In Niigata I was greeted by the sort of snow we hardly ever see now in Germany. But it wasn’t as deep as it was last year and the roads were free of snow.
I met Rene Villelas, who wanted to escort me to our hotel, as I would never have found it without his help and with my Japanese navigation device. The hotel was located in the immediate vicinity of the koi breeders in the mountains between Nagaoka and Ojiya. It was also to be our hotel during the JBL expedition in October 2019, so I wanted to check it out.
At the reception there was the obligatory shoe exchange. You leave your own shoes neatly on the shelf and get some open slippers which probably would not even have fitted me as a child. The dangers of these Japanese slippers are totally underestimated. They slip off your feet when you’re not expecting it, and since your foot only half fits into it, you soon need new socks because they’re always dragging on the floor at the back. The room is huge by Japanese standards, but doesn’t have a bed. The floor consists of tatami mats, common in any martial arts club. There they serve to protect the athlete when falling. But why they are the floor covering of choice in a hotel room is not quite clear to me. At least it looks very Japanese with a flat children’s size table and the matching sawn-off chairs. There wasn’t a shower and my friend Rene, who has been living in Japan for many years, explained to me that there was a shower in the spa area - with men and women separated. Luckily there was a toilet, which, as usual in Japan, had a heated toilet seat and various keys, which can only be operated correctly with the help of an extensive instruction manual (in Japanese, of course). If you press the red button thinking it’s the flush button, for example, you’ll flood the bathroom with a strong jet of water from the ceiling. But high humidities are supposed to be good or you. The toilet itself can do everything: from bum cleaning flushing to feel-good music. Due to my communication problems with the keyboard, however, I unfortunately never worked out how to lower the heating setting to temperatures below the pain threshold.
While I go to dinner, a bed is prepared in the room. Or better: a mattress with a blanket and a pillow is laid in the middle of the room. Anyone who has ever been homeless will be okay here. It’s almost as hard as a pavement. But the Japanese don't have back pain, so I accept the night torture as health-promoting.
Dinner consists of huge numbers of innumerable courses, all of which look like appetizers. Using the Japanese menu, you can find out whether it's jellyfish or whatever - assuming you can read Japanese. So I dutiful eat (almost) all of the mini portions and am amazed to find I am really full by the end.
To round off the subject of hotels, I’ll briefly describe the shower. I am not really sure if I did everything right, because there were no instructions. There are a lot of children’s wooden stools in front of a long bench with shampoos, mirrors, unknown accessories and a hand shower. I took a very long time to take off my kimono (laid out ready in the room) so I could watch a Japanese man master the showering procedure while sitting.
Then I sat down naked next to him and greeted him politely with the three Japanese scraps I had learned from my navigation device. He just grunted. Apparently you don’t talk during your oblutions. Then you take a shower sitting down, which I found obstructive in certain places. But the rest is probably taken care of by the all-purpose toilet. I never found out.
In the morning we went to the koi breeders in perfect weather. It was really very nice to notice that the Japanese, who only a few years ago hadn't been willing to exchange a single word with me, were now welcoming me very warmly and had water chemical questions for me, which Rene patiently translated. With our JBL SmartPhone test kit (JBL ProScan) and a conductivity meter, you never run out of conversation material. Without a translator, however, the conversations are usually extremely restricted. Only very few Japanese speak fluent English.
I visited the koi breeders who feed our JBL ProPond pond food to their animals and asked them about their experiences. The breeders feed some fish with high quality food and some with more reasonably priced food. Young Tosai never get high quality and therefore expensive food, whether from Hikari or JBL. Last year I was the first person ever to take underwater photos of the Koi. Rene and I showed them the pictures from last year and asked if I could take photos again, because I had learned that a flash device increases the brilliance and depth of field of the photos enormously. Rene held the big Hartenberg underwater flash high above the Koi tank, while I took the photos with my camera under water (connected by flash cable). With the clear water and the high numbers of fish the pictures looked sensational. Eventually, however, the low water temperatures led me to curb my photo binge.
After two days with the most important koi breeders, a strengthened back due to the Tatami floor and three kilos less around my ribs I took the car directly back to Tokyo. I didn't need my Japanese navigation system anymore, but I left it switched on for entertainment. I kidded myself I could now understand some of what the droning female voice was saying.