|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
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.