In praise of… The worst hotel in the world

It was getting late that Sunday evening, and I was in sore need of a bed. The lights had been defiantly out at the place I had been hoping to stay, so I set wearily off down the truck-choked and traffic-light-infested Rte 254 in southwest Gunma, past empty coin-op laundries and soulless convenience stores, detouring into the decrepit center of the old silk-mill city of Tomioka in fruitless search of lodging before pitching up on the outskirts of charmless, anonymous Fujioka, a place best known for its expressway junction, where to my delight that neon-starved night the Business Hotel Fujioka was putting out just enough illumination to capture a traveler’s tired eye, and I swung into the almost deserted parking lot, half of which had returned to grass, with mounting anticipation.

Of the mah-jongg club Tenho (“Heavenly Hand”) and the yakiniku grilled meat restaurant Yacchan to which the eager arrows of the signs pointed there proved to be no trace. The proprietor sat slumped in a stupor on a slate-grey vinyl sofa, transfixed by the television, in a cavernous lobby of such transcendental aesthetic horror that I was spellbound at once, sent into a trance of rapture by the ocean of aquamarine linoleum and vast wall-embedded canvases of flower-filled fields and mysterious mountainscapes.

I opened with my usual patter about not having a reservation but wondering if a room was available; unsurprisingly, one was, although it took a little pantomime of perusal of a dusty ledger to confirm this. Board, breakfast, and evening meal, all for Y4,725 (about $60)—cheaper than even the cheapest budget chain hotels.

“You can eat over the road,” he said, gesturing at a noodle joint called Hime Ramen (“Princess Ramen”).
“Isn’t there anywhere else?”
“No.” That seemed implausible in a city of nearly 70,000 people. “Besides, they don’t just do ramen. They’ve got all sorts of good stuff. Here, I’ll show you to your room.”
He led me on the aquamarine linoleum, now a river, down a short musty corridor of concentration-camp gloom to the last cell on the right.

From having observed down the years how hoteliers like to fill their rooms, I realized I was the first guest that night. A fragment of Larkin came to me with a jolt.

“This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.”

The room was an airless cube. A lone blue plastic hanger dangled on one of a row of hooks while a shoehorn swung like a hanged convict by the door. Some madman, perhaps the proprietor himself, had chosen to embed a picture of a Mediterranean harbor filled with gin-palace superyachts in the wall above the coin-op television.

Perhaps the same madman had painted the fluffy white clouds in the style of Tiepolo on the ceiling.

More Larkin surfaced, and I dared not draw back the drapes.

Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered.

There was no washbasin and no toilet, no shower and no bath.

“Bathroom’s down the hall,” he said, gesticulating. “Better use it tonight. It’s not open in the mornings.”

Across the road at Princess Ramen a raucously drunken party was in full swing.

I was ushered into a backroom across wine-red linoleum, sticky to the sole, which in well-trodden spots had been worn away to the concrete below. It occurred to me that I had stumbled on an ecosystem every bit as imperiled as a tract of montane rainforest in Costa Rica: the last vestiges of a working-class culture that some might call slovenly and others carefree, whose denizens are itinerant salespeople, suitcases forever in hand, forklift drivers in pallid green overalls, and factory girls in hairnets, a culture that is being chopped down by the buzz-saws of deindustrialization, globalization, and digitization just as remorselessly as it is anywhere in the well-off world.

Flashing an angelic milk-white smile, a young and strangely androgynous waiter, scion of the ramen family, brought a beer. For the first time in my life I was flummoxed in the act of gender identification. I was seized with the sense that I was overlooking something obvious, such that if a companion had been with me, he or she would have laughed at my incomprehension. Peanuts arrived in a bowl bearing the insignia “Dinnerware Adam & Eve”, which at first I misread as “Dinner with Adam & Eve”. What would have been served, I wondered, and who would have been on the guest list. The menu prodded the peruser to three dishes, two of which were katsudon pork cutlets on rice, one man-sized, said the menu, and a smaller one for the ladies. In keeping with the spirit of androgyny I ordered the smaller.

Out the front, the football was blaring away but the backroom television was tuned to a program commemorating the six-month anniversary of the earthquake, at the heart of which was the tale of a solitary sailor in the port of Kesennuma whose ship was forced by tsunami tides to trace an infinite loop around the harbor for hour upon hour on a Viking inferno of a jet-black night sea ablaze with debris kindled by spilt diesel. Sleep would not easily be bought tonight, I knew, as the partiers out front cackled and jabbered on.

Back across the road, the proprietor was in a conspiratorial huddle with a policeman standing by a cop car, devil-red lights whirling in stony silence. Yet again up stole the guilty wash of nebulous criminality that has dogged me as long as I can recall, a secular sibling of the doctrine of original sin that might have been instilled by a pedophile priest but—to my recollection—wasn’t.

“Everything okay?”
A couple of nods and grunts.

A single gunmetal-grey door divided the hotel and the bowling alley. A solo bowler occupied a middle lane of the aquamarine paradise, the clanging of tumbling pins rattling off the vault and walls.

Turning to go back through the door, I ran face-to-face into a torn poster, terrifying in its wholesome antiquity.

In the room, I lay on the bed looking up at the fluffy white clouds and struggling to remember the last verses of Larkin’s Mr Bleaney, but “one hired box” was all that came to mind. Through the tissue-thin walls a latecomer in the next room coughed gutturally and hacked up phlegm, which he must, I imagined, have spat from the window, as there was no washbasin and no toilet and men around here are not known to swallow their sputum.

To distract myself, I constructed a narrative for the hotel in my head: it had been built at the very fag-end of the seventies just as the first expressway crept toward Fujioka and the city boomed in anticipation. And here it had remained, trapped in a glow of seventies amber, as the expressways crept past, north and northwest, on to other, more glamorous destinations, and the dreams of the city wilted.

Fitful sleep on polycotton sheets atop a lumpy mattress with a saggy pillow was punctuated by dreams of ledges and precipices and chasms, but it was morning soon enough and I stumbled bleary out to breakfast.

A rouged-up bleach-blonde woman (“you’ve got to keep yourself beautiful”) doing a passable imitation of a burly drag queen doing a passable imitation of a rouged-up bleach-blonde woman (“just tell yourself you’ve got gorgeous lips”) sat slouched in front of the television, stubbing her fag out and snapping to something like attention on my approach. She might have been in her mid-forties, about my age.

In the deserted dining-room, a half-formed meal for one—me—sat on a flowery tablecloth overlaid with thick plastic sheets, replete with all the melancholy of a condemned prisoner. An emaciated half-moon slice of the sorriest factory ham lay uncomfortably on a bed of grated cabbage (I knew how it felt) next to what once had been scrambled eggs—a scrambled egg—but were now hardening, graying, chilling pellets fit only for fish food. Three bowls were flanked around, one of slimy kamaboko fish paste confections, one of gunky natto fermented soybeans, and one of the cheapest daikon radish pickles, almost as pink as candy-floss and packed, no doubt, with as much artificial coloring. There were no condiments and no chopsticks, no paper napkins and no toothpicks, at least not within reach. The art of this meal, I decided, would be to eat as much as I could to save loss of face but not so much as to gag. Into which circle of hell had I plunged, I wondered, and for what misdeeds.

Fag-ash Lil loitered.

“Help yourself to rice. I’ll get the miso soup.” She retreated into the Stygian depths of the kitchen. The insides of the rice-cooker were rimed with scorch marks and dusted with flakes of papery rice like dead, sunburned skin. And voila, the meal was complete.

“Your Japanese is really good.”
“I studied it at university,” I lied.
“You must be smart, huh? Japanese is really difficult.”
You seem to be making a reasonable fist of it, I wanted so much to say.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m researching the Shimo Nita War”, I lied.
“The Shimo Nita War? There was a war in Shimo Nita? Just down the road? How come you know about it and I don’t?”
“It was a very small war. About 148 years ago.” Not bad off the top of my head—it was 147 years ago.
“Where have you come from, anyway?”
“England,” I lied.
“England? They speak English there, don’t they?”
“Yes.” There was a limit to dissimulation.

She retreated into the kitchen again. I mixed the ham and eggs deep into the rice and wolfed it down. The gloopy fermented soybeans, which should have come as light relief in a meal of this caliber, were leathery and long past their sell-by date. She returned to hover.

“France?”
This had me baffled for a moment.
“No, England.”
“Oh, England.”
“Yes, England.” A question hung pregnant in the air.
“Are cigarettes expensive there?”
“Ooh, very. About a thousand yen a packet. It’s the taxes, you see.”
“Hmm, really?” She nodded sagely, satisfied with this short account of the depravity of foreign lands, and retreated once again across the Styx as I longed for the waters of Lethe.

The Business Hotel Fujioka is not, of course, the worst hotel in the world, nor even the worst hotel in the developed world, although by some chalk it’s the worst developed-world hotel at which I’ve ever stayed (and one of the most wonderful). Such judgments are wholly subjective, anyway, and what is heavenly to one will be hellish to another.

Nevertheless I ask you to raise a shot glass of methylated spirit or lighter fluid, if you please, ladies and gentlemen, to the glories of the Business Hotel Fujioka and to the people who make it tick, in a toast to its demise, for it will all be gone to grass before a generation is out, and the world will know its like no more.

Back home, I looked up the last Larkin verses and shivered, as always, at the tortured conditional of the syntactic climax:

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread 

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know

23 responses to “In praise of… The worst hotel in the world

  1. ‘Peanuts arrived in a bowl bearing the insignia “Dinnerware Adam & Eve”, which at first I misread as “Dinner with Adam & Eve”. What would have been served, I wondered, and who would have been on the guest list.’

    Brilliant, pensive and sharp throughout, but for me this gave the most generous guffaw of the piece. You really should collect all these writings and musings of yours into a book.

    • I’m very glad you liked that, I almost left it out. I really should do something about these disjointed ramblings, as you say.

    • A mess of pottage .. wait, wrong bible story.

      It is important to have enough coconuts, to make sure the tyrannosaurs don’t get cranky. It is the Garden of Eden and the tyrannosaurs are vegetarians, but still, just to be safe…

      No, really:

      http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/005181.html

      “I feel I can extract sufficient comedy value out of people who believe dinosaurs lived with humans and that T-Rexes had six-inch, knife-like teeth to open coconuts from a safe, non-contagious distance.”

  2. Your humor is brilliant. pachiguy. I bow in appreciation at the nod to Larkin. I was thinking of Eliot:
    ‘The muttering retreats
    Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels’

    But perhaps it was too obvious.
    Thanks for continuing to post.

  3. This town seems truly to be in bizarro world. What an insanely bizarre hotel.

  4. That seems just like an entertainingly bad place.
    But it’s nowhere near the first. The worst one I’ve ever been to was in Dublin, and the bathrooms reminded me strongly of the famous pub bathroom scene in Trainspotting. I guess I’m glad I’ve even managed to forget the name of that terrible place.

  5. “To distract myself, I constructed a narrative for the hotel in my head: it had been built at the very fag-end of the seventies just as the first expressway crept toward Fujioka and the city boomed in anticipation.”

    I’m convinced that 99% of everything built pretty much any where in the world from about 1955 until about 1975 should be torn down. At the very least, a new facade.

    If memory serves me, pretty much every post-war building I entered during my first trip to Japan in 1979 wasn’t much different from the Fujioka Hotel. In part is was a matter of economy. But it also seems that the Japanese forgot how to ape the best of Western architectural design, as they had so admirably during the Meiji and Taisho era’s, and I’m thoroughly convinced that the majority of the population has no feelings whatsoever for historic Japanese design.

    And don’t pretty much all bowling alleys the world over look like that one or, if possible, worse?

    • “I’m convinced that 99% of everything built pretty much any where in the world from about 1955 until about 1975 should be torn down.”
      Couldn’t argue with that! What went wrong? Was it just a rush to develop? Will people say the same about Chinese architectural baubles in 2050, I wonder?
      “But it also seems that the Japanese forgot how to ape the best of Western architectural design, as they had so admirably during the Meiji and Taisho eras”
      I think it was more a question of there being so much to build, so quickly. Yes, there were Josiah Conder showpieces in central Tokyo, but not so much in the
      rest of the country, unless I’ve missed a lesson or two in my studies…
      “And don’t pretty much all bowling alleys the world over look like that one or, if possible, worse?”
      To be sure. I wasn’t aiming to pick a fight, particularly, with the architectural look-and-feel of the hotel-cum-bowling complex. Modern malls with multiplexes are no
      less hideous, and will be torn down in twenty years if taste and money can prevail (implausible, I know). I was just trying to chronicle a certain moment in time…

      • “What went wrong? Was it just a rush to develop? Will people say the same about Chinese architectural baubles in 2050, I wonder?”

        I blame le Corbusier and, later, Philip Johnson. He almost single-handedly ruined mid-town Manhattan with the “international” style (see 6th Avenue ). Granted, one can’t draw a straight line from The Seagrams Building to the hotel in Fujioka, but everything everywhere became boringly square and lacking any decorative details in the 1960s. Though not entirely applicable to Japan, the best, non-professional discussion of this is Tom Wolfe’s “From Our House to Bauhaus.”

        “Yes, there were Josiah Conder showpieces in central Tokyo, but not so much in the rest of the country, unless I’ve missed a lesson or two in my studies…”

        That’s a name I’m going to have to look up. But nearly all the major cities in Japan have a few remaining gems that weren’t destroyed during the war or have since fallen to the wrecking ball. Kobe is full gems from the late 19th through the early 20th century.

        Sorry if the tone was off in my comment about the bowling alley. It was meant to convey the uniformity of design. As with baseball, I assume Japan got bowling from the States. And except for the recent uptick in “hipster” bowling alley’s here that revel in that sort of mid-century kitsch, there is just no making the typical cinder block building with, commonly, a slightly domed roof look any better.

        Me, I’m holding out for an urban Art Deco revival in Japan once the economy picks up.

    • Ah, you mentioned ‘From Bauhaus to Our House’ just as I was going to do it – brilliant book.

      I agree that there was a period when so much constructed was just junk. I think a key issue was the way architecture was divorced from longer traditions of building – there were plenty of periods in the past where mad building booms pushed up lots of poor quality buildings – much of London and New York, for example. But because architects and developers were working incrementally using existing technology and materials, they couldn’t go too far wrong. But when architects suddenly decided that concrete looked quite attractive by itself, or convinced themselves that traditional proportions were irrelevant, it all went horribly wrong. Even the ‘good’ architecture from that period has tended to age horribly because of inappropriate materials.

  6. Choice! It is good to see you hit a rich vein of form again.

    ”A lone blue plastic hanger dangled on one of a row of hooks while a shoehorn swung like a hanged convict by the door.”

    Is this the place that launched 30,000 suicides per year?

    You are the Beckett’s modern day Molloy for Japan, Booth’s re-incarnate with a post modern-*defure* twist, a poet of the unknowable ‘dark quest’ of Roland.

    I wonder what these ‘doomsters’ you write about would think if they could ever approach your words. How trapped are they (we) in their (our) lives!

    I also wonder if you have ever read Hardy’s short poem ‘Hap’.

    Best regards,
    KR.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Ranger, I certainly enjoyed writing it–and indeed living it.
      “You are the Beckett’s modern day Molloy for Japan, Booth’s re-incarnate with a post modern-*defure* twist, a poet of the unknowable ‘dark quest’ of Roland.”
      Now that’s *too* generous!
      “I wonder what these ‘doomsters’ you write about would think if they could ever approach your words. How trapped are they (we) in their (our) lives!”
      I do feel twinges of remorse for my treatment of the bleach-blond woman–she is clearly not gettting paid a fat lot for preparing a breakfast or two a day and I sensed an unhappy upbringing. But then I am Mr Bleaney, and I do answer my own question: into what circle of hell had I plunged, and for what misdeeds, in my own way…
      Hardy’s “Hap”? Strangely not, though I’ve taught selected Wessex poems in the past. What were you thinking of?

      R

      • For me one of Hardy’s finest poems, if a little unknown…

        Hap – a poem by Thomas Hardy

        Hardy Thomas – Poem

        If but some vengeful god would call to me
        From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
        Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
        That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

        Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
        Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
        Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
        Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

        But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
        And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
        Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
        And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
        These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
        Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

  7. Lots of good information in your posting, I would like to tweet your blog post so I can visit again in the near future. Thanks a lot.

  8. See, you’re becoming a cult now.

    I particularly enjoyed the description of breakfast. So vividly vile. Never knew it was possible to find such truly bad food in Japan, where yumminess generally prevails.

    • A cult? How so?!?
      “Never knew it was possible to find such truly bad food in Japan, where yumminess generally prevails.”
      We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one…

    • “Never knew it was possible to find such truly bad food in Japan, . . .”

      Seconding pachiguy, he was describing pretty much the breakfast I faced three mornings straight at the Tokyo International Center during a student conference many moons ago.

    • Like anywhere else, it’s competition. Generally, food in the major areas tend to be good. But food in areas very few people visit is usually bad due to the lack of competition and drive. In bigger cities such places will die, but in smaller places, due to lower rent (and sometimes the likelihood of the owner owning the building), such bad place subsist for a long time, at least till the death of the owner. As Japan gets older and more lethargic, yummy foods will also disappear.

  9. ‘Glad you liked it. Prufrock is incessantly in the back of my mind.’

    Mine also. Stumbling about in his sagging trousers.

    Eliot referenced The Other in that poem.
    I contemplated doing my thesis on the cross pollination of Jung and Eliot written in the style of Pale Fire but feared a lack of humor in the Lit Dept.

    Please don’t post and thanks for continuing your exceptional blog.

    From St. Louis, MO the birth place of T.S. Eliot.

  10. The bumper bowling picture has the whitest, blondest people possible…

    And we had forest wallpaper just like that in our living room (when I was four years old.) It was pulled down and replaced with taupe paint.

    I’m glad you’re still getting out.

  11. I love your writing. Thank you!

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