When the fourth hotel shut its doors on us with a sad shake of the uketsuke’s head and the words “no room,” I knew we were facing discrimination.
Whether it was because we were foreigners, or because we were not following some type of unspoken Japanese protocol, I did not care. I just wanted to sleep.
The anger and frustration that had been building for weeks — a result of feeling isolated by the intricate and alien Japanese culture we lived in — had come to a head. Remaining traces of optimism and friendliness evaporated and were replaced with only bitterness.
As we walked out of the lobby, I didn’t bother bowing or thanking the front desk for their time. After all, they hadn’t bothered to look in their reservation system for a room when we inquired about vacancy.
I felt as though we were Mary and Joseph (minus the whole baby Jesus thing, and the fact that we rode into town on bicycles instead of a donkey). There might have been a few more discrepancies in our situations, but there were also some similarities.
Gabriel and I had been traveling for miles. We were dirty and exhausted. And apparently, despite being in a city that survives off of tourism, no one had any room for the gaikokujin in their Inn.
The night certainly hadn’t played out as planned. Earlier in the afternoon, we packed up our jitensha with the camping gear and packs. It was a beautiful Hokkaido day with temperatures in the mid- to upper 60s and zero humidity.
Google Maps told us it would be a 15-mile bike ride to Jozankei, a nearby town in the mountains known for its natural hot springs. The idea was to bike up into the mountains and camp on our holiday weekend in the Jozankei Nature Village.
Unfortunately — whether it is or isn't accurate on distance and directions — Google doesn’t tell you how flat, or how steep, those miles are going to be.
We started our journey on the path outside our apartment, by Toyohira River. While the path is not strenuous, it does have a slow, gradual incline that only increases as the miles drone by.
About 30 minutes into the ride, we steered away from the river and onto the road that leads to Jozankei. And about 30 minutes after that, I knew we were doomed.
It wasn’t Kilimanjaro steep, but the intense burning sensation creeping up my lower extremities was enough to make my thighs feel like they were simultaneously going to explode and incinerate. Mile after mile we crawled over the mountains, leaving our (perfectly flat) Sapporo behind.
My jitensha did as best as a commuter bicycle could do on such a journey, but it was quickly evident that neither of our bicycles were built for such rides, as they started to squeak and creak around mile 10.
A surge of excitement swept through me when we finally saw a sign ahead, welcoming us to Jozankei Hot Springs. An onsen and hammock are within reach! We entered a tunnel and emerged on the other side in a quaint valley surrounded by Hokkaido mountains. As we looked down into the crease of the valley, large buildings protruded from the mountain’s walls and clustered around the steaming river that ran through the valley’s floor, all harvesting the natural hot springs for their onsen. It looked like a hotel city.
Our dearest Google Maps had delivered us to Jozankei, but where was the campground? We had no idea. After sitting for a few minutes on the side of the road, hitting “Find Route” countless times, we decided Google Maps had no idea either.
We brought a printed map with the campground address, anticipating that either our Internet or Google Maps (or both) might fail us. I pulled it out of my pack and asked a man on the sidewalk which direction we needed to head?
He laughed and pointed us further down the road in the same direction we were going. The same scenario occurred three more times. Each time, I asked a local for directions. Each time, they gave a small laugh and pointed us further down the road.
Several miles later, as we reached the edge of the valley and beyond, we finally interpreted the meaning of their laughs: this place was not in town, nor was it on the outskirts. Who knew how much further it might be to bike to? Another hour? Another two hours? Our poor Japanese was not advanced enough to ask.
Knees shaking from exhaustion with each downward stroke of the pedals, the crisp fall day was evolving into a chilly Hokkaido evening and all I could think about were the hot springs and restaurants we had passed on our way through town. Gabriel asked me if I wanted to keep pushing forward, or go back and look for an onsen, a place to sleep and some dinner?
My response was one of self-preservation: go back into town.
The first hotel we came to looked to be way over budget.
"We should drop off our bicycles at valet. How hilarious would that be? I don't know if I could do it with a straight face!"
Gabriel laughed for a minute before growing serious. "Let's do it. It's pay day, why not?" I couldn't argue with that, so I went inside to book a room.
“No room. Sorry.”
The uketsuke gave us directions to another hotel. As we rounded the bend and entered the heart of Jozankei, the shimmering lights of the hotel city welcomed us with a warm glow and my optimism returned.
Gabriel ducked into a gift shop to ask a clerk which hotels were best? While he was getting directions, I had a mini-photo shoot with some Korean tourists outside.
As they approached my blonde head and asked permission to take a photo, I made no attempt to smile. Couldn’t they see how crazy I looked after riding 22 miles up a mountain? And riding it through strong winds? On a cheap commuter jitensha? My hair was out of control.
I wanted to tell them to wait until the morning, when I had washed away the dirt and exhaustion from my face in the onsen’s healing waters. But I didn’t know how to say it in Korean.
Instead, I plastered a smile on my face and sent up a prayer that the photo would not find its way to social media.
Gabriel returned as they walked away. He pointed me in the direction of the hotel we were advised to stay at, but once inside its doors, we again were met with “no room. Sorry.”
We tried again. And again. Each time, I asked if they knew of a neighboring hotel who might still have rooms available? They each shook their heads and went back to their work and I was dismissed. We moved up the entire street until there was but one hotel left.
As I walked in, the uketsuke greeted me with a friendly smile and “good evening.” His surprisingly decent English planted a seed of hope.
He asked why we came to Jozankei? I told him of our plans to camp, of our failed attempt to find the campsite, of our hunger and exhaustion and weariness...
His head nodded as he listened but he remained silent. I worried that perhaps I told him more of our problems than he wanted to know. Maybe he wasn’t sure how to respond?
Finally, he replied.
“Maybe you need a hotel reservation. Shikattaganai, do you know this word?”
“It also means shouganai. Do you know this?”
“No ginger?” At this he gave a small chuckle.
“No, that is shōga nai... this character.” He drew it on a piece of paper for me behind the desk.
“But this is shouganai. They sound similar but are different.”
“What does it mean?”
“How to say? It means... ‘it is the system’.”
“Yes. It means ‘it is the way it is’.”
I was still confused by what he meant. Certainly, it was always useful to have an accommodations reservation, to avoid the situation we found ourselves in. But was he saying it was not optional? That it was necessary and required to obtain lodging here?
He spent several minutes checking for vacancy in his establishment, but found none. I didn’t bother asking if he knew of someone who had a room nearby, as we had already checked them all. I simply thanked him and turned to leave.
But as I moved to the door, he stopped me and said to wait one moment. He pulled out a directory of hotels on the street.
“Maybe I can assist you with the reservation.”
I opened my mouth to tell him not to waste his time, that no one had a vacancy. But he was already dialing a number and within seconds, speaking to another front desk.
And less than a minute later? We had a reservation at the neighboring hotel — one who only minutes before had closed its doors to us with a sad shake of the uketsuke's head and the words “no room.”
I bowed and thanked the kind uketsuke multiple times before walking outside to tell Gabriel the good news. If we hadn’t been so exhausted, we might have been livid at the previous hotel for turning us away. If I wasn’t so grimy and wanting a shower, I might have even cancelled the reservation and said “to HELLo kitty with you! I don’t want to stay somewhere I’m not wanted. I don’t want to stay somewhere with such convoluted rules, where someone cannot see we need help and help us. Where they must follow 'the system'.”
And if I hadn’t been so hungry... well, I might have caused a big, loud, American scene and demanded answers for why we were previously turned away.
But the hotel’s kitchen would soon close, and I wanted food. I also wanted to dip in the onsen before it closed for the evening. And I wanted to be in bed before midnight. The schedule of evening activities left no room to waste time at the front desk.
I was on my best behavior when as we checked in. When the uketsuke apologized and came up with some flimsy excuse to explain the now available room, I just gritted my teeth and smiled back. She told us we had a traditional Japanese-style room, as though we were very lucky and were being shown special treatment.
Once in the room, I was flabbergasted to discover the “traditional Japanese-style room” was a near replica of our own bedroom in Sapporo — six tatami, a mat to sleep on, a closet. What amazed me most was how old the room was. Previously, I was convinced we lived in the oldest building in the whole of Hokkaido. This hotel room, however, made our apartment look like new construction.
But there were two pillows, a mat, and two yukata. I wasn’t going to complain a syllable about anything else for the evening.
We slipped into the yukata and headed to dinner, which was served buffet style. I loaded up my plate with healthy servings of unhealthy mystery foods and selected a table to sit at.
As we began the meal, I decided it was almost like having dinner and a show. We always try to be adventurous and grab something new and unidentified. Watching Gabriel’s face as he finds out (often mid-bite) that something is not the texture/flavor/animal part he thought it was going to be, never ceases to amuse me.
I’m sure he feels the same, watching me experiment with my own selections.
Our stomachs full, we headed to the onsen. The uketsuke explained (“explained” being a word loosely used to describe her broken-English) that the men’s onsen and the women’s onsen switch every two hours. I prayed that when we walked in, there would be English labeling which room was which.
Fortunately, there was.
As I stripped down in the changing area, I thought back to our previous onsen experience. Knowing more of what to expect, I was actually a little excited to soak in a hot pool.
I had also conducted a little online research to ensure I was following proper onsen etiquette. Like last time, it’s appropriate to go to a washing station first. Here, you are to wash every nook n’ cranny of your body before proceeding to the pools. From what I read, many people choose not use a modesty towel during onsen. I didn’t see any in the changing rooms, and since we didn’t use them with Meg and Chris (until it came time to dry in the changing rooms), I didn’t take one with me.
Of course, as soon as I stripped down to my naked self and entered the bathing room, everyone was using one. I shrugged it off and decided to not think twice about it. I was still a bit self-conscious and didn’t need something else to worry about.
I was also dirty and freezing and knew everyone was going to stare at me, the foreigner, modesty towel or not. So why not just leave everything out there, exposed?
After bathing, I looked around at the multiple pools. Unlike the first onsen we ever visited, this hotel had multiple pools to choose from, each kept at specific temperatures. Some were nearly boiling while others were icy cold. The idea was to move from hot to cold to promote good circulation.
I decided to take a dip in the pool labeled 38º to 42º centigrade. I specifically chose that pool because no one was in it.
Within a few minutes, two Malaysian girls joined me. Although the space was large enough to fit 12 to 15 people comfortably, the girls decided to sit right beside me with our legs nearly touching.
To me, ‘onsen’ translates to ‘me time’ the same way that shower time is ‘me time’ each day at home. It’s the one time of day that I can shut out all distractions and obligations and simply relax. And it is something I fight to protect.
I stared back at the girls and a staring contest ensued. It only took about 12 seconds for me to claim victory in the battle and they looked away.
But a few minutes later, they started asking me questions about where I was from and who I was in Jozankei with. Their English was impeccable, though their accent was quite heavy.
I politely answered their questions until there was a lag in conversation. I took the opportunity to lean my head against the natural rocks that lined the pool and closed my eyes, hoping the girls would take a hint and leave.
Finally, peace and quiet.
No more than 20 seconds passed before I felt a sharp pain in the back of my head. I bolted upright and put my hand on the area where the sensation erupted from. My hair and scalp were boiling hot. I spun around, creating a wave of steaming water that spilled over the pool’s edge (an onsen etiquette no-no). I looked at the stones and noticed water trickling down — the source of the hot spring’s heat — and into the pool.
For a brief instant, I sat in horror, thinking about the possibility of burning my hair off. But after feeling all over, I breathed out a sigh of relief to find it all in its rightful place. I decided onsen time was over and migrated to the changing room to ready for bed.
Gabriel and I met up shortly after in the lobby area, where he informed me he had booked a late night appointment for foot massages.
I truly love that man.
We spent the rest of the evening in our yukata, recovering from our journey and enjoying our mini-vacation, even if it did turn out to be quite different than we anticipated.
When morning came, we dipped in the hot springs once more before packing our things for our downhill ride into Sapporo. We paused by a steaming waterfall and several shrines to capture the photos we didn’t have the energy to take during the climb the day before.
A group of elementary school children paused to take a photo with us, too. As the 9 children ran up to us, shouting “hello! Hello! How are you?” We couldn’t help but smile back.
The longer we are here, the more difficult I’m finding it to be American. Everywhere we go — restaurants, hotels, stores — I am beginning to notice we are treated differently because we are gaikokujin. Most of the time, it’s not a negative treatment we receive; just a different one.
It’s a battle we will continue to fight. I hope that one day, once we know more about the customs and culture, we can fit in more. But for now, it seems we are still learning the most fundamental parts of “the system.”
Like this post? It's an exert adapted from my book, No Ginger, set to publish in 2017. For more details, send us an email — we'd love to hear from you!