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,
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.
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.
This had me baffled for a moment.
“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