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A fortunate life among hot springs

by Judit Kawaguchi

Kazuhiro Shiraishi, 66, is a guest-house manager in the Izu-kogen Highlands, a famous resort area on the Izu Peninsula of Shizuoka Prefecture. Looking out onto the Pacific Ocean, and just 90 minutes by train from Tokyo, Izu has a warm climate all year round and a gorgeous coastline dotted with open-air hot springs. Shiraishi has been working for Izu’s hotels and ryokan (traditional guest houses) since age 22, and few can beat his knowledge of the region. Always full of enthusiasm to share the beauty of the area, he enjoys taking visitors to scenic spots where the prettiest flowers happen to be in full bloom.

The beauty of living in Izu is being able to visit a different hot spring every day. Yesterday I was sitting in a rotenburo (outdoor bath) that is actually in the ocean, but still has hot spring water. How magical is that? We have many of these types of hot springs on the coast. A few days ago, I drove up a mountain and soaked in a hot spring set on the side of the stream. There were huge trees around me and birds chirping.

Spending a night in Tokyo doesn’t need to be expensive. I enjoy staying at a manga kissa (manga cafe) when I go to Tokyo. These cafes allow people to read comics all night, but we can also take a nap if we want to. They are the best spots to discover new things; to see what young people are interested in now. Plus they are cheaper than a hotel and more fun. They even have showers!

Stinky sewers can raise lovely flowers. My father used to build sewers and install home toilets. It was a very profitable business and I was supposed to follow in his steps. But instead of the sewers, I wanted to work in a fancy hotel as a front-desk man. The first hotel I interviewed for hired me on the spot. I was so happy! My life has been wonderful, but despite all the fun of hotels, I must admit that I could have made much more money in my dad’s business. Money is not everything, but as I age, I realize that it is very important. Sometimes I wish I had followed in my father’s footsteps — even if he was walking in poop. With all his money, we could afford really great boots.

When you meet all kinds of people at an early age, you soon feel comfortable with anyone. My childhood home was always full of people. My mother taught Japanese dance and we often had about 40 students hanging around. Add to that the tattooed sewer workers, and you can imagine what a fun atmosphere it was. I think my love for people was established there and then.

Stay young at heart and the world becomes a more fun place to live in. “Look! Airplane!” I belt that out whenever I see one. I get the same feeling of excitement as I did when I was a boy. Each day is full of such small happy moments: “Look! A flower! Wow! The neighbor!”

When something is free, it can still make a lot of money. Almost 60 years ago a mikan (tangerine) farmer planted some cherry trees in the city of Kawazu, here in Izu. The flowers of the trees were particularly large and pink, and they bloomed earlier and lasted longer than in other areas. Soon everyone in Kawazu took cuttings from this farmer’s trees and they began planting them around the city. Today we have 8,000 Kawazu-zakura trees that bloom in February for one month, and about one million visitors flock to this small town to enjoy the scenery. Of course, hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) is free of charge, but since people stay overnight in the area, the activity really turned the town around.

In Japan, people owe their good luck to others, but misfortune is their fault alone. When things go well for us we assume it is thanks to others, not because of our own ability or hard work. But when it comes to misfortune, which could be a car accident, it is our fault, even if the accident is caused by the other party. I guess this is a good way to keep on friendly terms with everyone.

Young or old, we Japanese love manga and anime. I’m a huge “Evangelion” fan. I also love the visual-kei rock band Golden Bomber — they do a mean air-guitar show. It’s so cool. So is [erotic celebrity] Mitsu Dan; she really rocks. These young kids do what I wanted to do, so it’s fun cheering them on.

We Japanese are shy about using culture to make a profit. Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese novelist who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, wrote his short story “The Dancing Girl of Izu” in this area. But you would never be aware of this fact while traveling around Izu. We have a statue of the main characters in his story, but not much more information.

Every day is a chance to be reborn and enjoy life. Again and again. Every morning I wake up, and like a baby, I’m happy to be in this world. I don’t feel old. I’m ready to grow up, but somehow at night, I’m still a kid. If I have to be serious for a minute, though, I’d say I hope I’ll wisen up and become a man who can make better choices.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan.” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com. Twitter: @judittokyo

  • Adria Banks

    I love this man’s wisdom and his young spirit. May he continue his joyful life for many more years to come.

  • Kevin Boyle

    Now I *must* stay at whatever Onsen this man works at. His attitude fills me with joy.