TOKYO — Fistfuls of yen are indispensable in the Land of the Rising Sun. But Japan has one saving grace for the budget traveler--its youth hostels.
As with all youth hostels, you only need to produce a membership card; people of all ages are welcome. Accommodation is usually in dormitories, but in many Japanese hostels, families can arrange to stay together if the hostel isn't crowded. Some hostels are closed during the day, and although bedding is provided, you supply your own sheet sleeping bag or rent it.
Hostels in Japan are as varied as the nation. The Tokyo youth hostel is palatial. Brand new, it occupies the top two stories of one of the newest of Tokyo's high-rise business blocks, with a glittering city panorama at night and plate-glass floor-to-ceiling windows in each room. "A youth hostel?" wonder the grubby backpackers, eyeing the plush carpeted lobby.
Wonder succeeds wonder, with silk flower arrangements in the spotless spacious bathroom, and blond-wood bunks, curtained sleeping compartments provided with designer bed lamps. But best of all are the bathrooms.
The civilized Japanese use their communal baths to relax and chat away the tensions of the day. The Tokyo youth hostel bathroom includes a black marble bathtub big enough to accommodate 20 weary bodies without undue familiarity.
Come with me on my first venture into the mysterious ritual of the Japanese bath. We put on the obligatory house slippers supplied by the youth hostel, and slipslop down the corridor to the changing room. Clued by the collection in front of us, we discard our slippers and step up onto a straw tatami mat to undress and put our clothes into a yellow plastic basket.
We select a small bowl for our soap and shampoo, and slide open the glass door to the bathroom proper. That's where the black marble walls and floors begin.
Unsure of the etiquette, we follow our neighbors to squat on a stool before a set of taps and shower hose. Our more decorous neighbors hold their washcloths strategically when they walk around. They chat, but there's a general air of courtesy far removed from the hearty schoolboy towel flicking or schoolgirl giggling in Western shower rooms. We feel new, gauche. We try to behave as if we always bathed this way.
Now comes the real work: a thorough soap and lather of every inch of the body, solemnly regarding ourselves in the mirror before us, and an equally thorough rinse. Every atom of soap flushed away, we ascend the black marble steps and sink into the bath.
The water is hip high, so we can submerge to our chins and feel our inner day's grime dissolve in the heat. Five minutes of floating in this black marble bath and you're kin to Cleopatra. We collect our little basket of belongings and stagger out a trifle rubber-legged to dry and dress and shuffle into our slippers.
The hostel's only serious drawback is its ubiquitous P.A. system through which loud reminders of bed, bath and closing times are relayed every 15 minutes. Bear it with good humor, for this must surely be the world's plushest youth hostel. With the only black marble bathtub for 20.
Of quite another character is the youth hostel at Takayama that is attached, as are many in Japan, to a Shinto temple. We walked to it on a dark rainy evening through cobbled streets lined with wooden houses. An enormous brass gong hung in the courtyard under the dripping trees, waiting to be struck. Opposite lay the temple, where a single candle burns all night. In the morning, a low rolling boom of gongs and quiet chanting reminded us where we were.
Next to the temple, past a bamboo waterspout trickling water onto a hollowed stone with a dipper for thirsty travelers, is the familiar international youth hostel sign, welcoming you to a labyrinth of small traditional Japanese rooms.
Another good hostel lies right beside Lake Toya-ko in Hokkaido. The tranquil air of its surroundings is deceptive. A few kilometers away from the hostel, one of the youngest hills on earth was born in 1944, accompanied by a whole series of volcanic eruptions.
All the land nearby crumpled and sagged to accommodate the new mountain, and the buildings twisted to match. So the corridors of Toya Kanko-kan hostel curve in odd directions, the floors slope up and then down, and the walls lean in.
In the same national park is Shikotsu-ko hostel, by a lake so clear that you can see 10, 20 feet down to the pebbled bottom. Mountains rise sheer all around, and the air tastes like Perrier water.
The Japanese escape in busloads to Shikotsu-ko, for a few hours away from their smoggy cities. But lucky hostelers can linger. Step out of your hostel slippers onto smooth polished wood floor ledges, and then onto the resilient tatami mats smelling of summers-ago hay. Sit by the window looking across the lake as the late sun slants through the paper shutters.
Favorite Was a Farmhouse
But if I had to choose my favorite of all the Japanese hostels, it would be Etchu Gokoyama.