East lies down with West in hotel room


Western-style hotels in Japan are a curious mix of East and West, leaving people feeling like their body has been pulled all the way to the East and back to the West several times.

When you walk into a hotel room, everything seems Western. There’s even a Bible in the desk drawer. Then you spy the slippers and the “yukata.” The bathroom has a deep, Japanese-style bath.

Anyone who takes Japanese baths knows that a deep soak in hot water is the fastest way to total body relaxation — and incapacity. After the bath, you sit on the bed in your yukata. The mind would like to go over and get the remote control for the TV, but the body says: “No way. We’re staying right here. I’m relaaaxing.” You look around the room for something else to do — something closer.

“C’mon body, let’s just lean over there to get that magazine.”

“Nooo, we won’t,” says the body. “We’re staying right here.” You consider calling room service to do it for you.

Unless you have someone to carry you around on a stretcher, there’s really no point planning on moving anywhere after having taken a hot Japanese bath. The problem was it was only 8 p.m. And, I’d had an espresso coffee at the Italian restaurant downstairs after dinner. East and West were definitely clashing.

So there I sat on the bed, my body limp, ready to pass into the underworld, while ideas hopped around in my mind with great speed, most of them involving climbing Mount Everest or driving the Indy 500. Helpless, I lay down. Crunch — ouch! What’s this? The new “sobagara makura”!

A sobagara makura is the old type of Japanese pillow filled with buckwheat husks. They did away with these pillows 50 years ago in favor of something that wouldn’t give people headaches. But it seems the sobagara makura has made a comeback — with hard plastic beads inside. The consistency is like gravel.

In the West, we have the image that a mattress or pillow should be so comfortable you feel like you’re floating on a cloud. Maybe in Japan, since they’re used to sleeping on futons on the floor, this pillow is supposed to make you feel like you’re getting back to your roots — sleeping on the ground.

These pillows aren’t all that uncomfortable, really, but they are loud! Especially if your ears are still awake from espresso. Every time I turned over, the beads would crunch like gravel under the newly distributed weight. With my mind racing like the Indy 500, a little tire-on-gravel sound effects couldn’t hurt, though.

The next problem was that my eyes were still awake from the espresso. Even when your eyes are closed, they still see, because your pupils are not closed — just your eyelids are. So your pupils are looking at the inside of your eyelids. That’s what all those little dots are you see when you close your eyes. Which makes me wonder why we can’t have Monet paintings tattooed to the insides of our eyelids so we’d have something nice to look at while we fall to sleep. Or in my case, the finishing line of the Indy 500.

I woke up several times during the night to the sound of burning rubber and flying gravel, but I’m pretty sure I won the Indy 500 at around 5 a.m., when I woke up. The body was very rested, but the mind was exhausted.

No problem. All I needed was some coffee — even the instant kind offered in all Western hotel rooms would be fine. However, there was none. Just uncaffeinated green tea. The East had finally won.