Holidays at the Hot SpringsbyArmphid©
"This freaking road," Jason Kalt grimaced while he made another sharp turn as the road bent almost back on itself as the thin ribbon of asphalt snaked its way up the face of a tall, proud mountain. The small rental car didn't miss a step as it came through the latest switchback despite the way his nerves still jangled at driving on the wrong side of the road like this. He'd thought he would be used to it after the first hour or so of Japanese roads but it seemed that a lifetime of habit was harder to overcome than that. He took a glance out the driver's side window and let out a relaxing sigh, "But the view's worth it."
He'd grown up in a mountainous area but the Appalachians were lower than these younger, craggy peaks and were covered in trees and life. There were trees and life here as well but only very visible in the valleys and sheltered spots between the outreaching walls of rock; the mountains of Niigata Prefecture, dubbed the "Alps of Japan" by the earliest foreign visitors, were starkly and majestically beautiful. Rock and stone seemed black from a distance and there were great areas sleeved in snow that gleamed brightly in the fading light of day with shades of red and orange streaking them as if the snowfields were blushing at the admiration of mortal eyes.
"It really is. I've been watching and taking pictures when my side of the car isn't facing a rock wall," Cecilia answered, holding up their digital camera in one hand. She smiled as her husband of barely a week looked over at her and his eyes moved from the camera after only a heartbeat to trace over her face and her body before going back to the road. "I think you were right, babe. After all that awesomeness and total insanity in Tokyo...spending Christmas out here where it's so quiet, so peaceful, will be great."
It was Christmas Eve. The young couple had married almost exactly one week before and flown out on the same day for a more extravagant honeymoon than either had ever thought they could have. The two had been dating for four years before getting wed, and had been living together for two of those years. Jason had wanted to propose much earlier but always felt he didn't have the right job or the right income for a good wedding or an expensive enough ring. Things never seemed "right" for them to get married. It took a real heart-to-heart and advice from his closest female friends before he got it through his head that none of that was really the point. It turned out he should have done it back when he first wanted to. After the proposal, things had just clicked for them. Cecilia got an excellent new job and while Jason was still doing the adjunct faculty slog, he managed to finally get a novel published and had another in production now. That was what enabled them to take this trip in a land both admired and were interested in but never thought they would see in person.
After spending three days in Tokyo; bright, brilliant, loud, mad, relentless Tokyo, the two had needed a change of plans and location. Jason preferred more remote retreats in any event and had suggested heading into the mountains for Christmas in a traditional inn. Rather than the more popular Yuzawa slopes closer to Tokyo, he had reserved a spot at an inn in more remote Myoukou. Train and bus would have gotten them there but he wanted to drive; to see and feel the land for himself. He mildly regretted it now.
But the payoff at their destination would be worth it. As they came around the final switchback of the ascent and began to take the road that actually went up and around the peak, Jason looked over at her. "The first Christmas with my wife," he smiled.
She beamed back, "The first of many, husband." His eyes were bright as he watched her and she flushed a bit, her expression turning sheepish. "...Baby..." Then she glanced up and gasped, "Baby! Fox!"
"What the," he turned his eyes back to the road to see a white furred fox darting out onto the road not even thirty feet from them, "shit!" Jason jerked the wheel and lifted his foot off the gas, throwing the car away from the small canine with a screech of the tires and a faint shimmy as the vehicle almost skidded. They careened onto the narrow shoulder, Cecilia yelping as there was a sharp crack and snap as the side mirror was smashed off and went flying; her side of the car was just inches from the mountain side, rocks whizzing by right in front of her face.
Jason turned the wheel back gently, the decrease in speed making the arc back onto the road proper easy and graceful. His heart was pounding. "God damn! God fucking damn it!" He slowed the car further, stopping gently and hitting the flashing hazard lights. "I can't believe I was so stupid!" His hands clenched the wheel tightly, white knuckled. He'd nearly killed them on their honeymoon! And hit that fox! And the damn mirror was broken off, the rental company would love that!
"Hey, babe, it's okay." Cecilia's eyes were a bit wild but she smiled and reached out to lay a hand on one of his. "Deep breath, okay? I'm fine. You're fine. The car's mostly fine." She glanced back out the rear window. "Even the fox is fine."
Jason looked up into the rearview mirror to see the white furred canine sitting on its haunches about fifty feet behind them on the road, looking at the car curiously. He took a deep breath and then blew it out. "Yeah. We're okay. And so's the stupid fox." He tapped a button to make the window go down and leaned his head out, craning to look back at the small animal. "Hey, fox!" The animal's ears perked up. "Be more careful! Someone else might choose to hit you instead of almost crashing!" He shook his head and leaned back in his seat, the window rising back up. "Man, I can't believe I broke the fucking rental car on our honeymoon in Japan."
Behind them, the fox tilted its head to one side and then stood up and trotted off of the road, heading in the direction the mirror had gone.
Cecilia patted her husband's arm, "It's all right. You didn't break the car, its running fine! Besides, "nothing parties like a rental," remember? We got the insurance for a reason."
He let out a weak chuckle, a smirk slipping onto his lips despite himself at that. "I guess so. I'm glad we did, I don't think they'd take fox dodging as an excuse otherwise." Jason took a deep breath and shook his head again, "Okay, adrenaline fading. Hey! You should get a picture of that little guy. I mean, nobody'll believe us otherwise."
She had turned and raised the camera for a shot out the back window but then lowered it. "Aww, he's gone. It would have been a cute pic too."
"That's gratitude for you," Jason shrugged. He clicked the hazards off and eased his foot off the break and onto the gas, starting a gradual acceleration. "Let's get going, I've clearly been on the road too long."
"Ha!" Cecilia flopped back in her seat and grinned, "You just can't wait to see me in a yukata, perv."
The young academic thought a moment for effect and then shrugged, "Yeah." He glanced over at his wife's curvy form and sighed happily, "I bet you won't even be able to get it closed properly."
"Eyes and mind on the road, buddy," she grinned. Though he was probably right and he'd love every second of it...and so would she, actually. Cecilia, and her new hubby too, was as kinky as a corkscrew and exhibitionism gave her such a thrill! All the Japanese men there would be staring at her cleavage and pretending not to...not that they hadn't when she was wearing normal clothes, but somehow a traditional setting and robe would make it even better!
They drove on in a comfortable silence for a few minutes before Cecilia leaned forward in her seat and frowned as the area grew darker. She looked out the windshield at the sky above where the thin grey clouds that had been patchy and high in the sky had now descended and grown in number and volume; looking almost as if a sheet of slate and charcoal and been hung between the earth and sky. "That doesn't look good."
Jason grimaced, "Especially with that," one hand left the steering wheel to tap the dashboard readout. They'd switched it over from Celsius to Fahrenheit and it was now reading 36 degrees. "I just noticed it; the temperature's dropped five degrees in the last few minutes."
She made a soft, disgusted sound, lips pressed together, "That's just about right for...that, damn it." As soon as she'd started to speak, both of the newlyweds could see flecks of white drifting down through the air. A handful peppered the windshield and melted into droplets of water after only a moment, another handful doing the same a moment later, then considerably more than a handful.
"Hell." Jason clicked the heater up and shifted it to full defrost, hitting the rear defrost button as well. "This prefecture is renowned for heavy snowfall in the winter and they say the storms can come up quick in these mountains." His eyes were fixed on the road, glancing up to check the conditions and to check each mirror every few seconds. "The weather report said it'd be clear going though."
"I guess their weathermen are just as good as ours," Cecilia gave a weak laugh and pulled the smart phone they'd rented for their trip out of a pocket. "Let's see what they're saying now." Jason grunted in acknowledgement, having clicked the wipers on. The snowfall was heavy already, dramatically increasing as they went on; the hood was already dusted with snow as was the road and the mountain side around them. The car shuddered a gust of wind blew up and pushed at the briskly moving rental vehicle, nudging it a few inches to the right. The newly invigorated wind did not let up and the sound of it was soon audible over that of the engine and the windshield wipers as it whistled and howled around the mountaintop.
She frowned at the smart phone, "I can't get any signal." Looking up and out the windows, Cecilia took a deep breath and then exhaled. It was coming down heavily, the beams of their headlights awash with thick and fast falling flakes. The visibility had dropped remarkably; it was not yet a white-out but they could only see for maybe 20 yards in any direction. "This looks bad, babe."
"Yeah." He could no longer see the surface of the road ahead but the lines were made with reflective enough paint that he could still make them out to keep them in their lane and on the road. His body was tensed and his senses strained, trying to pick up any information he could get from the feel of the road, the blustering hiss or howl of the wind, the gleam of light from the headlights on snow, the way the shadows ahead fell, anything that would help him guide the car through this seemingly instant blizzard. "We're still a good two hours from Myoukou, more given that this'll slow us down." He wanted to keep going, they had a place to be. But he also didn't know these roads or these mountains. He'd driven in snowstorms before but not one that had come out of nowhere like this. But wasn't that kind of...pussing out? They drove on for another five minutes and the fall only increased, cutting their vision down to maybe ten yards, and their speed down to a crawl of what it had been. The wind picked up more, jostling the little car noticeably every time it gusted and almost pushing it around on the road. "God damn! Thoughts?"
Cecilia pursed her lips and then shook her head, "I don't know, babe. I'd like to make it to the ryokan but this seems pretty risky. I mean, if we knew the roads or the route it'd be different, but we don't and there's no telling how long this could go on." She gave a soft, little laugh, "I don't like changing the plan but I like dying on a foreign mountainside even less. I think we should try and find somewhere to wait it out."
"You're probably right," Jason acknowledged with a frustrated sigh. "I don't like it but this is getting worse every minute." The wipers had clusters of ice and snow on them now, dragging wet swathes across the heat blasted windshield as they swept it largely clean at a frantic pace. Already? Hell, had this storm even been going ten minutes yet? He glanced to the roadsides, "Problem is, where are we going to do that up here? If we just pull off, we could get trapped or stuck and I don't think the rental came with a winter car survival kit."
"Maybe it'll blow over fast, since it came up out of nowhere," she offered. "Let's see if we can find a weather report on the radio." The American woman leaned forward and tabbed the device on, her finger moving automatically to the scanning button to seek out a news station.
It froze as, rather than the expected bombastic and frenetic latest Jpop tune, a sonorous male voice spoke instead. Cecilia blinked and made a soft sound of surprise. The frequency must have changed to another station while they were driving. That happened, right?
The announcer on the radio was finishing whatever the message was and then cleared his throat and surprised them both by speaking in English, "For our many foreign visitors, please be aware that there is a serious winter storm that has arisen in the southern areas of Niigata Prefecture. Extreme winds are a danger and snowfall of at least a meter is expected. Travel is extremely discouraged; please seek shelter immediately."
"Well that's new," Jason frowned as his wife turned the volume down as the announcer then went on to talk about business closings, in Japanese once more. "Since when do they give announcements in English?"
"It is a big tourist season," Cecilia shrugged. Though it was very strange...and she knew that hadn't been a news station when they last had the radio on an hour ago. "And maybe this storm is just that bad...it doesn't matter though, babe. If it's that bad, we need to stop."
"Yeah," he agreed. "But where the he-" He cut off as a shape loomed up ahead just off the right side of the road and then resolved into a sign. It was not one of the blue metal road signs but large and wooden and made to resemble the torii gates that marked the entrances to Shinto shrines. Several light were set around it and shone onto the main portion despite a heavy layer of snow to show the characters that made up, "Kuzunoha Ryokan and Onsen," Jason read aloud, "Driveway ten meters ahead on the right." He looked over at Cecilia, "Should we?"
The car suddenly jerked and he grunted, Cecilia yelping, as a gust of wind stronger than any so far slammed the car and pushed them over into the right lane before he could correct and straighten them out. "Shit," she answered, "yes! Please, babe, this is starting to freak me out."
He had already been slowing, blinker on, to make the turn. He still felt a little weak for not braving the storm and had a vague sense of suspicion that lurked in the back of his mind. Something about all this just felt off, somehow. But trying to go on would be immensely stupid; this storm was fast becoming a blizzard. As he made the turn, there was a rough bumping, soft scraping sound as the undercarriage brushed the mounting snow. The driveway was long, more than half a mile, and led back and slightly up even more towards the peak to put the ryokan in the shelter of the mountain side. Jason had to shift down and gingerly ease the car along to reach where the lane widened out into a small parking lot with the traditional style inn beyond it. The lot had two vehicles in it and both were well coated with snow and no tracks went to where they sat, indicating that they had been there before the sudden storm. There was a small, older-style pickup truck of some kind as well as a Toyota coupe that looked like it originated from the early 90's at best.
The ryokan beyond was large and spacious looking; a traditional building of wood and plaster with paper screens for doors, though there were heavier and solid wooden doors on the outside which were currently closed to keep the cold out. There was a large central structure which would hold the main hall and primary socializing area and a pair of wings that spread out from that and then went back away from the front of the building where rooms, the kitchens, offices, and other areas would be. Behind it was a set of wooden walls that could be seen where the roof curved down that blocked off the hot spring area mentioned on the sign; steam billowed up as mute testament to the warmth of the water. Lights glowed from many windows, a warm and welcome sight, and there was even a string of red and green Christmas lights strung over and around the main door. On the lintel above the door the characters for "Kuzunoka Ryokan" were carved and the painted gold with slightly stylized kudzu leaves on either side.
Jason pulled in beside the old Toyota and shifted into park and a lone stone lamp set by the parking lot blazed into sudden light as they drew close, the old looking decoration apparently updated with a motion sensor. He leaned back in his seat and let his head fall back against the headrest. Even though he'd only been driving in the storm for twenty minutes at the outside, it was a tremendous relief to be stopped and safe. He rested his head for a moment and then lifted it to look at the ryokan. "Well, somebody's home at least."
"Yeah, but I think we may be the only guests," Cecilia laughed. "Not a lot of other cars here. Isn't that weird? I mean, this is a prime tourist time of year, right?"
Her husband nodded. "Yeah." Christmas was very far from a religious holiday here, save for Japan's small community of Christians, but it was a big commercial holiday and was considered to be deeply romantic. Sweet gifts and big gestures were almost an expectation and scenic places tended to fill up with couples looking for a short but romantic getaway. "Still, this place is a few hours from the city and any of the big ski spots so it may not be too popular. And a lot of people would probably come here on Christmas Day rather than today."
"I guess so." Cecilia felt a sudden uncertainty about the beautiful inn before them. She wasn't sure why but she felt as though it was all too convenient and the lack of any other guests...well, she didn't know there weren't any other guests. They might have gotten stranded wherever they had been before coming back to the inn for the night too. She was just being paranoid. This weather was freaking her out. "Well, let's see if there's room at the inn."
Jason turned off the car and chuckled, "I don't see a manger, so we better hope so." The newlyweds looked at each other and took a deep breath, hands going to the door handle. "Ready?" She nodded and they both opened their doors and hauled themselves out into the frigid night.
The cold was shocking, even through the winter clothing they wore, smashing into them as though they'd jumped into arctic waters and seeming to steal their breath. The wind was less here than it had been down at the road but it still cut and bit at their exposed faces and sent their hair tumbling. They moved with quick, sharp motions as the cold and wind struck them, opening the trunk and pulling out a few bags before hurrying to the front of the inn.
Jason was a tall man, even with his broad shoulders slightly bent to try and shelter his head from the wind, a few inches over six feet in height. He had a linebacker's built with a solid and strong frame that was neither thick nor thin but powerful looking. His skin was a light peach color that sunburned easily and his short, professional chestnut brown hair was styled simply with a part on one side. His features were clean and masculine but boyish, he would be 30 on his next birthday but he was usually taken for being in his early 20's. A well groomed, short, full beard that he called a "Riker" style gave him more gravity and dignity than his features might normally. Jason had a strong chin, high cheek bones, and plush lips that his own wife described as "cock sucking lips." His keen eyes were a creamy green color and tended to sweep over any area he was in often, as if to keep alert for any change. He had dressed for winter in the mountains but had never really minded the cold before, in the winter often going outside to get the mail or take the garbage to the curb in nothing more than a t-shirt and shorts. Now clad only in regular walking shoes, jeans, and a long sleeved maroon shirt under a green hoodie, he regretted dressing so lightly as he felt his hands numbing and his limbs trembling just from this little exposure to the wicked chill of the storm.