Hotel Review: Hotel Riverside Okayama (2280 yen/night, 1 night)
A creepy-looking man runs a male-dominated hotel. The storage space was minimal, the rooms a bit smelly, and you couldn't have a secure, comfortable, quiet night. I wouldn't go as far as saying I would never want to try a capsule hotel again, but there have to be better ones than this knocking about. Not recommended except if everything else is taken, especially if you are on the tall side. 4/10
Somewhere into the early hours the TV went silent and I could get some sleep. By half past seven I had given up and raised myself before it started getting busy. I had a wash in the basins, and because there was no plug points in the pod to charge my camera, I took the opportunity on finding a seat next to the lifts that had a socket next to it. Lounging out as if I were a guest at a luxury hotel, I pushed my luck as far as I dare to get some sneaky electric juice into the thing, and then got my things and checked out.
I walked back to the train station with my things and found a 300yen locker, and stowed away the large backpack, and then got on the tram at the nearby stop. Today I would be spending a bit of time in Okayama, and then heading to Kyoto and finally taking a train north to my stop for the night, Amanohashidate on the coast. Interestingly, this was my third visit to Okayama, having passed through it very briefly twice on my way round in 2008, but this was the first time I had found the opportunity to explore it to any degree. The most obvious place to go according to my ever faithful guide, was the castle and neighbouring park as there seemed to be several things going on.
A stroll along the bridge took me to the Korakuen Gardens which I had seen from the castle, where Japanese neatness was celebrated once again. The ticket was 430yen, which is unusual as most Japanese parks and gardens are free entry. However this one was particularly large and is actually one of the 'Three Great Gardens of Japan', held in the same revere as the Three Views.
I looked through the exhibits for a while before starting back south again, through what appeared to be more of a wildlife reserve. Beautiful green bamboo rose high up into the sky where the trees had not blocked the view, and some artificial ponds were covered with large umbrella-leaves poking out five or so feet from the surface, although they looked like they were starting to die back for the year. Every now and then between the nature, a traditionally reconstructed house would be set among the nature, with signs explaining the lives of the people who would have lived here hundreds of years previous.
Though the garden was pleasant in the warm mid-morning sun, I was again mindful of the time and knew there were other things in the area, so I headed back out of the south gate, and walked around the outside of the garden at about 11am, following the signs for a museum about an artist whose name I had recognised from earlier in my trip.
The museum (500yen) is just over a bridge from the northern entrance of the gardens. They had a strict no cameras policy, which was a shame because inside they had the full size original prints of some of his most beautiful works. I bought a postcard set (pictured) from their modest tourist shop, but I don't intend on sending them to anyone.
I headed back in the midday sun to a bus stop I had passed just near the north gate. A gentle breeze made it feel like a pleasant May day rather than the end of October and shortly afterwards a bus came and for 140yen, took me the long way around the blocks until the station came back into view once more.
At about half past twelve I got to the front of the queue for the train tickets and bought one for the next train to Kyoto which left in just under an hour (in other words I'd just missed it) and then from Kyoto to Amanohashidate, or at least part the way there, as the JR line stopped partway and it became a private run line, meaning there would be a vigilant ticket inspector coming around and asking for some extra cash. That would be leaving about half past three, getting me to the coast about two hours later.
So I stuffed my face in a Vie de France. A woman behind the counter, who had been efficiently serving customers with flair and zeal until I came along, handled my several pastries and crepes (I had forgotten about the whole eating thing) and went to the back for a mango smoothie. She came back with the drink and a flip-book of coupons, but couldn't explain to me what I did with them, so to avoid the wrath of the queue behind I gathered my things and went out to the open air part of the station to munch them on a seat. I surveyed the now-sticky pieces of shiny paper; maybe they could be redeemed at another branch.
The deceptively large station hid Shinkansen track 24 right at the back, and though I found it alright, I somehow managed to not notice a dirty great train when it arrived, and consequently very nearly didn't get on it in time.
Several spritely pensioners were aboard in my carriage, clearly excited that they were leaving the bustling city for a break by the sea. They were gathering round each other like giddy teens, showing off pictures and texts on their mobile phones. It was a pretty joyous sight.
I relied upon the dim street lights and the map I had printed out from the web. It was by pure luck that I had knocked on an un-marked wooden sliding door and a woman answered positively to 'Ryokan Maruyasu'.
She ushered me and my large bags inside, and motioned me to wait there as she took into the back room my printed out Rakuten receipt. It was clear she spoke no English, by her arm movements; which was puzzling, as the advert said that the owners spoke good English.
A middle-aged man came in out of the night behind me, maybe he spoke English. But he bowed and handed over his tray of goods to the returning lady, and quickly left without much of a word. She attempted to communicate something to me, but it was at about a hundred miles an hour and I had no chance; I was too pre-occupied with her repeated touching of her hand to her nose. Maybe she was asking if I understood? Maybe it was a comment on my sunburned complexion. However, I didn't care: she eventually managed to tell me my receipt was valid and she motioned me to follow her up the steps to my room.
The lady said some other things to me while again touching her nose, and I smiled and nodded. She led me out of the room and down the nearby steps to show me the shower room, bathroom and towels, and then we went back up. Eventually after more instructions and a few questions to which I could only say that I didn't understand, she gave me a cheery wave and left, which I was rather glad about as I was a little sweaty and smelly. I needed one of those showers.
As I silently removed some of my clothing in preparation it dawned on me that there was no bedding in the room; where was it? I had fortunately had enough experience with ryokan to realise that the room you get serves several functions including being a bedroom; somewhere there would be a futon and duvet, I would choose a spot and that would be my bed for the night.
I was semi-dressed, and the woman returned without knocking! After both of us got over the shock and had a giggle, and I re-applied my jeans, she opened a disguised cupboard in the corner of the room and showed me the futon and bedding. She had brought in a tray with some steaming green tea, and then left me to it.
One quick shower later as I was sorting out a towel, the older woman arrived with a younger and more enthusiastic one, calling my name and waving a piece of paper with my details at me. I was relieved to see that she spoke some English, and that I was okay to stay the night without being kicked out, although heading up the steep steps back to my room wearing only a light dressing gown, (and the belt wouldn't stay tied) I felt more than a bit vulnerable. She had been out with some friends (possibly drinking) and missed my arrival. We talked about my journey and what I was going to do, translating for the other lady. When the questions had finished, rather than leaving me to it, they proceeded to make up the 'big futon for westerners' bed with the sheets that they had brought, which was very nice of them. I stayed in the corner smiling modestly while trying not to show any more flesh to them than was absolutely necessary.
Eventually they left to let me get dressed and sorted out, but before they went they told me of Chie no Yu, an Onsen that I had passed at the station and noticed in the guide, and told me to ask if I was interested as they had some vouchers. I figured that even though I had just showered, it was basically a pre-wash, and that I might not get to have another go in an Onsen in a while. Besides, rather than the large and commercial Fukuno-yu in Nagasaki, this was a small family-run affair, and would be much more authentic. I threw on some clean things and headed downstairs.
The voucher took a hundred off, meaning I could get in for 600yen. The enthusiastic woman handed me a large towel as well as a little one, and a pair of Japanese clogs with which to travel there! It looked as if the clogs were not optional, so I dropped off my shoes and socks and then headed out in them, rather clumsily and slowly down the street ask they kept slipping off.
Inside, it was a little like a sauna but not as hot. A large circular bath took up much of the room, and it was purposely overflowing with water, into a pool below. Seats for six people were around the tub, allowing you to put your hands in the tub and your feet in the pool. Two middle-aged men greeted me on entry, and they enjoyed the opportunity to practice a little English on me, and vice versa for me with some bits of Japanese. We talked about the place and where I had come from and was going, and it was all very pleasant. I'd completely forgot we were all naked strangers in a small room together.
In time, they left me on my own and I relaxed for a while in the light steam of the room before returning out into the cool air once more. I would miss this sort of thing a lot once home.
I headed back an hour later, but not before stumbling around a convenience store, getting whatever looked edible from the mostly empty shelves, and then I ambled back nicely relaxed.
I ate in my room, but the place had one final surprise. I had been consistently impressed on how these elderly women had managed to afford such a prominent place and decorate it so well. A quick toilet break gave me my answer: