Saturday, August 4, 2012

YAKUZA ENCOUNTERS: Relaxing at a hot spring with a mob boss... and we're both naked!

This is the second part in the ongoing Yakuza Encounters series. Refer to the linked post, e-mail me, or leave a comment if you want to write your own installment!

When I checked into the Shiraoi Onsen Hotel in rural Hokkaido, little did I expect I would find myself sitting next to a yakuza boss at a hot spring.

In the summer of 2009, I used a seishun 18 kippu to travel by local trains from my home in Okayama to my future wife's home in Hokkaido. The seishun 18 kippu, which roughly translates to youth ticket, is a cheap way to travel if you don't mind journeying by local trains rather than the bullet train. It took me six days to get to Sapporo, making frequent sight-seeing stops. You don't necessarily have to be young to use the ticket--they sell them to anybody, but only during certain times of the year.

On my return, I decided to take a side trip to Shiraoi, a rural seaside town in southern Hokkaido, which was recently featured on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. I was attracted to the Poroto Kotan village, which is a replica of an Ainu village, along with a museum and tourist center. I checked into the only open hotel in town, the Shiraoi Onsen Hotel. (Shiraoi only has two hotels, and the other was closed on Mondays.)

The hotel is a nice facility which provides loads of favorite Hokkaido dishes, has a large onsen bath house, and spacious rooms. It was very reasonably priced, considering the amenities.

I sat down for dinner in the dining area. There were only two other guests in the dining room, who pretty much ignored me as I entered. One of them was an older man, the other was much younger. I inferred from their body language that they weren't father and son, so I assumed they were salarymen on a company team-building trip.

Once the younger man left, I was alone with the older man. He was staring at me, but I took no heed, as I was used to getting stared at by then as a foreigner in Japan.

After dinner, I went down to the bath house to clean up and relax from my long journey.

The bath house had perhaps 30 showers, and I had the whole place to myself. I sat at a shower and began soaping up.

Shiraoi Onsen Hotel (
A few minutes later, I heard someone enter the onsen. It was the old man from the dining area. He was now disrobed, and I noticed he was tattooed from neck to ankles. He sat down in the hot spring, and I could see in the reflection of the mirror in front of my shower that he was again staring at me.

Needless to say, I was anxious. It is unnerving enough to be alone with a yakuza boss, but I felt especially vulnerable being naked. A few minutes later, the younger man entered. His tattoos were still works-in-progress.

The boss nodded toward me and said, "Gaikokujin ga oru." There's a foreigner. I was now especially nervous as he was pointing me out to his kobun, but I thought it a little strange he used the politically correct term "gaikokujin" rather than "gaijin" or something less flattering. Imagine Tony Soprano using the term "African American" rather than "black" or a term too ugly to put on the Internet.

The boss then got out of the bath and sat at the shower directly to my left, rather than one of the 29 other open showers in the room. The henchman then began scrubbing his boss's back, while the oyabun sparked up a conversation.

The boss spoke mumbled yakuza slang, only half of which I could discern. The underling then translated it into everyday Japanese.

He asked me basic questions like where I was from. Being from the U.S. seemed to impress him, and he asked which state, and I said, "Um, have you seen The Wizard of Oz?" He asked what I did, and when I said I was a teacher, his tone changed somewhat and he used more respectful Japanese. Teaching is a very prestigious job in Japan.

He had gleaned a little bit about Kansas from American films, and he said, "There are a lot of cowboys there, right?"

"Um... sure."

"Do you have a gun?"

"Um... not with me."

He then started feeling out whether I could get a gun. I just said I don't have any guns in Japan. I then turned off my water, said, "It was nice to meet you," and got up.

I then sat in the hot spring for awhile, because I didn't want it to look like I was rushing off. Later, as I walked through the lobby toward my room, I found the place was crawling with yakuza. I must have crashed their convention.

The boss was now sitting in the middle of the room, and as I walked by he yelled out, "Ah! Teacher! Herro!"

The yakuza all looked at me, cigarettes dangling from their lips.

I said, "Hello!"

This seemed to delight the boss.

"Goodbye!" he said.


As I exited the lobby, I overheard the boss boasting, "I just had a conversation in English!"

Just a normal day in the life of an English teacher in Japan.



    Shoot! I've heard that they are really polite folks though - -

    p.s. Cool info on the Ainu!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Angry Gaijin. I'm not sure all of them are polite, but they are definitely more outgoing than your typical Japanese salaryman.

  3. At my local gym in Saitama I was getting changed in the changing room and low and behold I noticed an older guy with full back and chest tattoos, kind of like a waistcoat. I plucked up ridiculous amounts of courage to speak to him.

    I told him how beautiful the colours in his tattoo were and how intricate the design was. He told me it was a tattoo of Suikoden and how tattoo are generally a bad thing in Japan. I showed him my small skull tattoo on my right shoulder expecting humiliation but received only flattery. Hollow compliments, but compliments nonetheless.

    After a small chat about America (being British I know next to nothing) I bid him farewell and headed into the gym.

    1. It definitely took cojones grandes to approach a yakuza. Thanks for sharing, Ricky!