by Claire Moshenberg on August 8, 2012

In the grand tradition of ice cream parlors and opium dens, ryokan are pleasure meccas geared towards relaxation. Though a ryokan is technically just a traditional Japanese hotel, it’s more like a rehab center for harried urbanites, in the market to loosen tight shoulders and slow racing thoughts. For a few days, you alternate between eating elaborate kaiseki meals served in your room and becoming an elaborate meal as you attain empathy for lobsters and slowly boil yourself in the hot springs. You are there to acquire pudding brains and limbs, to inhabit dawdling and rest.

We arrived at the ryokan in Hakone, Japan, with deep luggage grooves on our hands and shoulders, having spent the day chasing trains from Tokyo. Our shoes were immediately squired away for the remainder of our stay, replaced with silk slippers built for smaller feet. Our hostess was a barely shoulder-grazing woman in her eighties, who hoisted our suitcases on her back and bounded up the stairs before we could interfere. She shuttled us through the quiet halls, noting the sprawling hot springs rooms, the tucked-away bar on the top floor, the trees and river that framed the ryokan and peered in through tremendous windows. Back in our room, she handed us folded robes made of heavy blue fabric trussed up with white cloth belts. She nodded silently at our street clothes and left.

View from our room at the Ryoken

We negotiated our new attire, swiftly cinching robes and debating the finer points of socks-wearing. The river outside our window was ear-quenchingly lovely; it unfurled one loud, rumbling breath after another and our bodies grew quiet, our hearts’ speedy pentameter slowed to a hypnotic clip. Spindly branches of Japanese oak trees, dense with flat red and green leaves, brushed the windows. I slid open the window and inhaled. It was all so picturesque, until the bugs.

Twenty of them flew in, pale-bellied and wide-winged, different shades of enormous. I waved my hands, slammed the window shut, did all manner of wacky herding dances, to no avail. The dark cloud of wings and antennae cheerfully looped and spun. Our hostess, arms loaded with plates and platters, shuffled in as I, in a panic, closed the doors that sectioned off the sitting area by the window and hurried back to the table.  I hoped she wouldn’t notice. I underestimated the tattletale nature of sheer rice paper doors.

She set a pot of green tea on the table with a saucer of flaky slices of mochi, studded with candied plum. Slowly, her head turned, and the color rose in my cheeks. Behind the rice paper, the bugs had gone frat-party wild, bouncing against the walls, weaving and trilling, their wings and guest list so large that their purring flutter could be heard over the river and the cymbal beat of my mortified heart.

She joined the party as the tea steeped. The bug massacre began, her tiny hands smashing each insect with a series of arm-flailing whaps! and cartoonish oofs!, her weaving silhouette visible through the rice paper. She returned, flushed. The massacre was over. It was time to eat.

First, beer. “You pour,” our hostess said firmly, setting out the squat glasses favored throughout Japan and placing the sweating Kirin, all brown glass and sleek curves, by my side. “Pour,” she said, and I did, trembling like a pigtailed neophyte at a party, navigating the complicated machinery of her first keg.

I’d poured beer from a bottle before; the past week in Tokyo, I’d poured into my glass, my boyfriend’s glass, and the ever-present glasses of friendly businessmen and students, who were quick to plop down beside us at yakitori bars. I was a showy beer-pourer; as a waitress, I was lauded for a snappy move that involved elaborately rolling the beer bottle between my palms.

But our bug-murdering hostess, though endlessly warm, terrified me. Our relationship was uncomfortably intimate. For two nights, she would serve us dinner in the room. For two mornings, she would come in at eight o’clock and wake us up. No locks. No privacy. Not speaking a word of Japanese hadn’t been difficult in Tokyo. Now, in the deep quiet of the ryokan, the language barrier made me nervous. What if I spilled the beer? What if I committed a new, bug-free faux pas?

I poured. She smiled. Dinner began with translucent slices of white fish beside a pyramid of fresh wasabi. A strip of raw tuna, lean and yielding, was nestled beside a raw whole shrimp with creamy flesh. (Here, the two surviving bugs drowned themselves in a bowl of shoyu and a dish of cold peanut sauce, the shoyu bug visible only seconds before I dipped my tuna, his big delicate wings dangling over the edge of the bowl.)

Next, a wobbly golden custard with a slippery mound of sweetbreads tucked in the center, then crumbly slabs of roe. Our shoulders lowered as we finished the towering Kirin. My mind’s clucking, anxious patter slowed. For once, the world wasn’t composed of a thousand moving pieces, each webbed with worry. The world was made of two things: whatever showed up next on a dish, and a Japanese phrase.

“Is there any shot our guide book explains how to say, ‘Sorry about the bugs?” I whispered.

We locked eyes and knew: no one was leaving that table to track down a guide book. It wouldn’t explain how to apologize for inciting an insect riot anyway. We were going to wait for the next dish. We were going to sit still and try not to do anything else worth apologizing for.

Dinner went on for hours. We cooked wagyu beef on a covered ceramic plate, resting on a tabletop fire. We slurped a musky, vinegar-laced soup, resplendent with tangled enoki mushrooms. We didn’t spill, barely chatted. We checked our sauces for kamikaze bugs; we bowed and smiled when our hostess entered; we bowed and smiled when she left. If I had known how to say, “Sorry about the bugs,” I would’ve said it 20 times over. Instead, I said it in my head. “Sorry about the bugs,” I said, as she served us dishes heavy with half-moons of sweet, thick-skinned squash. “Sorry about the bugs,” I said, as she laid out plates of yellow vegetables that resembled doll-sized lemons but tasted like raw corn. “I’m sorry,” I said, as she placed dessert on the table: two deep purple, sweet baby plums and slices of something orange that tasted and felt like a cross between an unripe peach and a mango. “Sorry, and this is delicious,” I said, with a swift, doleful-eyed bow and a gesture towards my stomach.


Claire Moshenberg is a San Francisco-based author, activist, and new-media consultant. She is co-proprietor of the web site Charm City Jukebox.

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