April 13, 2017
This looked to be an unusual day.
For a change, the sky is clear as we make our way out of Nakamura. The Henro-michi takes us along the banks of the ever-broadening Shimanto River to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean. From here, the path heads inland, following Highway 321 as it cuts through forest hills, through a long, dark tunnel and finally deposits us along the shoreline of the Pacific.
The sunny, scenic 25-kilometre walk warrants any number of gushing words. But, this day, it is our destination that ultimately captivates Gail and me.
The tall white mass of Kaiyu Inn rises high above the coastal highway, sharply cutting into a deep blue sky. The building’s mid-century modern architectural lineage becomes apparent as we approach.
A chunky grid of balconies looks out on the Pacific Ocean, floating above a ribbon of glass that stretches across the ground floor. A broad, flat portico projects from the main floor, inviting us to enter. Which we do, expecting the grand resort hotel experience that the exterior promises.
But something is amiss. The lobby is here, an intact period piece. I see the front desk with its dark wood panelling and brick wall. Some interesting modern furniture crowds the space. But all is encrusted with plants, rocks, sea shells, driftwood. The only thing missing is staff and guests.
Two people rush the length of the hotel towards us. He is Mithu, the proprietor, tall and wiry. She is Mami, the staff, young and perky. The entrance, it turns out, is not here but at an adjoining building with a contrarian rustic quality. Mithu guides us upstairs, along an austere corridor and opens a clanky sheet metal door to reveal our room. Beyond the floor-to-ceiling wall of glass, beyond the concrete balustrade of our balcony lies the ocean. Inside, the early modern pinnings of this building are evident. There are upholstered red swivel chairs and a table with a spun metal pedestal – a cool westernized style tempered by Japanese influences, like the tatami-matted floor.
Soon we are back downstairs on our way to the baths at the far end of our modern hotel. Stones and shells and other natural bric-a-brac are scattered along our path through the refined modern architecture of the main floor. Out the aluminum glass doors, we enter a different world, one more cottage-like. It’s miles apart from the resort’s precise modernism, but a nicely designed building nonetheless. Under its large shed roof is a heavy timber structure clad in weather-aged wood siding. Mithu guides us to the baths, two large pools lined with dark stone tiles. He adds a bit more water, so impossibly hot that the tap handle needs to be turned with a piece of wood. Large windows look over the ocean. It’s a wonderful place to relax for an hour or so.
By dinner time, it is clear that we are the only guests in this massive resort complex. It’s just Gail and me along with Mami, Mithu and his wife Tae. So we sit around a wood-fired stove eating our meals family-style. It sounds so homey, yet here we are in what was likely the cocktail lounge of a ritzy inn. What was once an elegant space, where one would sip martinis and listen to cool jazz is now a little like camping out.
Fortunately, Mithu is fluent in English. Being a philosopher of sorts, he leads us in a wide-ranging discussion, probing deep for our definition of happiness. Gail and I have our own, quite different line of enquiry, trying to piece together a history of this place.
Kaiyu Inn was built by Mithu’s father in 1974 as a condominium resort complex. There are still units owned and occupied although the numbers are unclear and no explanation is forthcoming. Meanwhile, Mithu has converted a number of rooms to hotel suites and built the attached bath house about 11 years ago. Slowly, he is converting the complex into an eco-lodge. Thus, the new bath house building is rustic, using natural spring waters heated with wood. That aesthetic has wormed its way into the chic resort building with a trail of natural materials and folksy art spreading through the main floor, weaving in and out of the vintage modern furniture. The food is also natural and local, loaded with lentils and salads. And then there is the wood stove and its black pipes winding through the former cocktail lounge and out the resort’s front façade.
It’s an interesting intersection of styles and philosophies. The architect in me wants to shovel all the rocks and stuff out the side door and let the original design shine through. Yet there is a mischievous desire to see how this new, organic patina will creep up the concrete walls, a little like an architectural ruin overtaken by ivy.
No doubt, Mithu’s vision for an eco-paradise will win out. He is a passionate, lively guy. A natural conversationalist too, always leading the talk back to his topic of choice, happiness. Tae is at a disadvantage this evening, being less fluent in English. But she is no less passionate. Gail and I feel drawn into their unique world.
Not long ago, Mami was like us, a hotel guest in this other-worldly inn. But she was so charmed by the warmth and vision of her hosts that she decided to stay and volunteer as the sole staff person, at least for the season, while she works at a nearby hospital. Mami is fully engaged in our discussions this night. Happiness is still something to be explored for this young women.
The next morning, Gail and I sit down for breakfast before resuming our pilgrimage. This time, we dine among the timber posts and beams of the bath house building. The morning sun streams in through the large Pacific-facing windows. As we sit at our wood-hewn table, eating Japanese pancakes with homemade preserves, all prepared by Mithu and Tae, Mami rushes in, dressed for her hospital job. She is off to work but eager to say goodbye before we leave. And to present us with a card she crafted after last night’s festivities. On it are pictures of the five of us beautifully rendered in ink and watercolour. It reads: “What’s your happiness?”
It is a remarkable settai – a forever reminder of our most unusual day at Kaiyu Inn.
An excellent post! I actually live around the coast a little bit in a small village called Kumomo, I pass this hotel most days and have always wondered what goes on there, now I know! Thanks for the insight. I hope you’re pilgrimage went well, I live behind a minshuku and in the summer months I see lots of o’henro San walkers. Keep it up 🙂