I spend my first day in Hokkaido sweating with strangers.
Although, honestly, I am already sweating when I arrive. The flight lands in a rainstorm of mist and scattered drip-drops on pavement so that my first glance of Japan’s northern island looks just like a Japanese watercolor—mountains in the mist—and I half-expect a vertical line of black-brush calligraphy to appear through the oval airplane window with some gentle haiku.
But there is no poem, only the plane at the next gate, decorated with a yellow Pokemon, smiling his cartoon grin.
I am meeting the friend of a friend of a friend. I suspect this is how so much travel occurs in Japan. The Japanese know that we are helpless in their country, but they always know someone somewhere who will be there for us. For the last month, my friends and the friends of friends have prepped me for Japan, as if Japan was a kind of impossible exam. Before traveling here, my friend of a friend Daisuke instructed me wisely: “Japan is bathing and eating—eating and bathing. That is all, really.”
And sweating, too, I think to add, wide-eyed in Hokkaido pulling at my soaked collar. I am embarrassed by the wet patches of sweat on my shirt as I greet Mr. Sakae Ishida, or Ishida-san. Our airport meeting is the culmination of so many e-mails and phone calls across the ocean, the last one to me, asking, “How will Sakae know who you are?”
I am the sweaty white man who is two feet taller than everyone else. Sure enough, upon arriving, I am the only one fitting that description.
Sakae loves The Carpenters and as we drive through a wet and windy forest, we listen to “Rainy Days and Mondays”. Today is Friday, but the day is rainy. The music plays and we smile and nod and fail to speak, both of us lacking one another’s words.
But that’s not true, entirely. I have one word, and I am holding on to it like a desperate last bullet in a cold metal pistol. This one Japanese word is a recent gift from another friend, Don George—a writer who truly knows Japan—has lived in this country, studied it and written about it. He sends me a tweet-sized vocabulary lesson via Twitter, as I am riding through Hokkaido and he is going to sleep in California:
“Subarashii,” he reveals: Wonderful.
Subarashii, subarashii, subarashii. I commit the word to memory, but I am saving it for the time being, afraid to reveal that I am really like a child’s talking toy—pull the string and only one of three phrases will come out in a kind of electronic stutter: Thank You. Wonderful. Goodbye.
Sakae takes me to his favorite onsen, or Japanese hot springs, at the edge of misty, charcoal-colored Lake Shikotsuko. White wisps of cloud ride over the water, first revealing then hiding the black triangle mountains.
This onsen is BYOT (Bring your own towel) but Sakae has thought of this and hands me a small beige towel that he has brought from home. It is a very small towel, about the size of a child-size Kleenex.
We strip and everything on my person goes into a big box—my belt, passport, wallet, all those jingling Japanese coins with holes in the middle, then my shirt and pants—all these things that equip me to survive in Japan. As I un-accessorize and undress, I am feeling more and more helpless . . . and then I am feeling quite naked.
At the edge of the onsen, Sakae shows me how to place the folded towel on top of my head. Actually, I can think of other places to put the towel but I follow his example, plop the towel atop my head like a hat, then close my eyes and enter.
I drop one foot into the hot water, then another, and take a stride that drops me fully into the spring. The natural warmth melts into my bones and suddenly, the busy laptop of my mind switches off.
At the edge of the rock pool is a paper Japanese lantern, glowing yellow through the very gentle rain. The light shines on the white bodies of men, some with their backs turned, some with only their heads floating on the surface, miniature towels on top of their heads.
Once again, I have happened upon Japan’s separate and sacred world—a world without clothing or speaking. There is true silence here—the only sound is the gentle lapping of hot water against slow-breathing humans.
These languid hours spent soaking are my first relaxed moments in Japan. I feel so calm—the rain becomes less of a drag and now feels completing. Tiny drops from the sky cool my head. Black, lake-worn pebbles roll beneath my toes.
Sakae checks to see if I am all right. I am all right.
“Subarashii,” I mutter. Wonderful.
As I lay suspended in the earth’s warmth, I remember how the day before I bought my lunch from a talking machine. And the day before that, an elevator wished me good morning in three languages. Japan is a country of a million devices and accessories—and yet, this most Japanese act of bathing requires no accessory. All you need is a towel.
In the end, my baby towel gets quite soaked but I follow Sakae’s show of wringing it out and then wiping away the water from my skin. I never achieve dryness—I merely begin to sweat some more before pasting my clothing back onto my pink-scrubbed body.
On our drive to Sapporo, I learn the word for rain: amé. Sakae shows me the kanji character on my phone, which is four slashes of rain falling at an angle inside three pillars of sky. The written word for rain actually looks like watching rain through a window. Ten minutes later, I recognize the character on an electronic billboard broadcasting the weather to drivers. I say it aloud, “Amé” and Sakae nods yes. I have just read my first Japanese kanji.
I discover that Sakae speaks more English than he lets on. In just a few hours, the formality of strangers has disappeared and we are quite open with one another—how can any apprehension remain after an afternoon spent naked, sweating in the rain?
“Now we eat ramen,” Sakae reveals, in fine English.
This is what Sakae does—he makes ramen. Not the dried packets microwaved at midnight by college students—no. Sakae works at a ramen factory in Sapporo where he produces more than 100,000 packages of fresh ramen a day. In fact, Sapporo is the birthplace of ramen and I soon discover that they take their noodles very seriously up here. Ramen is an art, a passion, a big piece of Sapporo culture, and at the end of the day, a meal for one.
I too, was a college student living off of ramen in a hopeless cinder-block dorm room. Back then, I stared at the label with its strange Japanese writing and laughed at the disparity between the elaborate airbrushed serving suggestion on the packet and my own ramen reality: grey noodles swimming in a Tupperware bowl. So many years later, I come to discover that the serving suggestion on those many ramen packets is not a myth. Real ramen exists, in Sapporo.
Sakae takes me to Higuma, where a ramen master makes ramen masterfully. It is something I notice about this country—there is no dabbling in Japan—no half-attempts or playing at something for the thrill of it. Whatever one pursues becomes a life pursuit—there is a kind of dedication towards perfection that I have failed to witness anywhere else in the world. Whatever it is—growing perfectly spherical melons with evenly-distributed ripeness or playing a piano sonata—the goal is to master. And at Higuma, I meet this man who has mastered ramen: Takada-san.
We shake hands over a wok of boiling water. The steam hits me in the face and once again, I begin to sweat. Mr. Takada works quickly in an open kitchen, surrounded by a square bar and stools for the night’s patrons—mostly Sapporo businessmen. Like so much Japanese eating (sushi, teppanyaki), the food is crafted before your eyes and then set down in front of you. There is no backstage in Japanese cooking.
Mr. Takada’s uses Sakae’s noodles to make his ramen—they look fresh and squiggly as he plops a portion into the boiling water and prepares my bowl. Real ramen is cooked one serving at a time, always. Even at a busy ramen restaurant like this, each dish is prepared uniquely and with its own dish. The sauce (or soup) is mixed in a separate pot that broadcasts the smell of each new ingredient—my nose keeps track: miso, broth, sesame, seaweed . . .
The finished bowl of ramen stares up at me, a mountain of noodles in a swirling sea of golden yellow miso; a forest of bamboo shoots next to minced pork beneath crispy fresh bean sprouts. A ceramic spoon floats at the edge but I dive in with wooden chopsticks while Sakae slurps up his ramen using both utensils at once.
The ramen tastes surprisingly rich—swimming in thick, creamy miso with lots of nutty goodness and at the heart of the soup, the great reward of yellow noodles. After a few hot gulps, I see that my college education was filled with lies about ramen. Only in Sapporo do I see the truth—that ramen is both simple and sophisticated, superbly delicious and fancy yet prepared on a stove in under five minutes.
I eat my amazing bowl of ramen in about the same time, then follow Sake’s lead by tipping my nearly-empty bowl to my lips and slurping down the salty soup and all the noodle remnants it contains. I’m smiling with my chin dripping—my chin, my face and suddenly my forehead. Once again, my shirt is damp and I realize that the ramen is making me sweat, too. I feel like I’m sweating from the outside in. Ramen is a warming dish and I am now rather warm on the insides. I am red-faced and sweating in exactly the same way that I was sweating back at the hot spring.
How do I like the ramen? Takada-san wonders.
“Subarashii” I answer, so sincerely.
I employ the word that Don George has sent me from across the sea and hand it to this friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. A world wide web of friends all connecting for me over a bowl of soup in Hokkaido.
There are not enough crisp folded napkins to wipe away the sweat that is running down my face. The glasses of ice water poured for me are very refreshing, but in the end, they make me sweat more. It is a good sweat though—the sweat of fulfillment.
My first bowl of real ramen reduces me to a nervous teenager, all sweaty and awkward and bashful and bowing thank you, thank you.
Goodbye is slow in Japan. It has to be plural—good byes—because no one ever seems to say it just once. Sakae and I begin our thankful goodbyes at the ramen bar, but this lasts for fifteen minutes. In Asia, I think, slow and reluctant goodbyes are true goodbyes. Finally we are rising up from out stools again, thanking once, twice, and bowing before stopping again at the door. More conversation followed by more silence among men—the same silence I felt in the baths—nods all around, an acknowledgement of what has been shared. Then finally, the bowing begins: bow, bow, bow. Keep turning, bowing, walking backwards, then sideways, bow, bow, open car door, bow, bow, sit inside the car, keep bowing, bowing.
Sakae drives me to my hotel. Our goodbye is quite short because I will see him in the morning. He will take me to his factory and show me how ramen is really made. I want to thank him properly—for all that he has shared with me—most of all for this valuable weekday time he has spent with a stranger. But I have no words—only my unaccustomed bowing and wordless smiles.
Outside it is still raining but I stand outside while this friend of a friend of a friend drives away.
And I am still sweating.