Youth Hostels Beckon in Land of the Rising Sun

<i> Blaxland is an Auckland, New Zealand, free-lance writer. </i>

Fistfuls of yen are indispensable in the Land of the Rising Sun. But Japan has one saving grace for the budget traveler--its youth hostels.

As with all youth hostels, you only need to produce a membership card; people of all ages are welcome. Accommodation is usually in dormitories, but in many Japanese hostels, families can arrange to stay together if the hostel isn’t crowded. Some hostels are closed during the day, and although bedding is provided, you supply your own sheet sleeping bag or rent it.

Hostels in Japan are as varied as the nation. The Tokyo youth hostel is palatial. Brand new, it occupies the top two stories of one of the newest of Tokyo’s high-rise business blocks, with a glittering city panorama at night and plate-glass floor-to-ceiling windows in each room. “A youth hostel?” wonder the grubby backpackers, eyeing the plush carpeted lobby.

Wonder succeeds wonder, with silk flower arrangements in the spotless spacious bathroom, and blond-wood bunks, curtained sleeping compartments provided with designer bed lamps. But best of all are the bathrooms.

The civilized Japanese use their communal baths to relax and chat away the tensions of the day. The Tokyo youth hostel bathroom includes a black marble bathtub big enough to accommodate 20 weary bodies without undue familiarity.

House Slippers

Come with me on my first venture into the mysterious ritual of the Japanese bath. We put on the obligatory house slippers supplied by the youth hostel, and slipslop down the corridor to the changing room. Clued by the collection in front of us, we discard our slippers and step up onto a straw tatami mat to undress and put our clothes into a yellow plastic basket.

We select a small bowl for our soap and shampoo, and slide open the glass door to the bathroom proper. That’s where the black marble walls and floors begin.

Unsure of the etiquette, we follow our neighbors to squat on a stool before a set of taps and shower hose. Our more decorous neighbors hold their washcloths strategically when they walk around. They chat, but there’s a general air of courtesy far removed from the hearty schoolboy towel flicking or schoolgirl giggling in Western shower rooms. We feel new, gauche. We try to behave as if we always bathed this way.

Real Work

Now comes the real work: a thorough soap and lather of every inch of the body, solemnly regarding ourselves in the mirror before us, and an equally thorough rinse. Every atom of soap flushed away, we ascend the black marble steps and sink into the bath.

The water is hip high, so we can submerge to our chins and feel our inner day’s grime dissolve in the heat. Five minutes of floating in this black marble bath and you’re kin to Cleopatra. We collect our little basket of belongings and stagger out a trifle rubber-legged to dry and dress and shuffle into our slippers.

The hostel’s only serious drawback is its ubiquitous P.A. system through which loud reminders of bed, bath and closing times are relayed every 15 minutes. Bear it with good humor, for this must surely be the world’s plushest youth hostel. With the only black marble bathtub for 20.

Of quite another character is the youth hostel at Takayama that is attached, as are many in Japan, to a Shinto temple. We walked to it on a dark rainy evening through cobbled streets lined with wooden houses. An enormous brass gong hung in the courtyard under the dripping trees, waiting to be struck. Opposite lay the temple, where a single candle burns all night. In the morning, a low rolling boom of gongs and quiet chanting reminded us where we were.

Trickling Water

Next to the temple, past a bamboo waterspout trickling water onto a hollowed stone with a dipper for thirsty travelers, is the familiar international youth hostel sign, welcoming you to a labyrinth of small traditional Japanese rooms.

Another good hostel lies right beside Lake Toya-ko in Hokkaido. The tranquil air of its surroundings is deceptive. A few kilometers away from the hostel, one of the youngest hills on earth was born in 1944, accompanied by a whole series of volcanic eruptions.

All the land nearby crumpled and sagged to accommodate the new mountain, and the buildings twisted to match. So the corridors of Toya Kanko-kan hostel curve in odd directions, the floors slope up and then down, and the walls lean in.

In the same national park is Shikotsu-ko hostel, by a lake so clear that you can see 10, 20 feet down to the pebbled bottom. Mountains rise sheer all around, and the air tastes like Perrier water.

The Japanese escape in busloads to Shikotsu-ko, for a few hours away from their smoggy cities. But lucky hostelers can linger. Step out of your hostel slippers onto smooth polished wood floor ledges, and then onto the resilient tatami mats smelling of summers-ago hay. Sit by the window looking across the lake as the late sun slants through the paper shutters.

Favorite Was a Farmhouse

But if I had to choose my favorite of all the Japanese hostels, it would be Etchu Gokoyama.

This hostel is a converted farmhouse gassho-zukuri , found only in the central Japan Alps. Gassho-zukuri means “hands joined in prayer,” which is what the steep thatched roofs of these three- or four-story buildings look like. There aren’t many of them left.

Etchu Gokoyama is singular even among gassho-zukuri , tucked alone in the forest three kilometers up a winding mountain road off the main highway.

Catch one of the three daily buses, ask the driver to let you off, and prepare for a tough but exhilarating walk into some of Japan’s most beautiful alpine countryside. At sweaty rest stops we recognized wild walnut trees among the lush green forest.

Way up there was our hostel, on the brow of a hill. In gassho-zukuris extended families of up to a hundred people lived on the ground floor (smoke from the ground floor cooking fires made living upstairs impossible), and the upper stories were used to make handicrafts and raise silkworms.

Etchu Gokoyama hostel uses its ground floor rooms as dining and sitting areas. Hostelers gather around a traditional sunken fire with cooking pot suspended above it. Climb the breathtakingly steep stairs to the second-story sleeping quarters, in tiny windowless rooms.

Then take the cobweb hung ladder to the third story to find yourself in a sooty attic. The floor is made of creaking slats; old silkworm raising mats are rolled up in a corner. Finger the straw knots that lash the thick thatched roof to the beams.

Home for Stealthy Spiders

Generations of spiders have lived their stealthy lives in the corners of Etchu Gokoyama hostel, and the stairway is silently spun over between evening and morning, just one sign of the continuing life of this house.

It’s palpable, too, in the huge adzed pillars worn shiny smooth from generations of hands, the faint musky odor of old smoke and straw. To stay here is to join in the rhythm of the old, slow-flowing Japanese civilization I had hoped to find somewhere, past the modern bustle and smog.

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Hostelers must have a youth hostel card issued in their own country or an international Guest Card issued in the country being visited.

Reservations can be made by writing to the hostel or hostels concerned on preprinted return postage-paid post cards available from the U.S. youth hostel organization. Or travelers can phone for reservations a day or two ahead (Japanese-speaking hostelers are usually willing to help).

Addresses: Shikotsu-ko Youth Hostel, Shikotsu-kohan, Chitose-shi, Hokkaido 066-22, Japan. Tokyo Kokusai Youth Hostel, Central Plaza, 18F, 21-1 Kaguargashi, Shinjuku-ku 162, Tokyo, Japan. Toya Kanko-kan Youth Hostel, 83 Sobetsu-onsen, Sobetsu-machi, Usugun, Okkaido 052-01, Japan. Etchu Gokoyama Youth Hostel, 24 Oze, Kamitaira-mura, Higashi-to-nami-gun, Toyama-ken 939-19, Japan. Takayama Youth Hostel, Tenshoji Temple, Takayama, Japan. The last named is locally run and not part of the international organization, so guests do not need an international youth hostel card.

These hostels and many others are listed in the “Japan Youth Hotels Handbook” available in Japan. It contains full details about facilities and how to find the hostels, including transport details.