The Ochiairo in Yugashima

Quite some time ago, just as the leaves had turned a fresh green, I went with the actor Ichiro Zaitsu and five or six other friends of his on an overnight golfing trip to Yugashima on the Izu Peninsula. The hotel where we stayed was run by the golf club, but it did not have a hot spring. "I'd like to have a dip in a hot spring," said Mr. A, with whom I was sharing a room. "Don't you know anywhere, Mr. Wada?" "I do know a place," I replied. "We could use the bath there, have a massage, and then come back here. How about it?" I then got the number of the Ochiairo inn in Yugashima from the telephone inquiry service and gave them a ring. Getting the okay from the Ochiairo, we left our mountain-top club in Mr. A's BMW 700. It was about eight in the evening. The lights of dwellings glittered in the pitch darkness. As we drove down the mountain, the number of lights increased. Crossing a bridge over the sound of rapidly flowing water, we came to the hot spring resort of Yugashima.

The Ochiairo was situated on both sides of a river. It was a huge inn, exuding a dignified appearance and stately atmosphere right from the entrance. "What a magnificent place!" exclaimed Mr. A. We were taken over a bridge and shown to a Japanese-style room by the river. The sound of the rapidly flowing water was somehow comforting to the weary traveler. The wonderful outdoor bath was spacious and situated just at a point where two rapids came together.

The reason why I knew about this inn was simple -- I had seen advertisements for it before. The Ochiairo had been running advertisements in Bungei Shunju, one of my favorite magazines, for a long time. Yugashima is also famous as the stage for Yasunari Kawabata's novel Izu no odoriko (The Izu Dancer), and I had always thought that I would like to visit there someday.

Mr. A and I soaked ourselves leisurely in the bath and then had a massage, while listening to the sound of the rapids beyond the sliding door. "Borrowing a whole room and sitting on the cushions, it feels as though we are actually staying here!" I joked to an employee of the inn. To which Mr. A replied in a sleepy voice, "I don't care how much it costs to stay here. Thank you for introducing me to a really wonderful place." "There's nothing special about it really," said the employee, modestly. "Mr. A," I called. "You mustn't fall asleep. It's already 10 o'clock." But Mr. A had already dozed off, lulled to sleep by the sound of the river. It was after 11 o'clock by the time we left the inn.

On the way back, we stopped the car and gazed at the sky for a while. The stars were shining brightly. An early summer breeze was blowing. We were both deeply impressed by the sight of so many stars. It made me think of the starry sky above my hometown.

In May 2002 the Ochiairo received protection under the Civil Rehabilitation Law with debts of \1 billion, and Suruga Bank entrusted its reconstruction to a couple named Nobuo and Itsuko Murakami. That became quite a topic at the time, because the Murakamis were only in their later thirties. Under their management, however, the Ochiairo steadily bore the fruits of reconstruction. Rather than simple lodging and healing waters, their concept was to create a place where people could interchange with one another in a homelike atmosphere. The proprietress and staff played the role of house sitters, greeting guests with a warm "Welcome back!" when they returned to the inn. They switched the dinner to kaiseki cuisine, introduced block reservations for outdoor bath use, and generally made the interior more attractive so that guests could really feel relaxed there.

As a result, the circle of the Ochiairo's guests has steadily widened, and group use has increased. When I read about these developments in a magazine article, I was reminded of my short stay there with Mr. A and wished that we could again enjoy a leisurely chat together in that room. Incidentally, the Ochiairo was founded in 1874 and so named by the well-known swordsman Yamaoka Tesshu (1836 - 88). Its entrance, stairs, and guest rooms are registered cultural properties of the nation.