The ‘onsen’ retreat that transformed Natsume Soseki

by

Special To The Japan Times

Shuzenji, an onsen (hot-spring) town in the heart of the Izu Peninsula, is a little piece of heaven. Nestled in the densely wooded hills of Shizuoka Prefecture, its collection of baths, guesthouses and shops line up on either side of the rushing Katsura River, with historic temples, shrines and bamboo groves in the surrounding forests.

At the very center of town, almost in the river itself, is a tiny open-air foot bath called Dokko no yu. It is said to have been created by Buddhist priest Kukai (774-835) and is supposedly the oldest hot-spring bath on the peninsula. A few minutes walk away is the grave of the second shogun of the Kamakura shogunate, Minamoto no Yoriie, who was murdered while bathing in 1204 at the age of 19 on his uncle’s orders. Also nearby are the graves of Yoriie’s 13 loyal retainers who rose in rebellion shortly thereafter but were, unfortunately, executed for their troubles.

Shuzenji’s splendid natural surroundings and distinguished history make it easy for visitors to miss the town’s significance to Japanese literature. It was here, in 1910, that an event occurred that was a turning point in the life of Japan’s greatest modern novelist, Natsume Soseki.

In June 1910, as Soseki was finishing his masterpiece, “The Gate,” he began to suffer from serious stomach problems — a complaint that had afflicted him for many years. He was admitted for treatment at a specialist Tokyo hospital, but he left when a young haiku poet friend, Toyojo Matsune, suggested he travel with him to convalesce in the spa town of Shuzenji.

Soseki checked into what was —and still is — the swankiest address in town: the Kikuya ryokan (traditional inn). But rather than recuperating, his health steadily deteriorated, causing a series of doctors and family members to travel from Tokyo to look after him. Finally, after 18 days in Shuzenji, Soseki suffered a massive, near fatal stomach hemorrhage in the Kikuya, which caused him to vomit over half a kilo of blood. In the days that followed, he teetered on the brink of death — the event is referred to by scholars as “Shuzenji no taikan” (the “collapse at Shuzenji”). He survived, but passed away prematurely six years later at the age of 49. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his death.

Soseki’s writing career spanned a mere 12 years, but he managed to produce the greatest collection of novels, short stories, essays and memoirs the Japanese language has ever seen, inspiring several hundred books of critical analysis and selling tens of millions of copies around the world.

The “collapse at Shuzenji’ stands at the midway point of that astonishingly prolific period. Soseki’s survival meant that this most precious of literary careers was pulled back from the point of oblivion and given a second act — one that was as equally productive as his first six years, and during which he wrote works such as “Higan Sugi Made” (“To The Spring Equinox and Beyond”), “Kojin” (“The Wayfarer”) and “Kokoro.” The key question is: how did the “collapse” affect the rest of Soseki’s writing career?

The Kikuya in Shuzenji has by no means forgotten the most famous incident in its history. As Japan held its breath in 1910, wondering if its revered author would live or die in the hills of Shuzenji, a crowd of Soseki’s devoted followers began to descend on the town — philosophers, writers and scientists, collectively known as “Soseki Sanmyaku” (“Soseki’s Mountain Range”). Upon hearing their master was on the brink of death, these young men flocked to Shuzenji to attend to him.

The Kikuya is a traditional two-story timber construction that fans out with wings leading to various gardens, restaurants and open-air baths. On his first night at the inn, Soseki stayed in what was then the annex, in the luxurious Ume no Ma (Plum Room), which you can still stay in today. He then moved to a less salubrious room in the main building, with his attendants eventually taking over numerous rooms nearby. Today, the central lounge of the hotel is known as “Soseki no Iori” (“Soseki’s Retreat”) and is adorned with various period memorabilia. Throughout the hotel are displays recounting the details of the “collapse.”

The hotel’s account of how the illness affected Soseki’s literary career is apocryphal. The romantic story offered is that his near-death experience led Soseki to a serene state of mind in his final year known as sokuten kyoshi (roughly, “follow heaven and leave the self”), a cryptic phrase that Soseki muttered to his disciples but never actually wrote down.

How the “Collapse at Shuzenji” actually affected Soseki is more subtle, but no less fascinating. A warm and inspirational teacher, Soseki was also notoriously high-strung and ferociously intellectual, with a punishing work schedule. His creative energy had long been fueled by the almost intolerable stresses placed upon him, first by scholarship and teaching, then by newspaper work, constantly pushing him toward a point of nervous breakdown.

Soseki’s tour-de-force is the trilogy of novels he penned before arriving at Shuzenji in 1910: “Sanshiro,” “Sorekara” (“And Then”) and “Mon” (“The Gate”). “Sanshiro” probes the interconnection of literature and painting; “And Then” contemplates narcissistic consciousness; “The Gate” is an empathetic portrayal of character dovetailing with Nietzschean and Zen thought. In that final part of the trilogy, Soseki invokes the idea of an adventurer on the loose in Manchuria who terrorizes the thoughts of an old friend in Tokyo, forcing the latter to test himself with the great adventure of studying Zen.

The year before Soseki visited Shuzenji, 1909, he was at his most expansive, confident and physically capable, setting off on a grand tour of Manchuria, Japan’s newly acquired colonial foothold after the nation’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War. But in 1910, he was close to death in a tatami-mat room in the Kikuya. Two thoughts assailed him: first, in contrast to the agonies of the body, Soseki was struck by the surprising spiritual calm that illness and recuperation afforded him; second, he found himself deeply grateful for the outpouring of affection displayed by his family, friends and young disciples.

In October 1910, after more than two months in his sick room at the Kikuya, Soseki was finally able to return to a hospital in Tokyo: it would be another five months after that before he was able to return home. During this time he penned “Remembrances” (“Omoidasu Koto Nado”) and described his near-death experience.

At the Kikuya, Soseki’s world had suddenly shrunk to the barest essentials and it’s significant that when he resumed his novel writing career with “Higan Sugi Made” (“To the Spring Equinox and Beyond”) in 1912, he turned many of the ideas of “The Gate” on their head, satirically introducing an “adventurer” called Morimoto whom he quickly reveals to be a worthless charlatan and packs off to Manchuria. Instead of looking toward the grand stages of Manchuria and Zen temples, Soseki directed his vision inward, declaring the greatest adventure of all to be the exploration of the human heart.

He never stopped being a hard-boiled intellectual with a mercilessly ironic vision — and he never stayed still. As he had done since the beginning of his writing career, he constantly challenged the ideas expressed in each proceeding novel. His writing career evolved in an unremitting, dialectical fashion. The “collapse at Shuzenji” was a formative moment for Soseki; occurring at the very center of his career, it refocused his attention on the depths of the human psyche.

If you fancy a pleasant escape from Tokyo, with hot springs, rambling wooded hills and history, head to Shuzenji. But if you want to see something more, take along Soseki’s “The Gate” and “To The Spring Equinox and Beyond” and, in their subtle shifts of focus, trace one of the great fault lines of modern Japanese literature.

Shuzenji is roughly a 100-minute train ride from Tokyo. Soseki’s original sick room from the Kikuya is preserved at the Natsume Soseki Museum in Niji no Sato Park, a 20-minute bus ride from Shuzenji Station. For more information about the Kikuya, visit www.hotespa.net/hotels/kikuya. Damian Flanagan is the author of “The Natsume Soseki the Japanese Don’t Know” and “Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature,” both in Japanese.