and present it to Anna Morita, asking at the very least to get my one day off back, and ideally for an extra day off to compensate for all the extra work I've put in.
At first, this ultimatum is simply ignored by her, and only at my third and final attempt to open a dialogue does she actually take some time to talk with me. It effects to a lot of “ah, but we’re so busy” and “but that day is some other helper’s day off already” and “I really can’t give you three days off in a row” which then becomes “actually, I can’t give you two days off in a row either”, followed by “and could you make it this day instead of that”. At the end of negotiations, my requested extra days off have been moved so much backwards, that they are effectively the regular days off for the following week, and I realize that any attempts to talk with Anna Morita will only be a waste of my already sparse time. To gracefully leave negotiations, I accept her proposal, which effectively means that nothing changes about my original schedule, and begin making preparations for my own unannounced exit, but more about that later.
For now, let me tell you about what I would make of the litte free time I have in this place. For starters, I should use the waning afternoon hours of my first day here in Yudanaka to go on a tour with the purpose of…
Interlude: Scouting Shibu-Onsen
Still exhausted from my trip yesterday, as well as a 7-hour first work day, my body just wants to rest after the completion of my first shift in this place.
However, the fox in me has different plans and wants to explore his new surroundings, and so I find myself embarking on an explorative stray around the immediate neighbourhood. At 1.5 hours, it’s one of my shortest strays, and it shouldn’t even cover a whole 2kms, yet featuring in the troubling treacherous terrain, the steep slopes, and my battered body, it sure feels like a fully-fledged hike to me.
The Nozaru Hostel is right in front of the gates of Onsenji (温泉寺 “Hot Springs Temple”), so you’d think starting with that Temple would be the logical choice…
*BLEEP* Wrong! After I take my first steps into that direction, I am distracted by a huge dragon head with plentiful coins in its maw…
…and alerted of a lovely little staircase leading up the mountain, and to a hidden Temple & Shrine combo.
Following the mountain past east from there, I pass right by Bachi (墓地 “graveyard”) on the hillside…
…and then emerge right in the middle of Onsenji.
It should probably come as no surprise that it would be here, in the Snow Monkey Town of Yudanaka, that I should come across the proverbial Three Wise Monkeys, which happen to be Japanese Macaques – the very same species as the famous Snow Monkeys. Their names are Mizaru (見ざる “don’t see”), Kikazaru (聞かざる “don’t hear”) and Iwazaru (言わざる “don’t speak”), which is a play on words: The Japanese word for monkey is “Saru” (猿) which becomes “Zaru” if it is preceded by another syllable in compound words. At the same time, “zaru” is also the ending syllable for an old (and no longer actively used) conjugation meaning “don’t”, and thus a word pronounced “Mizaru” for example can mean either “see(ing) monkey” or “don’t see”. Interestingly, in opposition to the Three Wise Monkey, there are also what I guess would be the Three Foolish Monkeys. Going from the naming conventions for the Three Wise Monkeys, I guess their names should be something like Miru (見る “see”), Kiku (聞く “hear”) and Iu (言う “say”), though the play on words no longer applies in that case.
Afterwards, I stray through the very idyllic streets of Yudanaka for some time, backtracking west along the river…
Before eventually climbing the next staircase, leading me to yet another temple – this one featuring the rare and unusually modest priest-Tanuki.
From there, I decide to follow the hillside forest path in search of the other Shrines and Temples that are supposedly hidden here…
…which as a pleasant side effect should also give me a nice view on the area I'm staying in.
I should also find a number of Shrines and temples up the forested hillside…
…yet there is one the quest of which I have to abandon, for while the path to Mihou Jinja (三峰神社 “Three Peak Shrine”) looks clear enough on the map…
…the actual trail should barely be deserving of the name, first leading through what I believe to be anti-landslide fences…
…then up a slope that can with some fantasy be recognized as a former trail path…
…and finally fading out into the forest near to a little shack that regrettably is not a Shrine. I have a very rough inkling where to go from here, but not knowing how much higher up the mountain this adventure will take me, and with me already being quite exhausted, I decide not to risk it and turn back for now.
So instead, I let this initial exploration come to an end by visiting the more readily available Temples and Shrines along the route, as well as walking along the main road in front of the hostel in search of the very unobtrusive little local grocery store, before returning back to the hostel.
Now, all this running around and the work sure have made me hungry, which regrettably brings us to yet another shortcoming of this place, namely…
We already covered the fact that we have to prepare or own meals here, which is not counted as work time by Anna Morita, but there is yet another detrimental factor at work here, to which we are going to come shortly.
But let’s start at the beginning, which logically means breakfast. If it works out, it’s not so bad per se. There’s nothing wrong with either toast nor Müsli, nor preparing them yourself (even if it pales in comparison to the amazing breakfasts I had at Pension Mutti).
The key phrase here is “If it works out”. At first, I attribute the strange taste of my toasts to the fact that I've tried out orange jam and Japanese honey, both of which are not among my usual choices for spreads… but then I realize that the revolting taste comes from the margarine, which is well past its use-by date. As for the Müsli, not only do I have to buy my own yoghurt to go with it, but also does the Müsli run out, and Anna Morita says she can’t go shopping for groceries because she is too busy.
And then, one morning I get up and there is neither Müsli, nor toast, nor anything else I can use for a classical breakfast available. The toast, I should later learn, did not actually run out, but Anna Morita actively hid it from us because she felt we were being too wasteful with it, because why be generous with expensive food like bread? For a moment, I consider having rice with Natto… but naturally the Natto in the fridge is also already expired. Some people may claim that Natto doesn't really expire, but believe me, I actually tried a serving, and the difference between fresh and expired Natto is like heaven and night! So, eventually I resort to preparing a bowl of Instant Ramen. Not a traditional breakfast, but at the very least it gives me the energy to get the day started (even though this incident pretty much initiated the day like a horde of delirious hamsters falling from great height onto the B-minor scale during Beethoven’s 9th).
From that, you probably already see the problem here. Since Anna Morita is too busy to go shopping for groceries, we have to get creative in the kitchen and make do with what we have, and while we certainly should not be starving, the portions consequently turn out to be not too big, and the meals themselves are also not what I would call a rewarding meal for a group of hard-working people.
Pretty much the same holds true for dinner, and while there is the occasional meal that turns out to be quite nice, most of them are simply not adequate for the effort that we put in here. Now, as I said, I can’t judge if Anna Morita really is that busy doing whatever it is she is doing all day, but here’s a hint: If you’re too busy to do something so essential as grocery shopping, you're probably doing something wrong – especially if you are responsible for a number of people that depend on you.
And then, Anna Morita finally Finally FINALLY goes shopping, and not only brings back home enough Müsli to last us four days, but also some instant Lemon Tea powder, which should subsequently see generous use…
…but also sufficient* ingredients for me to bake my legendary tri-Tail pizza for the third time here in Japan (*not including toppings, for which I decided to buy four different kinds of mushrooms from the nearby grocery store, chopped tomatoes, instant yeast, oil and flour, which were already present, and herbs and spices, for which I used my own. Actually, she only bought a bag of cheap cheese).
So, I guess food wise it was not all that bad… but the meals were certainly not a highlight of my stay here, much unlike the…
Interlude: Maiban-no Matsuri
Or 毎晩の祭り. This means as much as “The Nightly Festival”, and also contains the explanation for why it’s so busy here right now. This is because this week, much like Golden Week, is one of Japan’s major holiday seasons. Going by the name of O-Bon (お盆 “Honoured Family”), this occasion is also known as the Lantern Festival or the Festival of the Dead. During this week, people from all over Japan visit their original homes to pay their respect to the spirits of their ancestors, making this occasion pretty much the equivalent of a nationwide family reunion during which all hotels, Ryokan and hostels are hopelessly booked out. This was one of the main reasons why I couldn’t stay in Sado for longer, and why Anna Morita wanted me to arrive at the Nozaru Hostel before the peak rush time began.
Naturally, with Yudanaka being a resort town of sorts, the streets should be brightly illuminated every night, and all sorts of interesting traditional Japanese activities (with some Chinese influences) such as Shougi, Go, Tangram, Domino, Japanese spinning tops (which are somehow wound up using a piece of string) or ring throwing are offered right in the middle of the road. I definitely don’t have time to attend the festival every night, but on two occasions I allow myself to take some time off and join the festivities together with Aurelie and Jessica.
There’s are also traditional Japanese community dances going on every other night or so, which consist of a number of simple movements that repeat every 15 seconds or so to music playing in an endless loop. At first, Aurelie, Jessica and I are only watching, but we are soon enough invited to join the round, and after only a minute or two of going along, we have the movements more or less down. Now, I can’t understand the exact words of it, but based on the movements I’d say this dance is about the back and forth of everyday farm work or something.
There’s also a mascot running around, and while I’m not sure exactly what it’s supposed to depict, my best guess is that it's a highly stylized macaque with an Onsen-towel on its head. Either way, of the three of us, Aurelie is the one who gets a picture taken with him (her?), but without using the optional instagram post frame.
Also, the festival is certainly nothing where you can just quickly drop by, as we should learn as we randomly get drafted into a late-night picnic by friendly locals, taking place in the middle of the road on a traditional Japanese blue picnic tarpaulin, the likes of which are also extensively used during the Hanami season.
And since this is a Japanese festival, there naturally is one activity that absolutely can’t be done without, and that is Karaoke – aka a bunch of semi-drunk Japanese people caterwauling off-key versions of their favourite songs much to the delight of their fellow kinsmen- and women.
Oh well, I figure, and decide to give everyone something to talk about for the rest of the night by volunteering to sing one of the Japanese songs that I happen to know by virtue of it being the theme song of one of my favourite anime shows. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, from Digimon Adventures 02: Target, sung by Kira Resari in horrible off-key major.
DISCLAIMER: Kira Resari and tri-Tail may not be held liable for any temporary and/or lasting damages caused by exposing yourself to the following auditor debilitating performance, including but not limited to: Mild acoustic irritation, uncontrollable laughing, nausea, mild violent urges, sudden deafness, predictable deafness, serious acoustic irritation, nose bleeding, ear bleeding, brain bleeding, blood bleeding, moderate violent urges, reactive amnesia, gnawed-off legs, the lower intestine leaping straight up through the neck and throttling the brain, seriously disturbing violent urges, fainting, comatose, death and permadeath. By all means, feel free to skip this video. Just because it's there doesn't mean you have to watch it. Seriously! You have been warned!!
Finally, as a public courtesy, there are also a variety of free snacks available at the festival, and on both occasions I should return from the nightly festival with bags of roasted nuts, seeds and other typical Japanese snacks to augment my somewhat sparse diet.
With the end of the O-Bon week, the nightly festivals should come to an end too. However, that certainly does not mean an end to…
One of the first things that catch my eye here is the vulpine cooking gas canisters. Aren’t they just adorable? I wish we had such cute product designs in Germany.
Apart from extra gas, we also have extra slippers by the bucket…
…as well as extra sinks, because nothing is more annoying than coming back home from a shopping trip and realizing you forgot to buy sinks.
By the way, ever since around May, all of Japan has been going nuts about the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Obscenely expensive stadiums and infrastructure is under construction, huge day counters count down the 710 remaining days until the start, and national pride messages can be found everywhere – even on protective foil for yoghurt.
Meanwhile, here’s something I should find while cleaning up one of the rooms. I guess the order of monks that travel around the country and pound the “May Peace Prevail on Earth” stakes into the ground all over the place must have forgotten it during their stay here, and thus peace prevails on earth in a cupboard.
Speaking of rooms, I wonder if there’s a system in place that automatically redirects customers who can’t find their room to this one?
It is also here, specifically while cooking, that I should trigger the end of Thyme.
But in exchange, I should gain a nice little souvenir fan which a customer forgot. This one is actually quite highbrow, made from Japanese wood that has been fanned out along the grain and bent into the appropriate shape. I wonder if I’ll be able to bring it home in one piece.
Also, here’s a new friend that I should make. The poor little guy is suffering from a terminal case of permadeath with little hopes of recovery, so I decide to take him along for a bit and show him the country he’s living in, and maybe more. His name is Flytt.
Meanwhile, outside the hostel, the parking situation is getting somewhat out of hand.
And by the way, that’s not a frying pan…
…that’s a frying pan.
Speaking of frying pans, this instance of Engrish sure hits me like a frying pan on the head.
Also, this is where I get this close to selling the second exemplar of the Chronicles of Ceal Book of Lore. After I present both this humble little account of the world of Ceal and Ecchnasi to my fellow helpers, Anna Morita of all people unexpectedly takes an interest in it, and even offers to buy a copy of it for 2,000¥. Mind you, this happens at a time when I had already packed my bags in anticipation of my subsequent escape, and naturally, the more intact copies of the Book of Lore that I carry around are deep within my backpack. But for such a chance, I am willing to unpack everything again. It goes without saying that Anna Morita should crush all my budding hopes after I went through all that trouble by saying she thought I’d sell my hand-crafted Ecchnasi-prototype and the Book of Lore together for only 2,000¥, which is so far out of the question that it’s almost in the question again. Prices that cheap might be possible for large commercial companies with print runs numbering in the thousands, but me with an first edition of only 50 copies and two hand-crafted Ecchnasi Prototypes simply can’t match those rates, and instead have to sell these products that are guaranteed to bring joy and variety at prices rivalling those of a dinner in a restaurant (for Ecchnasi, that restaurant would be a bit more fancy, say around 6,000¥).
Exploitation, disappointment, rejection and crushed hope… I sure get the full package this time around, and maintaining a friendly smile and acting like I’m not feeling betrayed, hurt and broken to the very core takes every last bit of control and acting that I've learned during the last three decades. At the very least I can unwind a little by watching Aurelie go up against Jessica in a match of Ecchnasi.
One of the lessons I've learned is that the things that cause psychic degradation are almost never objectively awful things. Rather, they are things that deeply hurt us on a personal level and might be easily brushed aside by another person. The worst thing one can do in such a case is to try and suppress such feelings, thinking that others would not let it get to them that much. That is only asking for a disaster to eventually happen. Instead, it’s important to accept when you feel hurt, at the very least to yourself, and ideally also share these feelings with others, because if no one ever shares the times when he or she feels hurt, then everyone ends up thinking that no one but they themselves ever feel hurt or betrayed, and they have to keep their pain inside as a consequence lest they appear not normal. It's a vicious cycle, really.
But enough about that. One other important thing is to make sure you balance the bad in your life with some good, such as I did when I finally got a day off that I should be spending…
Interlude: Monkeying Around
This should be my one long stray here in Yudanaka, the declared objective of which should be reaching the Snow Monkey Park (even in the absence of snow), and watching the Japanese Macaques there. This should take me a little over 6 hours (including lunch) during which I should cover a total distance of 15km, and climb up and down a combined total of 400m – first up from the hostel at 720m to the Snow Monkey park at 900m, then down to the station at 600m, and finally back up to the hostel again, with at least another 100m going up and down the hillside to visit various Shrines and Temples.
By try begins in the morning, at a time so early that even the temple’s gates are yet closed (also known as 8AM).
The streets are still empty, but the steam of the Onsen can still be seen rising everywhere in town.
Anyway, on a whim, I had already decided on a route, but on a whim, I decide to give the alternate forest route a try.
Fortunately, this one is not as adventurous as the trails to the hillside Shrines, but since it just keeps on going without any indication that IM’ on the right track, and since I also don’t encounter any people along the road, I eventually wonder if I'm really on the correct path.
Eventually, however, the forest thins out, and by courtesy of the pillars of steam rising from the valley floor, I can tell that I am on the right track to get to Jigokudani (地獄谷 “Earth Prison Valley”), the valley of the Onsen-bathing Snow Monkeys.
Soon enough, I arrive at the parking lot of the Monkey Park. Fortunately, since I did not bring a car, I can get through this gate for free.
Following that is a bit of trail that is “difficult” to use by wheelchair or stroller, and apparently overrun with bears, snakes and deer.
And then, I'm finally at the idyllic heart of Jigokudani…
…which features separate Onsen for both humans and other monkeys.
They even have their own Geyser here… but closer observation reveals that it’s fake. Still a nice fountain though.
Anyway, now I only have to climb a few more stairs, and then I’m finally at Jigokudani Yaenkouen (地獄谷野猿公苑 “Earth Prison Valley Wild Monkey Park”).
But before I reach the entrance, I should yet run into a tiny Shrine, and a very loopy tree.
At only 800¥, the entrance fee for this place is absolutely justified, even though I do find it a bit odd that I should pay twice as much to see “Least Concern” monkeys that can also be observed in the wild than to see the endangered Toki birds of Sado.
Also, there’s more signs, this time warning against snakes and hornets. A shame, there goes ruining my dream of having myself stung by a hornet and bitten by a snake simultaneously, ideally also while being stuck by lightning. Fortunately, by now I have gotten used to the Japanese habit of being overly cautious and warning against everything everywhere if only a miniscule chance of getting killed or injured exists, otherwise I would probably be too afraid to set as much as a foot outside. This mentality is really difficult to explain, but I think it can be summed up by the fact that most Japanese are not used to being around nature, and thus it’s not uncommon to see warning signs about for example steep and hazardous terrain if the slope exceeds an angle of 15°. Or put another way: If you are a responsible and at least a little experienced hiker with a good measure of common sense, you can probably ignore most of the rural warning signs here in Japan.
Anyway about the monkeys… Known locally as Nihonzaru (日本猿 “Japanese Monkey”) or simply Saru, the Japanese Macaque is the world’s northernmost species of nonhuman primates, and also lives in the coldest areas, thus earning them the nickname “Snow Monkeys”. They are native all over Japan, with the slight exception of Hokkaido which lies on the other side of the Blakiston’s Line, and are mostly living in the forested mountain ranges, which have thus far been mostly spared by human civilization due to no one being stupid enough to try and build a house in an area that merrily screams “Landslide” every other time an earthquake or typhoon hits the region. This region is especially famous because in winter the Saru often use the hot springs to warm up, but even now in the summer months there are plenty of the energetic monkeys around.
Unlike Zao Kitsune Mura (see Book II ~ Chapter 5 ~ A Trip Together) or Kitami Kitakitsune Bokujou (see Book II ~ Chapter 8 ~ An East Side Story), this place doesn’t have a fenced perimeter, meaning all the monkeys are here of their own free will (though quite possibly encouraged by food scattered by the staff).The humanely accessible part is a mostly linear path from the entrance to the monkey Onsen, and overlooks an area along the riverbed maybe one hectare in size.
Altogether, the areal can be divided into four notable parts: The lower riverbed, the bridge, the upper riverbed and Onsen, and the forested hillside…
…all of which are pretty much overflowing with monkeys being photographed by different monkeys.
Most of them don’t really mind the attention, but some clearly prefer a more sheltered place in the middle of the river…
…while others are hiding out directly below the walkway.
Since the temperatures are still at “die in a fire”, the Saru understandably don’t feel particularly drawn to taking a bath in the Onsen, but I take comfort in the fact that I’ll be able to watch them bathe next winter thanks to the Snow Monkey Livecam. I wonder how often they have to repair that thing though. Here’s the direct link to the webcam, but mind the time difference. You won’t be able to see much if it’s night in Japan: http://www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/livecam2/video_en.php
It's not all fun and games for the Macaques though. Sometimes, fights can break out, and just like the fights between foxes, these can get quite vocal.
On my way out, I do not neglect to buy yet another keychain at the gift shop, thus securing something I can use as the Honshu Island Seal, the third of four Island Seals required to forge my trusty Daypack into the Daypack of Flames. Adding it to the existing two Island Seals from Sado and Hokkaido turns my Daypack from the Alpha Daypack into the Omega Daypack. Only one more Island Seal to go!
After that, I return to town along a more level path following a forest waterway of sorts.
Interestingly, it is here in the middle of the forest that I should find not one but two new manhole cover designs.
It is at the entrance of the trail that I should find my one successful Geocache here in Yudanaka. At this point, let me also reveal the secret of my tails three. These fluffy little accessories that I initially bought as souvenirs from Zao Kitsune Mura have long since found their true purpose: They have become my Geocaching Tails, and I wear them whenever I look for Geocaches. The one with the white carabiner holds a vulpine wallet full of Euro cent pieces, one of which I manage to fit in almost every cache I find. The one with the black carabiner holds business cards that go into the bigger ones, and the one with the blue carabiner holds trackables that I found and swap whenever a cache is big enough.
Moving on from there, my next objective is to visit as many Shinto Shrines as I can on my way to the station, and while the religious density here is certainly not as high as on Sadogashima, there are still quite a number around.
The most special one for me personally would naturally be Shouichii Yukawara Inari Oomyouin (正一位湯河原稲荷大明神 “Highest-Ranking Hot Water River Field Inari Great Gracious Deity”), the first vulpine Inari Shrine I should find ever since coming to Yudanaka. Once again, I feel like the hand of the goddess herself has guided me here, for I did not actually plan my route to walk past it. However, on a whim I decide to walk down a certain street, and end up walking right into this little Shrine. Talk about providence!
On the way to the station I also pass a house that seems to be made mostly of roof. I wonder, was it built by the triangle lovers’ association? Or maybe an Ancient Egypt Otaku decided he wanted to live in a pyramid with windows? Who knows?
And then, there’s this huge statue watching over the valley. Actually, this trip should eventually bring me much, much closer to it, but we’ll get to that shortly.
I also note that the “Tiger! Tiger!” method of scaring birds off the vegetable fields is popular around these parts as well…
…though personally, I think the dynamically soaring bird-of-prey-kites are probably more effective.
Anyway, for now I’m quite hungry after all that walking, and decide to stop by a restaurant right across from the station.
There, I go with a Soba Ramen set, and while the salad is a titbit small, the Soba Ramen is clearly the most delicious I've ever eaten, making me leave happy, satisfied, and ready for the way back home.
It goes without saying that the way back home should not be straightforward at all. First of all, there are naturally more Shrines and Temples to be seen…
…but a highlight that should surpass this is when I encounter a small group of Macaques right in the middle of a little forest behind one of the Shrines, sitting around a sacred rock that I originally came to check out. At first, I’m afraid I might scare them off, but eventually more and more of them show up, until I feel it’s better for me to make a strategic retreat before the Sara decide to make a go for the plastic bag with the goods I've purchased from the Lawson Konbini at the station – not that it would do them much good: That bag contains the note paper and pen I bought for getting us better organized back at the hostel.
Before I should leave this little copse, however, I would run into the forgotten Inari Shrine of Yudanaka. Twelve little foxies reside in a Shrine that is all but completely overgrown, and I have to brush quite a number of cobwebs away in order to get to it.
Further along the road, I come across an interesting little statue in front of Baioji (梅翁寺 “Plum-Grandfather Temple”). It is said that if you dip a cloth in the hot Onsen water and wipe the statue’S forehead with it, you will have a longer life. But be careful, for the water is really, really hot.
And then, we come to the last major ascent of the day, as I boldly decide to scale the 112 steps of the stairs running up to the giant statue of Heiwakannon (平和観音 “Peace and Harmony Outlook Sound” = “Peace and Harmony Bodhisattva”) .
As I reach the top, having counted every step, however, I am outraged by the gross misinformation: The stairs hat a total of 113 steps! Oh well, at the very least I am now standing at the foot of the great statue overlooking this valley.
Now, remember how I just said that this should be the last set of stairs? Well… scratch that, because yet another flight of stairs further up the mountain, there is a little Temple containing the stone Buddhist image of Miroku, a statue that is partially submerged in the ground below, and that is said to protect the land from earthquakes. Legend has it that if the statue were to ever be fully unearthed, the world itself would be doomed to be extinguished. With so much at stake, it is of no surprise that the statue is tightly sealed away within a little temple building.
Next on the list is yet another curiosity: The Tobacco-Jizou! Yes, you read that right: This is a Jizou that has traditionally be a pilgrimage site for smokers, be it to pray for a longer life or to ask for help in overcoming their addiction. There truly are all sorts of gods to be found in these lands.
And finally, almost back at the Nozaru Hostel, I come across a public footbath, and while my feet are tired, I still decide to pass it up because the temperatures are still at a level where I might as well walk across hot coals.
And with that, this stray comes to an end. I packed as much into it as I could, knowing full well that I would not be staying in this place for another stray. The next time I should set foot outside t his place should already be…
Normally, it is traditional to give my host a piece of gift artwork before I depart. However, this time around, I feel that Anna Morita may deserve a lot of things, but a gift artwork certainly is not among them. Instead, the gift artwork goes to us, the helpers, and should mark one of those rare occurrences where I draw myself on one such piece, and one of the even rarer occurrences of me drawing myself not as a vulpine morph. The reason for that dates back all the way to Tokyo, specifically to the gift artwork that I gave to Kim from Korea. That piece of art officially marked the world of the Flirial species into the world of Ceal, and ever since then I have continuously developed them further, until I now have a clear idea of what sort of critters they are. Flirials are highly social creatures that form teleempathic bonds with one another. As such, they always take good care of one another and help one another out. Flirials work together, doing their best working towards a better world, and are mostly of a bubbly cheerful disposition that generates a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop through their bond. I've been looking forward to an opportunity to draw more Flirials, and what better chance than here and now? With that, I present to you, from left to right, Jessica, Aurelie, Kira and Ariel, the Four Flirials!
Incidentally, that is also something I have been doing in order to make the work here more tolerable: Getting myself in the Flirial frame of mind, repeatedly telling myself that we’re all doing our best to make this place as good as possible. No one has any bad intentions, and if someone forgot to do something then you can help them by doing it for them. It doesn’t matter whose task it originally was, or who is responsible. If you spot something that needs to be done or should have been done and you can do it, then just do it. Blaming others only destroys morale, and looking for someone just to tell them they did something wrong is outright valicious, especially if you could just have put it right in half the time it took you to look for them. Anna Morita and a lot of other managers around the world do things like that, but not me! Not us! We’re Flirials, and we all give our best, working together for a better world, covering up for one another and helping one another out! =^,^=
Not wanting Anna Morita to learn about my escape plans, I invite the other helpers to join me in my den after dinner a few nights before my departure, and present the gift artwork to them, also outlining to them the nature of the Flirials.
This time, however, we have a problem. There is three of them, and only one piece of gift artwork, so I randomly decree that the person who intends to return to Japan next after departing their current stay should keep it. There is a bit of debate as the others compare their travel plans, but in the end it turns out to be Ariel who would get to keep the gift artwork.
I should stage my escape during the fox hour of 23-Aug-2018 – the last hour of morning twilight before sunrise. My backpacks are already packed up and ready to go.
Unable to sleep, I end up getting up as early as 3AM, and allow myself one last humble breakfast while it’s still dark outside.
Leaving my room empty and clean, one might even wonder if this fox ever was here, or if they just imagined it all.
At 5AM, I am out of the door. Never looking back, I walk through the empty streets of Yudanaka and towards the station at first light.
Walking along the river, I can track the onset of dawn approaching by monitoring the distant mountaintops on the opposing western edge of the big Nagano valley.
Never before has it felt so good to be on the road again, and even the heavy burden on my back seems light as a feather as I leave this dreaded place behind, soaring on wings of liberty.
Along the way I come across a barber shop with quite possibly the most appropriate mascot ever…
…as well as not one but two Jizous. One of them is located at a very interesting position in an alcove, and the other one has a grand total of 3,000 origami paper cranes hanging within. This goes back to the practice of Senbazuru (千羽鶴 “Thousand Birds Crane”), which has its origins in an ancient Japanese legend stating that anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish by the gods. Today, Senbazuru are often prepared as a collaborative effort by families, colleagues or classmates wishing for the recovery of a seriously ill family member, classmate or colleague. I don’t know if this was the case with the three Senbazuru posted here, but I hope that whatever their wishes are, they will come true. After all, folding a thousand origami cranes and tying them up with strings like that is certainly no easy feat.
And then I arrive at the station shortly before 6:00, and still over half an hour early for the first train out of this place. Part of me expects that Anna Morita will come after me, flying out of her hostel on a broomstick or whatever, trying to stop me…
…but unfortunately, there is no method for me to depart sooner. In fact, the station staff is not even ready to open this gate yet.
Fortunately, the Jidouhanbaiki are working, however, and so I have no problem purchasing a ticket to Nagano for 1160¥.
As I stand around there nervously waiting for the gate to open, always half expecting Anna Morita to pull into the station square and demanding to know what I'm doing, something completely random happens: A woman with a child approaches me and gives me a can of Coke. She says she got it from a mystery machine but doesn’t like it, so she’s giving it to me. I still don’t understand what happened here, but hey, free Coke! I guess situations like these are what inspired the popular mechanic of JRPGs where sometimes people give you random stuff when you talk to them.
And then, the ticket gate finally opens, and I feel a little bit safer inside the train.
However, I can only breathe easy when the train finally departs the station, and I am en route through Nagano, riding the Nagano Dentetsu across the morning fields, the rising sun at my back. Free at last!
Once again, I should have to change trains at Shinshuu-Nakano, this time getting into a Wanman decorated with the rare and coveted Roureru Shou (ローレル賞 “Laurel Prize”) of 1976!
…what, you don’t know what the rare and coveted Laurel Prize is??? …okay, actually neither did I. I have looked it up by now, and it turns out to be an annual award presented by the Japan Railfan Club for newly commissioned railway vehicles of outstanding design and functionality. Since it was first awarded in 1961, which makes this one of 57 trains to have ever won this award, right? °BEEP!° Wrong! Starting in 1975, the Japan Railfan Club started giving out up to three awards each year, and also there are some years with no awards at all, bringing the total number of decorated cars to 94. Still, what are the odds that I should randomly end up on one of these?
Approaching Nagano, the train gets progressively fuller with commuters making their way to the big city on the first train to run…
…and then we arrive at the final stop of the Nagano Dentetsu, which – surprise! – unexpectedly turns into a subway three stops from the Shuuten (終点”Final Stop”, also often translated as “Terminal” in the train announcements).
There, I am privy to a very old-school sight: The ticket gate is neither electric nor automatic, but staffed with good old fashioned conductors to whom the passengers hand their tickets as they walk by without slowing down, receiving a polite “Arigatou Gozaimasu” from the conductor who is diligently taking tickets with both hands. Busy as they are I could probably hand them a piece of gum wrap and they wouldn’t notice. I wouldn’t do that though. These people have my deepest respect, standing there saying “Arigatou Gozaimasu” pretty much nonstop, which puts them at a verbal output of about two Mega-Arigatous per hour. Their throats are bound to be terribly dry by lunchtime.
With that, I have now officially arrived in Nagano, not quite out of the reach of Anna Morita, who also runs a hostel somewhere in this town, but at the very least I consider it unlikely that she would find me in a big city like this.
My first port of call here is the Moritomizu (森と水 “Forest and Water”) Backpackers, of which I am as sure as I can possibly be that it is not the one hostel in Nagano that is run by Anna Morita. It's not quite check-in time yet ¬– in fact, it’s not even quite check-out time yet, but fortunately, they should allow me to drop off my bags so that I might go and explore the city of Nagano unburdened.
But I am going to write about this in the next chapter. For now, however, there is one more thing that I did not yet cover, and that is…
I've already talked about most of this over the course of this chapter, so I’ll keep it short here.
The accommodation was actually not so bad, not great, but definitely one of the better ones, especially after it effectively became a large private room. The work was varied and interesting, and could have been rewarding if it had not been for Anna Morita’s incessant nitpicking and micromanaging. The facilities were actually quite good, maybe a bit run down in places, but hey, how many other places have a proper Onsen to offer? And finally, the location was pretty awesome, and the nightly festivals definitely a strong plus. I think there was also a bike available that I could have used, but I never got to that point because of…
…the workload! Now, while there have been places that kept me busy for longer, most of those had some strong redeeming features that made me feel like it was at the very least remotely worth working this much to stay at such a place. The Te Horo Lodge with 37.84 weekly work hours (see Book I ~ Chapter 7 ~ Honouring Te Horo) exceeded in accommodation, food, atmosphere and facilities, at Seina’s Strawberry Farm in Sapporo with 37.9 weekly work hours (see Book II ~ Chapter 7 ~ The Sapporo Strawberry Stay) I was explicitly forbidden from doing the dishes, and food, accommodation, atmosphere and facilities were all good, not to mention the many trips we made, and even the dreaded Thornton Grange with its herculean 49.58 weekly work hours (see Book I ~ Chapter 12 ~ Christchurchly Second) had its merits, such as nice pets, a good atmosphere and llamas – not to mention that I would see my host running around the farm doing all sorts of productive things with his time, whereas here I still wonder what exactly apart from nitpicking and mismanaging Anna Morita was doing every day.
As for the food situation… despite the efforts of us Flirials to make the best out of what we had, there aren’t many places that I would rate below the Nozaru Hostel in terms of catering. The single worst thing, however, was the atmosphere, which was enough to cause me to psychically degrade and almost slump back into a psychic breakdown and depression again. Had it not be for my fellow Flirials, I would have broken down for sure, and they are the only redeeming feature of this otherwise hostile hostel. Thank you so very much for being there, Pat, Aurelie, Jessica, Phyllis and Ariel!
All of us Flirials are in agreement that no one should ever have to come to a place like this, but what can we do? Quite a lot, as it should turn out. I did warn Anna Morita that a fox’s gratitude is boundless, but that a wronged fox can be a dangerous adversary. Now, it is time to back up my words with… more words! They say that the feather is mightier than the sword, which holds doubly true if the one who wields it can use the semantic syntax of sentences to paint vivid and comprehensive pictures. The sites on which Anna Morita is fishing for naïve volunteers become the field of battle, and writing without malice nor mercy, I write a review on either of those sites using the most deadly weapons in my arsenal: honesty and objectivity. As a finishing touch, I raise my concerns to the teams of both HelpX and WorkAway, detailing once again exactly what transpired, and why I do not wish for any other Flirials to fall victims of Anna Morita’s schemes.
My strikes hit swift and true. Within a week or so, Anna Morita’s listings are taken off both sites, and should not be reconstituted to this day. Now, I am not so arrogant to believe that my words alone were what caused this – after all, at the very least on HelpX Anna Morita had already received a troublingly long string of negative reviews – but they appear to have been the final straw on both of them. Now I can rest easy, knowing that my fellow Flirials are safe.
Sweet, sweet vengeance? A decisive victory for justice? If only the world was all that simple. I should probably proud, possibly elated that I could help make this happen, and yet…
…instead, I only feel sad. I feel sad that it had to come to this. I feel sad that Anna Morita wasted her chance to turn a place with so much potential into something beautiful. And ironically, I feel sorry for the trouble that I caused her.
If only it were as easy as Anna Morita truly being an evil, cruel, heartless, valicious witch, then I would have closure now. Instead, I see a woman who has bitten off more than she could chew, and now she and others have to suffer for it. I don’t think she is either evil, nor heartless, nor cruel. Maybe she is bad at managing, and maybe she made one really bad decision in trying to run the hostel only with backpackers, but does that justify what I've done to her? What if she has to close both of her hostels down because of this, because of me? What if I've just ruined her entire life in retaliation for her ruining not even two weeks of mine? I know I'm probably overthinking things, but still, these thoughts won’t give me rest…
And as such, at the very end of it all, I am not left with anger, but only sadness looking back at the time I spent at the Nozaru Hostel working under Anna Morita. It is a shame that it had to end like this, but I suppose there’s nothing that could be done about it…
Fortunately, now this is all in the past, and I am free like the wind once again! More amazing adventures await me, and you too can share them with me in the next chapter of the Travelling Fox Blog!