Sleeping on the futon next to mine at the Limelight rider house was Mr Mountain Field, a seventy-two year old with a ZZ Top beard whose – possibly self-coined – nickname was sen-nin (仙人 / Buddhist hermit).
‘My wife and I run our own rider house down near Nagoya,’ he told me. ‘Our water comes straight from a mountain spring and we’ve even got a goémon-buro. You should come and stay some time.’
Mr Mountain Field had walked the Shikoku-henro a couple of years ago, he said, but decided to come to Hokkaido on a 50cc scooter, along the way customising it with a pair of deer antlers. The outside wall of the Limelight, meanwhile, was adorned with two railway platform signs, one of which had been auctioned off when Hakodaté station was refurbished a couple of years previously, while the other had been custom made with the word ‘Limelight’ as the station name.
Instead of being able to soothe the bites in the bath, though, I ended up at an onsen that wasn’t so much hot spring as volcanic inferno, and whose interior resembled a scene from Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, with every available surface encrusted with limescale or stalactites (goodness only knows what the inside of their kitchen kettle must have looked like). The water – which as the receptionist informed me bubbled up from the ground at around forty-four degrees centigrade – was an uninviting rusty orange colour, and in one corner of the room cascaded from a pipe in the ceiling that was supposed to be a massage waterfall but functioned more as a kind of torture device.
At an okonomiyaki restaurant across the road the only other customers were a mother and her eight-year-old son, Mr Thorough.
‘He’s been studying English with one of the teachers at his elementary school,’ said the mother as she grabbed his head and twisted it to face me.
Despite having been coerced into conversation, though, Mr Thorough was a more proficient English speaker than a lot of the teenagers I teach. His ambition, he said, was to be a vet, and as well as two pet cats – one of whom had originally been a stray – he kept a lizard and a beetle, both of which he had caught himself.
Mr Thorough told me that he usually cleaned out the cat litter in the evening and went to bed early, but as I was leaving, his mother – who had just ordered another beer – said that he could take the day off tomorrow.
The owner of the restaurant lent me a katori-senkoh (蚊取り線香 / mosquito coil) to take back to the campsite, although I have to admit that after partaking of a couple of beers myself, when I woke in the middle of the night needing a pee, I opted to use a plastic bottle rather than venture outside and risk being bitten somewhere far more awkward than my ear.