And the Universe and Music Formed Their Perfect Double Helix

Tuesday, July 23: Bangkok

I was thrilled this morning when it rained during my search for a Bangkok breakfast.  Totally confused, too, because I thought I had slept until 10ish and then lolled around in bed until noon.  Why wasn’t anything open?  When I finally found a 24 hour spot that served me prawns and green curry with a host of other stuff- including spices that forced tears to flow freely- I was disoriented (orient joke) to learn that it was just after 8 a.m.

I hurried home happily- home is a comfortable hotel with pleasant orange walls and plumbing that can be heard for miles- because it was raining and I felt sort of sickish.  Whether from breakfast, anti-malarials, or somebody slipping me a Mexican mickey, I will not be venturing far from my bed today.  This is excellent, because I didn’t really want to, and now I feel I have some valid excuses.

Though I’ve neglected, recently, to post my adventures, I’ve been keeping copious notes until my Internet reunion.  This next section dates from last Saturday, July 20:

I was on my third train and rural, surrounded by the crushing beauty of mountains in magic hour light.  The valley was neighborhood farmland.  Distinctive Japanese roofing topped houses in various stages of distress, and distinctive Japanese hatting protected similarly aging farmers, though they tended to their small fields with grace.  There were orchards, rice fields, exotic hangings I couldn’t identify… grapes?  Perhaps.  The trees reflected a local Miyagi’s touch; they were low, with a myriad of wide-reaching, crooked branches.
The wretched, slashing and ubiquitous electrical lines asynchronously scarred the face of nature’s primitive beauty.

It was bloody fantastic and I was so excited to see the monkeys!  I chewed on my wasabi fish jerky and anxiously awaited the train’s terminus.

My plans were to stay at a Japanese ryokan, which is a traditional inn with tatami mats and a sleeping pad placed on the floor.  It turned out to be much like the one in Nikko, except the bathroom was so small the toilet was placed diagonally.


The proprietor kindly offered to gather me at the station, a relief after four hours of travel to an unfamiliar land.

The first thing he said was that he needed to go to the convenience store.

“Sorry!  So sorry!” he exclaimed when he climbed back into the van, “Japanese businessman companion party at ryokan!  Must supplies.  Drinking party, ha ha ha!  Karaoke!”

This sounded like top-tier interesting to me, so I angled for an invitation.
“Wow, that sounds really great- I would love to do something like that.”

Him: “hahaha!”

I didn’t get the go-ahead, but he wasn’t kidding about the soiree.  Hot, heavily made-up “companions” in very short business suits and very high heels were in the lobby as we arrived, and as he checked me in and took my picture and offered me a bath, I heard the raucous glory of accented karaoke and drunken bellowing.

I knew then it’d be a hell of an experience.

The bath was an onsen, which is a small pool fed by volcanically initiated hot springs that apparently persist throughout the country.  The onsen in Yamanouchi were actually what brought me here.  Kim had highly recommended the experience, the Japanese have historically found that people forge strong bonds in communal naked cleanliness, and the macaques at Jigokudani Monkey Park- located at the top of Yamanouchi, flippin’ love it.

Win win win win win win win win win win win win win win win.

Turns out at this particular ryokan, the bath was an outdoor one fed by the hottest of springs, and I could have it privately at sunset for an hour.  Would I like that, yes?  You bet!  Drunken, singing, companioned-up businessmen are a riot to hear, but I didn’t need to be prancing around all nekkidly with them.  I rushed up to my room to pre-shower, because you’re not supposed to enter the baths without thoroughly cleansing yourself first.

After wrapping myself in nothing but the yukata left for me, I slipped downstairs barefoot but with my camera.  Shimaya-san directed me to some funny wooden sandals that had rolly bottoms, and I clomped as gracefully as I could after him outside and down the mountain road.  We arrived at the onsen and he left me to this:

I used to think coastal sunsets, Round Pond ones, were the most beautiful, but I do believe the mountains have won.  The solar invasion of crags, peaks and passes present too much vastness and mystery to behold dispassionately, and it’s easy to see why people yearn for a godly interpretation. It was like staring simultaneously into endless ocean and devastating fire, and the experience of doing so in open air, without any threads of cover, and in the natural hot springs of the mountains of a volcanic archipelago…

It blew my mind a little.  I starbathed.  I shared my night with bats and baths and dreams.

It’s something I would like every person in the whole world to experience, and something I never want to do again, because I’m afraid the golden memories could only be tarnished by attempted repetition.

Plus, then I got hungry, and it all went downhill.

My most noble of intentions were to grab a quick bite and go directly to bed so I could wake up early to see the monkeys.  My nighttime stroll-quest, however, led me toward the sounds of another karaoke place, one in which I thought I’d be welcome.  I opened the door.

Boom.  No.  Not welcome, and at my “um, food?  Noodle?” request, they ushered me next door to the fateful Thai place, also set up for karaoke, that looked like this:

I was the only patron but decided I would happily sing for the cook if given the chance.  I ordered some shrimp pad thai and whiskey-on-a-whim and settled back to soak in some atmosphere.

I’d heard that the Japanese loved them some John Denver, but had chalked it up to a stereotype until that dinner.  The swoony croonings next door were surely some Johnny D, and this was like the seventh time I’d heard him out of very few total experiences with American music.  (Exception: the elevator version of Taio Cruz that played every time I went to the grocery store.) I decided to buy into the stereotype.

The food arrived as I realized that the onsen must have completely reset my metabolism; I’d only had half a drink and was turning woozy and crass.  Earlier I’d been pretending I was British and getting all, “I shall require sustenance upon awakening!  See that my breakfast is served promptly at 8 on the morrow!” and now I was more, “hell yeah!  Dangly noodle foods!”

The cook brokenly informed me that the tiny shrimplets I thought were slivers of pepper had been dried and were used as salt, and even though I wanted the meal to be delicious, it was overall and by far the most boring thing in the room.

I dove in anyway, but after I saw the cook bobbing to the karaoke screen, I asked him to sing, so he turned off the system and pulled out a guitar.  Our languages were vocabularily mutually exclusive, but we understood each other in guitguage.  I asked for another drink, and he gave me the bottle and bade me pour my own.

“It’s been a month,” I thought, “and I just got home!”  All it took was some whiskey, a guitar, and someone who loved it.

Shoot, all I needed was a prayer, a pickup, and some misplaced patriotism and I’d have myself some country gold.

I was thinking all kinds of happy thoughts while he looked up songs and muttered chord progressions in an alphabet I understood.  The universe and music formed their perfect double helix and I wish I’d paid better attention to the levels of the bottle…

I woke up, and wanted to die.  Monkeys?  Forget it.  Sleep.

Called to breakfast, as I’d asked.  Sip of soup?  Forget it.  Sleep.

It was almost noon before Shimaya-san tried again, and I dragged myself off the floor growling obscenities at the person I used to be.

ADDENDUM: it’s been three days, and I’m still in detox.  I’m in Bangkok for crying out loud, and don’t want to touch the stuff!  Let.  That.  Be.  A.  Lesson.

Next entry: monkeys for sure.


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