A December Story

A small chain of islands dot the Pacific Ocean south from Kyushu to Okinawa.  At about the halfway point lies Amami Island and nearby, like a forgotten smaller sibling, is the island of Kikai. One December morning, somewhere on Kikai Island, three girls go for a walk to the beach.  They decide to take a break and have a snack at a picnic bench.  One of the girls (we’ll call her S), has been telling the two other girls (we’ll call them R and P) about having a yeast infection during her travels on her bicycle and what she’s been doing to keep things in check, mostly involving yogurt. R and P  just listen to her commentary while trying not to visualise what S means. With lunch finished, S grabs a container of yogurt and makes her way to the ladies’.  P and R just look at each other with the same thought mirrored in each other’s faces.
Later that day, S helps R and P organise what will be a memorable trip to Kirishima National Park and reserves a room for them at a lodge that P is keen to stay at because it has outdoor hotsprings.  R is a little concerned because she didn’t really pack for sleeping up on a mountain, when S kindly offers her sleeping bag for her to sleep in, since she won’t be using it for the rest of her trip.  R asks her if it is warm, and S replies, “Of course!  I sleep in it naked all the time!”  (R and P cannot look at each other at this point).  R graciously accepts the offer, putting aside any thoughts of curly hairs and yeast infections.
A couple days later, R and P are walking through Kagoshima city in t-shirts, shocked at how warm it is there compared to Hiroshima.  They stock up on provisions for three full days up on the mountain.  As it’s the New Year holiday, they know that there probably be won’t be any options for food and drink up there (other than vending machines) so they buy ramen, fruit and vegetables, snacks, and booze.  And lots of 2L bottles of water.  The bags are heavy, and they’ve already overpacked for this trip, so they decide to keep  most of their belongings in lockers at the train station, since it’s so warm and they can be kept there for three days.  Light of pack, but heavy of grocery bags, they hop on the last bus going up (or down) the mountain for the next three days.  As the bus goes up the mountain some uncertainty greets the girls as they notice snow and ice on the side of the road.  They get to the information centre about 15 minutes before closing (for the holidays), and P guards the food as R asks for directions to the lodge.  It doesn’t seem that far on the map, so the girls decide to walk, as the fog comes rolling in on the mountain.  This quickly turns to regret, as the bags are heavy and they can’t really see anything in the diminishing light and fog. After some time they see a lodge in the woods down the hill from them, and it appears to be what they are looking for.  However, it is clear that the road goes on before looping around to the lodge, so they decide to save time (and their arms) and take a short cut through the forest.  However, the hill drops suddenly, with the lodge in the lower area.  Rather than risk having to bring the groceries back up the slope if they’re wrong, they leave the bags on the upper section and carefully make their way down the steep slope.  Two things give them pause when they arrive.  First, the hot spring is nothing but a collection of empty pipes in an empty pool, obviously shut down for the season.  Second, there is a huge padlock on the door of the lodge. P decides to look around the lodge area while R  goes down a path into the woods to see what that will turn up.  About 100m down, she comes across a small building, and a huge parking lot, obviously the main entrance of the lodge.  Inside the small building is an older Japanese man, in all likelihood the caretaker, heating water over an old-fashioned propane stove. R knocks on the window to get his attention and he jumps up, startled. In her broken Japanese, R tries to explain that she and her friend have a reservation, and would he please come open the lodge for them. The old man refuses for some time, a constant fearful look on his face, like the “friend” might appear as well.  But there in the book is the reservation the girls had called in, so he accepts the money R has – for one night (she gets rid of most of her change at this point) – and gets the key.  R notices in the book that that last people that stayed there was in early November.  She tries to not let that concern her.
As and the old man make their way up the stone path to the lodge, R can hear P calling out for her.  She hears the worry in her voice and calls out that she’s coming and that a man is following her.  This concerns P even further.  Finally, R and the caretaker arrive, and he’s even more confused at the presence of the friend.  But he’s accepted the money and the girls seem to think this is where they are staying, so he unlocks the door.  He shows them to the first room of the lodge, which is a small tatami room, with a small table, and nothing else.  He shows them the kitchen where there is a kettle and stove that can be used for 10 yen a shot.  The toilets are pretty basic, not much more than indoor outhouses, and are home to a number of spider webs and other creatures.  Before he leaves, he tells them that the electricity will be turned off at 8 p.m. sharp and asks them if they have any food.  R points to the woods and says yes, the food is over there, but seeing the “WTF?!?!” look on his face P quickly tells him that the food is in their packs.  Not wanting to deal with the crazy girls any more, he promptly leaves and goes back down the path.
P went to get the food out of the woods while R explored the lodge to find something to sleep on.  She finds some old musty futons and sets them up in the room. After some more exploring, she finds nice clean futons and replaces the old one with two complete sets for each person. The two futons, plus two duvets and sleeping bags (!) each should keep them warm throughout the night.
With nothing to do but eat, it was then time to prepare dinner. The kitchen is quite spacious with some pots and pans to cook in, but they notice with dismay that it costs 10 yen to use the gas burner. The girls look in their wallets and discover that they only have 2 10-yen coins between them.  So they decided to keep one for the morning, and heat up water so they can eat some ramen. They particularly like the sign that tells them how to use the stove, by turning the “cock”.  The girls get their ramen, pour in the water, and head back to their room. That’s when they discover that they have nothing to eat the ramen with.  They brought everything they could think of, but they forgot chopsticks.  The kitchen didn’t have anything at all. P tried to fashion a type of spoon from the ramen package lid, but R went straight to slurping the noodles, and soon P joined in.  They had some chu-hais as well, but that cooled them down.  They got pretty chilled and tried to find ways to keep warm.  The lodge was long, with small tatami rooms on each side, and a kind of raised platform to walk on between the rooms. R decided to run and skip down the length of the hall to keep warm.  Between the running and the laughing, the girls quickly warmed up.  Suddenly, the door starts to open and the girls are instantly quiet.  It’s the caretaker, and with him is a family of three: mother, father, and son.  They are dressed warmly, in ski outfits, and have proper cooking and heating gear with them.  This makes everyone a little calmer, since the girls know that it wasn’t some mistake to come to this weird little lodge with no one there, and the man feels more comfortable with regular Japanese people in the building.  No longer having the place to themselves, the girls hole up in their little room.

It gets cold quickly, so the girls put on every stitch of clothing they brought with them up the mountain, which isn’t much since they left most of the bulky (warm) clothes in the lockers at the station.  They crawl into their sleeping bags (R thankful for the layers of clothing she has on to protect her from the inside of the bag) to keep warm. They try to read while they still have light, but that doesn’t last long and soon they are plunged into total darkness.  So they talk for a while, get the giggles sometimes, and fall asleep.  Sometime in the middle of the night, R wakes up in a panic — she is overheating with all the clothes, and sleeping bag, and duvets, and struggles to peel off the extra clothes under all those layers (P, of course, sleeps soundly beside her).  Unfortunately for her, this activity will also be the reason why she wakes very early in the morning, for by then she is freezing.  She gets up to put the layers back on and takes a look outside the window.  It is a virtual wonderland.  The fog that rolled in the night before froze to every solid thing and there was a thick layer of hoarfrost on everything. She wakes up P to show her and at that point they had to make a decision.  Were they going to stay another night, as planned, or were they going to go back down the mountain?  P couldn’t stand any more cold so they decided to take their chances and try to go back down the mountain later in the day.  So they packed their things, went back to the visitor center, put their stuff in (another) locker, and headed back up the mountain, to hike their way to the top of the crater.  Except for the occasional hiker, it was really just the two of them walking up the path, with little ice crystals falling in their hair as the sun slowly melted the hoarfrost away.  The sky was blue, the sun was warm, and they had a great time.  Until they got to the top that is, when suddenly everything was a sea of grey clouds.  Every now and then, the clouds would part and they could get a glimpse of the crater lake, but it was cold, so after about 15 minutes they decided to go back down.  On the way down, they were met by scores of Japanese tourists walking up the mountain.  The hoarfrost was gone, the ground was muddy, and the girls realised their luck of having been able to experience such a magical morning without the crowds.  Their luck seemed to hold out for them once they were back in the visitor centre. P suggested that they hitchhike back to town (R was a little skeptical), but the second car that passed them stopped, and the kind old couple who picked them up dropped them off at the train station so they could collect their bags. They headed straight over to the hostel on Sakurajima Island and quickly made use of the smelly, but very hot, onsen on the premises.  Clean and warm, they were ready for their next adventure in ringing in the New Year.


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