Harumi Okochi, Proprietress of Yoyokaku, is very honored and happy to introduce Lieutenant Commander Shelby Baecker on my website.
Mr. Baecker is a US Navy officer, and he and his friends stayed with us on April 20, 2011, when their ship USS Ronald Reagan called at Sasebo after their mission at Sendai in Tohoku District. This ship was the first to arrive and start rescue efforts when the Earthquake and Tsunami attacked Tohoku District on March 11. They worked for more than a month with hardly any sleep or rest.

Thank you, Operation Tomodachi, and thank you all the people from all over the world for your help.

Mr. Baecker kindly contributed an article to my website.
Please enjoy his essay.
Mr. Baecker is now one of my very important Tomodachis.


Finding Your Inner Self
  by Shelby Baecker

If silence is golden, then by that standard Yoyokaku would be priceless.

I was recently afforded the opportunity to take some shore leave following my participation in relief efforts associated with the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Following over 30 days of endless work, work that touched me on a very personal level as I was previously stationed in Japan, I decided that to rebalance my life a stay at a ryokan would be just the ticket.  However, I was unfamiliar with the island of Kyushu and so turned to the only resource I had available, a well-worn National Geographic Explorer guidebook on Japan.  After
spending a few minutes reading about the history of Kyushu, I decided to spend my time in one of the three historic pottery towns of Imari, Arita, or Karatsu.  A little more digging during sporadic access to the internet landed me on the website of Yoyokaku, in the sea-side village of Karatsu.  It only took me 30 seconds to decide that would be the place.  A series of very warm email exchanges with the proprietress, Harumi Okochi, confirmed my inclination that if I were going to only be able to spend one night at one ryokan, Yokokaku should be it.

Arriving at Yoyokaku is like stepping back in time, which is easily possible when the building is over 110 years old.  And while nicely appointed, it retains the beauty and character of a building constructed by hand by master craftsmen.  This sense is furthered by the extraordinary grounds, the highlight of which are 200 plus year old pines that are lovingly pruned needle by needle.

Arriving at Yoyokaku is also like arriving at home, which is only possible because of the incredible hospitality of the staff.  But not in the sense of hospitality one might experience at an exclusive hotel, or even the nicest Bed and Breakfast.  Rather a ryokan's hospitality comes from the tradition of ryokans that welcomed Japanese travels hundreds of years ago.  It is part welcome, part culture, part tradition, and all centered on staff always being there, but somehow never being in the way.

And so I was greeted by not one, but four staff members.  The first had my bag in his hand before I even noticed.  The second bowed so deeply, on her hands and knees to be exact, and welcomed me so warmly that I felt a little awkward standing there.  The third and fourth stood politely by as I removed my shoes so as to assist me with slipping on slippers or to handle any other concern I seemingly might have.

Seconds later I was whisked inside, and almost instantly any semblance of noise disappeared.  I don't know how, but despite houses being packed around the grounds and a busy road a block away, Yoyokaku is able to defy the laws of physics and simply block disturbing sounds.  Throughout my stay the only things I remember hearing were the ocean crashing on the beach and the koi splashing lazily in their pond.  This sense of balanced silence is one I wish I could impart on my own house!

In nearly just as short a period of time Okochi-san had me up into my room and a chambermaid stood at the ready to assist me in easing into my yukata, a form of Japanese house-robe that imparts a sense of comfort and ease.  With that bit of pro-forma over my chambermaid then knelt down and walked me through a tradition nearly as old as Japan itself, the welcoming tea.  With graceful moves and a shy smile, she poured me a glass of piping hot tea and disappeared by quietly shuffling away in a manner that made her appear to be floating, pausing at my door to bow politely before kneeling to slide it closed.

As I sat quietly by my window overlooking Yoyokaku's garden, tea in hand, many of the stresses of my life were carried away by the cranes gently gliding up and down the wind-swept beach.  If life felt this serene now, I couldn't imagine what it was going to feel like after a soak in the o-furo, which is a form of indoor onsen, or hot bath, and a traditional Japanese kaiseki dinner.  And as with my arrival, I had no idea how good it could be.

Yoyokaku's o-furo is looks out on a smaller private garden and is set to a piping hot 108+ degrees.  The Japanese call this part of life tsukeru, which literally translates to being pickled.  And they mean it.  I am of Finnish ancestry and take pride in my ability to take on the heat in a sauna, but this was hot.  Yet in the atmosphere of Yoyokaku, it seemed like I could sit there forever.  As a historical note, bathing was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks in the 500AD period.  In fact, the great Buddha himself was reported to have said that bathing rids 7 illnesses, and brings 7 lucks.  It would seem that with Yoyoyaku, I was well on my way to those 7 lucks.

Following my pickling, I rested for a few minutes in my room before being called to dinner.  The Japanese pride themselves on their food, striving to make it just as beautiful to the eye as it is delicious to the mouth.  In both regards Yoyokaku's chef exceeded the mark.  Dish after dish after dish, I stopped counting at 5, was placed in front of me in a never-ending array of amazing courses.  Accompanying them was a seemingly limitless supply of sake and tea.  All of it once again delicately handled by the staff, who had transformed themselves from chambermaid to bath assistant to personal butler to wait staff without effort.  Rarely have I been so attended to.  Spoiled is the word that
first comes to mind.

With dinner over and feeling more relaxed than I've been in years, I was simply delighted to be able to spend some time with Okochi-san and her husband.  Our discussion ranged through topics as varied as their personal history and mine, the history of Yoyokaku, the history of the island, and whatever else fancied our minds.  These are memories that I will hold for a lifetime, for in my own travels I have always found that while memories of places and even events may be fleeting, the memories I have of the people I meet last a forever.

A room in a ryokan serves as a resting place, as well as a place for rest.  And so I happily arrived back at my room to find that the traditional sleeping arrangement of a thickly stuffed futon, a shikibuton, with an equally thick comforter, a kake buton, had been neatly arranged for me already.  As an earlier traveler remarked, "Sleeping Japanese-style, in my mind, is the greatest cure to insomnia ever invented."  I couldn't agree more - and drifted off to sleep in a matter of seconds.

Early the next morning I was awakened by the peaceful, dull light of the sun filtering through my rice-paper covered window blinds.  I eased myself back into my yukata and heading down for breakfast.  Breakfast at Yoyokaku is on par with dinner; a traditional offering that is filling yet light.  Complemented by a warm cup of tea and a stroll in the garden, I can think of no finer way to start the day off.

Sadly, my hour spent sitting in the garden marked the end of my time at Yoyokaku.  In the span of 36 hours I was able to reset my life from the stresses of the every day.  Back at work and finishing this article, I now realize the only mistake I made was not allowing more time at Yoyokaku.  But I take solace knowing that fellow travelers will avail themselves of the opportunity, and at some point I should hope to return.