Wednesday, May 5, 2010


my four nights in sapporo city provided the opportunity to experience first-hand the doya, or cheap lodgings, where most day laborers live. ted fowler's san'ya blues and tom gill's men of uncertainty provided good descriptions of the doya-gai, or worker towns, and contained rich narrations of their experiences of doya life. i was eager to try it out myself.

one of my local friends, keita, accompanied me to find a doya to check into for my first night at sapporo city. i had previously stayed in business hotels in the same area but i was at a loss as to how to identify a a doya. as we walked into the first one we'd passed by, i realized how one can distinguish a doya from a higher level business hotel. conspicuously displayed in front of a doya are its room rates: ¥1,000 or ¥1,200.

the front desk receptionist initially didn't want to allow me to check-in, as he said i didn't know how to speak japanese and so i may not understand the rules and regulations of the doya. keita said something in japanese and i was eventually given a room.

it was already around 8:30pm when we checked in and so the cheaper rooms were all taken so i had to settle for a ¥1,500 room. it was 2.5 tatami in size, and had a small table, refrigerator and television set. the sheets were fresh-smelling and the tatami floor was clean (see picture below).
finally, i remembered thinking, i could put my heavy bag down and leave it in the room, as we planned to leave immediately to go to two other philippine restaurants. but keita advised against leaving my laptop in the room, and being uninitiated in doya living, i followed his advice, though leaving all my clothes and . the ofuro would be open only up to 10:30pm, we were advised as we headed out.

returning from dinner, keita and i separated at the train station as we were going separate directions. as i got off my stop and exited the station on my way to the doya, a sudden cold sweat broke out on my forehead. being with keita as we left the doya, i hadn't paid attention to where exactly we passed. i realized i didn't know how to get back to the doya! the worst that could happen, i was telling myself, was that i would waste my ¥1,500yen and be forced to check into another doya for the night. i calmly paced the exit lobby of the station in order to try to remember what general direction we passed. all the worrying made me quite thirsty and so i put down my bag, and as i searched for my water jug which had been pushed down the bottom of the bag, another cold sweat broke out. my small belt bag containing my passport, and my research petty cash and other very important papers was missing! either i had dropped it during dinner or in the rush to unload my clothes and other non-important stuff in the room, i had absent mindedly included it. i couldn't call keita (as he didn't have a keitai -- why not would be another reflection story in itself), and so i realized i was on my own in my problem that night.

i then decided that i'd have to at least try to find the doya. i recalled that our walk to the station from the doya was a short one -- about 5-10 minutes -- so that would translate to a radius of about 4 to 5 blocks from where i was. i remembered passing by a lawson store so that meant i didn't have to search the entire area. it was 10pm and though i was hoping i'd get lucky and still find the doya in time to catch the ofuro before it closed at 10:30pm, what i was worried about was that i would get locked out of the doya, as the doors would be locked by 12:00midnight.

i said a little prayer, and off i went.

immediately i was sensing something was different. earlier in the evening, the area was brightly lit, and the front entrances of the doyas were open. but as i walked, the doyas' doors were all shut with metal pull down doors, and the streets were menacingly dark. groups of drunken men were sitting around in the street gutters, their loud, course voices puncturing the silence of the otherwise peaceful evening. in the first two blocks i was searching based on memory. i had then regressed into doing a grid search, going street by street, block by block. again, worry raced through my mind. "if the doyas' door were all closed, how would i remember the front entrance at least of my doya?" i glanced at my watch and saw that it was already 11:08pm. i stepped up my pace from a quick walk to a hurried jog. five more minutes passed. i realized that i was now way over my estimated radius. i ran back to the lawson store. i was back to square one.

the seriousness of the situation crept into my head, as i wandered aimlessly inside the lawson store, breathing in the cool air, and finding my bearings. if i hadn't dropped my belt bag on our way to dinner, and it was in fact in my doya room, it would be confiscated by the doya cleaners by 9:30am, the official check-out time. keita didn't have a keitai, and i didn't have his home phone number. i could email him as i had my laptop and softbank usb wireless internet with me, but i wasn't sure if he had internet at home. he would surely check email at his office, but that would be at 10am. i had enough money with me to check into a business hotel, as i saw that all the doyas were already closed by that time, but then i would be searching virtually blind-folded the following morning.

i directed my feet out of the lawson store, launched myself into the next grid, and began searching anew. 11:35pm. one block out, and i realized it was virtually impossible to identify my doya with their doors shut.

suddenly, my thoughts screamed: "the doya receipt!" that had the name of the hotel in it. but how would i read the name which would most probably be written in kanji. i pulled out my wallet and, using moonlight, searched for the doya receipt. i was smack in the middle of a dark alley, with groups of men sitting all around its sides, and my philippine-honed instincts were telling me that wasn't the best place to be searching my wallet. so i quickly tucked away my wallet and moved out onto the main street. a nearby vending machine provided the needed light to search my wallet properly for the doya receipt. not finding it, i wondered if i had left the receipt in the room together with the things that i unloaded. 11:45pm.

i began searching my pants. front pockets, not there. back pockets, still nothing. i was wearing military khaki pants with lots of pockets, but i didn't normally put important receipts on just any pocket. my fingertips felt a damp piece of paper, as i was reaching into my left side pocket where i kept a water bottle for quick re-hydration shots. my running about had caused some water to spill out of the loose bottle cap, and there in my hand was the doya receipt, but wet and unreadable as pen ink had seeped into the receipt name, also printed undoubtedly in cheap ink. i remember thinking, "this must be my luckiest day."

it was 11:52pm, and i had all but given up, when a man suddenly bumped me from behind, knocking me onto the front of the vending machine, which i was facing as i strained to use its light to read the doya receipt. immediately realizing from the man's overwhelming liquor stench that he was drunk, and that he hadn't bumped me on purpose, i was able to catch a quick glance of the man's face as he turned right into the next corner. his face looked familiar, but i couldn't quite pin down exactly where i saw him.

i decided to follow him. as he bobbled and stumbled through a few doya buildings he eventually entered one side entrance to one doya, almost falling to the ground as his head hit the closing door. i followed him inside, and to my greatest surprise, this was my doya! i then remembered where i saw the drunken man -- he was the man who exited the room beside mine just as i was inserting the key to my room. as i sat down changing my shoes into the indoor slippers provided by the doya, the night watchman came out of one room, and proceeded to lock the side entrance door. it was exactly 12:00 midnight. i was all sweaty and sticky, i had missed the ofuro, but i was so thankful to have found my way back. or rather, so lucky to have followed a total stranger back to my doya.

next doyas. my belt bag, and all the important things inside it, was safely in the room, so my exciting adventure that first night ended happily. i checked out at 9:30am, and my deposit of ¥500yen was returned as i turned over the key to the front desk receptionist.

determined to try out the full range of doya facilities, i set out to look for the cheapest doya room rates. i had been told that the lowest one could find was ¥500yen a night for double-deck, bunk-type beds, fitting around 10 people in a room. i walked for about 45 minutes trying to find a ¥500/night doya but to no avail. i was also having second-thoughts about actually staying in one of them as i had a laptop and wasn't sure how safe a foreigner was in a shared room. tired from looking, and not wanting to court trouble, i checked into a ¥1,000/night doya.
progress! i had gotten what i paid for. the receptionist said the rooms had no key, and could only be locked from the inside. this meant that i couldn't leave any of my things inside while i was out, but when i slept inside the room i could lock it. interesting. the lower the price, the more mobile the clientele, that is, the lesser things one had, or at the very least, the lesser care one had for things one had.

the room was about the same size as the ¥1,500 room but there was no table, no tv, no refrigerator. the window was ajar, explaining the gust of wind that greeted me when i entered the room for the first time. i paused before i entered, thinking if i could still back out. boy, my will power and resolve to do the doya benchmarking needed by my research was really tested.

the tatami floor, golden dark brown and tortured from liquor spills, cigarette burns and what have you, was sticky and damp. the bed sheets looked clean and white but upon closer inspection i realized that the sheets weren't fresh. since the doors were unlocked, anyone could come into newly-vacated rooms to take advantage of fresh sheets or by entering vacated rooms by mistake due to a drunken stupor. thick dust gathered on the four corners of the room, awaiting to be brought to life. as i slept that night, i covered my face with one of my fresh shirts, hoping the dust wouldn't trigger my asthma. i couldn't have been happier when i checked out the following morning.

i was lucky to have interviewed on that second day an irregular migrant who recommended that i stay in the doya he was currently staying in. he had been living in that doya for 5 years already, having tried all the doyas nearby and finally settling for that one.

the third doya i stayed in was more expensive, at ¥1,200. but it had a door key and, most importantly, was clean (see above). it had a television and airconditioner, but no table and no refrigerator. there was a microwave oven and hot water at the first floor available for tenants to use 24x7. and the toilets were clean. there was a coin-operated washing machine and a coin-operated gas stove. the bathing facilities were open only from 5pm to 8:30pm monday to saturdays, and they were also clean. i stayed in that doya for my last 2 nights at sapporo city. best of all, my research subject was staying on the same floor as my room and so interviews i conducted with him didn't require us to go out and be further exposed to the public.

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