Years ago, I found myself in a small village in Shikoku one evening, needing a place to stay. I had been counting on getting a room at a youth hostel in a nearby town, but when I got there, I found it was full. So I walked four miles to the next village, where I had been told there was a temple that put people up. Unfortunately, the temple was no longer functioning as an inn, and unless I felt like sleeping outside, I was out of luck. The mosquitoes were fierce that night, and I was exhausted and desperate for a good night’s sleep. A woman who worked at a shop near the temple told me there was another youth hostel in the next village. I walked there in the growing darkness, tired and hungry, my backpack tearing at my shoulders, blisters forming on my heels.
After a long search, I found the youth hostel—an old farmhouse in the countryside—but was disappointed to see there were no lights on. But before I could turn away, close to tears, the door opened, and a little old lady in a kimono stood there, obviously surprised to see me. She and her husband hadn’t expected any guests, but, yes, there was a room though it was a bit musty. The room was dormitory-style and perfectly fine, but when I asked the woman where the bathroom was, she frowned. “I’m sorry, but you won’t be able to have a bath tonight.”
My face fell. I was filthy; I had walked at least 12 miles, and there wasn’t a muscle in my body that didn’t ache.
“It’s just that we weren’t prepared for you,” she explained. “Normally, people make reservations, and we’re able to provide for them.”
I said I understood, and the woman left after telling me what time breakfast was served in the morning. As I was unpacking my backpack, there was a knock at my door. The woman was back. “You can have a bath,” she told me. “It’s been arranged.” She pointed to the bathhouse, smiled at my effusive thanks and left again.
I gathered up my “furo dogu”—literally “bath tools”: a small plastic basin, soap, shampoo and towel—and made my way across the garden to the small bathhouse. An elderly man in “hakata” waved to me; he seemed to be collecting twigs, stuffing them into a large basket.
I pulled open the bathhouse door and almost gasped. I could hardly believe how primitive it was: just a small tub, in a tiny room, with vents along the floor and ceiling. There were the customary spigots and wooden stool near the floor; in Japan, you clean yourself off before you get into the bath. The tub was full of warm water. As I bent down to test it, I saw the little old man outside, carrying his basket of wood across the yard. Smoke billowed out from under the bathhouse, and suddenly, I realized what was happening: He was gathering wood to warm the water for my bath. I felt like crying. I’d had no idea of the inconvenience I had caused by showing up so late at night, needing a room and a bath.
At breakfast the next morning, I thanked the couple profusely and apologized for putting them to so much trouble.
The old woman smiled. “Years ago, we went to England,” she told me. “It was just after the war—we were there for a conference—and it was bitterly cold. When we got to our hotel and tried to run the bath, we were only able to get one inch of lukewarm water.”
The old man joined in: “We tried to explain, and the staff understood us, but they told us that no one could get more hot water than that.”
His wife nodded. “We were so miserable! All we wanted was a bath.” She patted my hand. “When I saw your face last night, I knew I couldn’t let you down. I knew just how you felt, walking all day like that.”
During breakfast, they came into the dining room to talk to me individually. They asked me what books I liked, how long I had been studying Japanese, why I had decided to study it. They wanted to know about my favorite Japanese authors, what I thought of Japanese politics, where I had been in Japan. I could barely answer half of their questions, but I was still grateful to be asked; I’d grown tired of being asked my shoe size, how old I was, whether I could use chopsticks or if I ate raw fish.
After breakfast, they showed me around their hostel. Gradually, I began to see that this couple was extraordinary, not only because they were prepared to light the fire for an unexpected stranger’s bath, but for many other reasons. Their house was filled to bursting with books in both Japanese and English, yet they spoke to me only in Japanese. In Japan, where English-speaking people are naturally keen to show off their skill, this was a first for me and an incredible honor: From the books on their shelves, I have no doubt that their English was superior to my Japanese. There were also photographs of them with dozens of different people from around the world, former guests of their hostel, and a book filled with thoughtful, heartfelt expressions of gratitude signed by people from dozens of countries. “You were so wonderful, like my mother and father!” wrote a girl from the Philippines. “I loved delicious soup too much. Sachiko is excellent cook!” wrote someone from Brazil. This guest book, with its multinational comments, was obviously an object of great pride and pleasure.
They stopped in front of a Delft plate; the old man reverently lifted it off the shelf. “We received this from a lovely Dutch boy. He visited us five years ago, and the next year, he came back with his parents.”
His wife wiped a spot of dust off the plate. “They spoke Japanese. Do you know how that was possible?” I shook my head.
“As children, they were both incarcerated in a detention center run by the Japanese in Indonesia.”
The old man gently set the plate back on the shelf. “They send us a Christmas card every year,” he said proudly. “We count them as our dear friends.”
“We are so fortunate,” his wife added. “So fortunate to have lived to see this peace. To be able to meet young people like you, from foreign countries.” She nodded once and tilted her head. “Please remember this: how fortunate you are—how fortunate we all are—to live now, in this time of peace.”
When I left, greatly refreshed, relaxed and well fed, I thanked them many times, and yet it was not enough.
It will never be enough.