Before leaving Kyotamba, Kyoko and I return to the Hiyoshi Springs onsen (hot spring bath) one last time. By week’s end the women seem to have warmed to me. One who must be in her 90s–hands gnarled by arthritis and right breast scraped away by a careless surgeon years ago–grins at me. Her sunken, toothless crescent is bashful. Her eyes sparkle with wordless farewell.
The plump one who speaks a little English suddenly slides over and holds her arm alongside mine and says: Rinda-san. You skin rike tofu. Everyone laughs—except the 40-something matron who, her head wrapped in a towel, uncannily resembles Nefertiti. She always sits apart from us and never speaks. Her posture is unbearably regal for someone who is supposed to be relaxing.
“You,” I answer in Japanese, “are like milk coffee.” She isn’t the colour of a caffe latte at all, but it’s a phrase I know how to say. Still, my response seems to delight everyone. I am sorry I must depart just as they seem more willing to engage with me.
Where are you going? Kyoto, Otsu, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Ise and back to Tokyo. Places most of them have never been.
Rinda-san is not lonely?
No. I am not lonely. I am very happy to be in Japan. I sink deeper into the water: warm, content and whole. As always, I ache with leave-taking, not knowing when I will feel this bliss again.
Kyoko has already left the rotenburo (outdoor pool) to wash and style her hair. All too soon I can delay no longer. Before I move toward the steps the full moon blinks hard from behind clouds and a few drops fall. My throat burns with choked-back tears.
A soft wind caresses my shoulders. The maples, grasses, and bamboo surrounding the pool bow toward me at this moment of parting. They genuflect again and again in the manner of the Japanese.
I rise casually draping my modesty towel in front of me—a gesture that is quite natural now. The village ladies nod to me as well and call out: Sayonara, Rinda-san. Sayonara.