Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mud, Onsen, Shrine and X-Files (a story of one weekend)

As promised, here’s a story of what I did last weekend. Warning! It’s a bit long :)

A few months ago, back in the United States, my Japanese friend introduced me to her American friend who used to live in Hokkaido. We met over for sushi and she told me her story about how she ended up in Hokkaido, how she met her husband and later moved back to US. Since Hokkaido was her permanent place in Japan, she felt very strongly about it and had many references. One of the references was an American man and his Japanese wife who are building an echo house nearby Sapporo. I contacted Toby and Maiko and offered my help building the house. Not having any experience, I knew I couldn’t do much but I thought in situations like this, any help would count; I was right and he accepted my offer.

I set off for Higashikawa (3 hours away from Sapporo) early Saturday morning. The air was a little chilly but the sky was clear.

Sadly, within few hours, the weather decided to change its course and by the time I got to my destination, it was raining. Poorly following Toby’s directions I got off at the wrong stop and wondered through town in search of the echo house. The house was nowhere in sight. Soaked and desperate, I begged a local for his phone. Finally, getting a hold of Toby, I made it to the house.

I was about 2.5 hours late and everyone was already hard at work. Without knowing what to expect, I wore jeans, long sleeved shirt and new sneakers. Soon I found out that the weekend was dedicated to plastering the straw-bale filled walls with mud. No problem, I thought to myself, until I realized that I didn’t bring any change of clothes. But I was determined to help and quickly got to work.

My wall-plastering buddies turned out to be: an American couple, who live in Hokkaido with their 4 children and are currently fighting Japanese system to adopt a Japanese boy; a Canadian teacher, who ran a whole school in her home town but was sent to Hokkaido against her best wishes to fulfill obligation of a sister-town; a hot New-Zealander whose story I didn’t get to hear but marveled at his accent and skill to make super delicious wieners (hotdogs) on a grill; an American teacher who aspires to open his own brewery in Hokkaido; Maiko’s parents, who despite their age were eager to help as much as possible; her brother and a few other Japanese.
The man who was running the show, a professional straw-bale house builder AND a professional juggler, was Stefan Bell. Under his vigilant guidance accompanied by a welcoming comic relief, the walls were slowly taking shape.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted. My hands, wrists, back and legs were aching badly. I was dirty head to toe. But I was extremely happy. I met incredible people who all had remarkable stories. In a few hours that we worked together, we bounded. I felt like I gained new friends. It was an amazing feeling.

Toby and Maiko

Since I wanted to work on both days of the weekend, Toby and Maiko offered their place to stay overnight. And oh boy did they have a treat for me!

Exhausted, dirty and aching, Toby, Maiko, Stefan and I drove to a nearby onsen. Onsen is a bath-house built around a natural hot spring. Some fancy onsens make their accommodations into spas and hotels. This one was similar. The onsen ritual is quite unique. The women and men sections are separated to keep privacy at maximum.

At the entrance of the women’s section was a locker room where we got completely undressed and were able to leave our clothes in lockers. The next room was a wash room. It was divided into 2 sections. First section was a long row of seating showers where we sat on small chairs and cleaned the mud away, washing thoroughly our hair and bodies.

The second section contained three pools with hot spring’s water: a cold plunge pool, a warm jacuzzi and a large hot pool. Most kids where hanging in the pool.

The next room contained a sizzling sauna which led the path outside where we finally rested in the pool of hot spring. No words would do justice to the feeling I sensed at the moment my skin felt the hot water. Hot springs are believed to have healing powers due to their natural high mineral content. I knew my body was thanking me with every single cell. Aching joints and tensed muscles started to relax; skin felt the rejuvenating power of the hot spring; feet “signed” in relief feeling the stones on the bottom of the pool massaging them.

(This is a picture of the onsen taken from their website)

A few hours later, cleaned and rejuvenated, we were heading home.

“Let’s take Khaya to the X-Files location”, said Toby. “Yes, I think they will like our offering today”, replied Stefan. That sounded odd. But I was invigorated after the onsen and was ready for a new adventure (even if my hosts were planning to offer me to aliens as sacrifice).

We took a sharp right turn off the main road onto a dirt path. The trail led into the woods. Playing around, Toby turned off and on his headlights. The mood was getting somber.

The path in front became darker; the forest around us grew thicker.

Suddenly we drove into a large clearing. I saw something glimmer. Goosebumps on my skin. Heartbeat..............................tuh-dum.........................tuh-dum..................tuh-dum..........tuh-dum........tuh-dum........tuh-dum.....tuh-dum, tuh-dum, tuh-dum, tuh-dum, tuh-dum.

In front of me stood a giant, 15 feet, gold Buddha statue.

Rows of statues.

Ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, hundreds. Long rows of motionless, regal Gods frozen in prayer.

The statues varied in sizes from little sitting Buddhas to the enormous 15 feet sculptures. Their mysterious gold surfaces shimmered in the moonlight. It felt like we entered a mystical place of worship. Unable to move, I stared at their conquering facades, humbly revering in awe.

Soon, it was time to go. We had a long day on Sunday. More mud.

Continuing on with his kind nature, Toby offered masu (cup) full of sake before bed.

Sunday morning started early. We were up at 6:30am because Toby and Maiko had to make lunch and come to the site before everyone else. While the hosts were preparing, Stefan decided to take me to a shrine next to Toby’s house.

The morning was warm and full of sunshine. The rays colored the trees in a bright green color. I felt wide awake and wonderful.

We got to the shrine a few minutes before 7am. The shrine was utterly empty. Tall, wooden columns framed the main structure.  It was very quiet.

A minute before 7 o’clock, I saw a priest walk towards the shrine. He walked into the main room and proceeded to the small room off to the left. And then I heard it.

By 7:30am we left the house and within an hour, I was “mudding” away.

The second day was shorter for me since I had to catch a bus back to Sapporo. I left shortly after lunch, filled with gratitude for my American friend who introduced me to Toby and Maiko; for Toby and Maiko themselves for being amazing hosts and allowing me to help them; and for acquiring new friends.

The weekend was over.


  1. Thank you for the photos and YouTube link - very impressive and beautiful. Sounds like you met really great friends. Love reading every one of these. Go Girl!

  2. Khaya thank you for the photos, as I read I feel like im there with you. It all sounds so beautiful and intrusting. And the people you meet are so nice. I love reading what you write keep it up. “God speed”.You take care of your self. Heidi