It's worse than Thanksgiving. Not wanting to offend Yuko, but also bowing to necessity, I apply a kind of triage to the banquet, concentrating on that which I know (the fish, meat, and soups), experimenting with the vaguely familiar (the patties), and shunning those which have long offended my palate (tofu and pickled things). The dinner is magnificent and at the same time devastating. Two full hours pass before an elderly fellow enters the room and assembles a bed on the tatami mats while Yuko drifts off with the platters. I crawl across the mats and fold myself into the sheets like a well-scrubbed, pink beached whale.
At seven the next morning, I again take my place among the naked. Somehow autumn intensified while I slept: The leaves are a deep rust, and wood smoke is in the air. Maybe a dozen other bathers have beat me to the hot springs. Although I take pains not to stare, I'm still struck by how mythic everyone looks in their serene poses, each steam dweller a shiny haiku. Whatever is in the weak alkaline natural springs, my skin feels practically preadolescent. Rising up from the water in slow motion, like some prehistoric sea monster, I realize, improbably, that I'm dying of hunger.
Breakfast is served in a public room downstairs. The dozen or so other ryokan guests are already working at their hibachis. A couple of them are drinking Kirin beers. I stick with green tea. Some fine dishes materialize - fresh-baked bread, corn soup, hibachi-grilled sausage, yogurt - along with others of the more esoteric, pickled variety. An American couple sits next to me. Starved for English, I ask them if they're staying the entire weekend.
"Are you kidding?" the guy says. "I'd gain 400 pounds!"
I should say something about the noise at the Takaragawa onsen: There is none. After breakfast, Bunzan takes on an encompassing silence, and its guests drift off for baths, day strolls, and … more baths. In my tatami room, I start pacing a little. By the second afternoon, the quietude - which I know is supposed to confer on me a greater spirituality, blah, blah, blah - is driving me a little nuts. So I board the noon bus and head back to the little town of Minakami, where I spend the afternoon shuffling through the gift shops, studying the sake bottles, and wondering what Yuko will bring me for dinner. Still and all, my restlessness isn't what it was. I'm walking at a medicated pace, sucking in the mountain air … and I find I can't wait to get back into the water again.
That evening, Yuko arrives at my door bearing unfamiliar fare. Valiantly she tries to translate: "This is river bird. This is tree potato. This is bear soup." Like the dispensers outdoors that offer the beverages Kopari Sweat and Blendy, and the shampoo in my bathroom with the label Fresty, I accept that there will always be an element of mystery to Japan. The meal, like all others at Bunzan, is delicious and overabundant. I contemplate an evening bath. If only I could stand.
The next morning, the helpful lady at the front desk advises me, through a series of painstaking gesticulations, to take the 9:50 a.m. bus to the train station and requests that I pay her in cash at 9:30. As I do so, Yuko appears with my shoes, which have been stored away in a closet all this time. Amid much bowing and stammering of thanks, I step outside of Bunzan and stand by the curb. Just before the bus arrives, the clerk bustles out with a bag of crackers for me. A minute later, she returns with a bag of oversize yellow apples. Thank God the bus pulls up just then, before she can hand me a gallon of bear soup. The clerk and Yuko stand on the curb and wave as the bus conveys me to wherever it is I came from to do whatever it is that I do. For at least a little while longer, I'm slow and I'm clean and I'm content to be just that.