How the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in became my all-time favourite place
Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the dump

A mischievous editor I once worked with on a music magazine would ask the subjects of his interviews a trick question: what’s the latest you’ve ever stayed up? Perhaps feeling they had some kind of rock’n’roll infamy to uphold, his interviewees would often launch into descriptions of debauched days-long benders, either true or made up on the spot, rattling off lists of whatever they’d ingested or imbibed and reciting tales both sexual and sexist in nature, before concluding, inevitably, with the punchline of unconsciousness. But every now and then an unsuspecting someone would answer, unsurely but in all seriousness, “Oooh, 3 or 4am?” More than any other response, this would make the editor snigger with glee.

I had time to remember this line of enquiry and its associated anecdotes one night when, too terrified to close my eyes, I lay awake far into the night at a family-owned roadside hotel-motel, or minshuku, in Japan.

The memory seemed to be mocking me; I didn’t get any sleep in that place at all

My itinerary listed the motel as Minshuku and Restaurant Marin, a place-name that I’ve subsequently been unable to find on any map or using any search-engine. I was on assignment with a photographer in Okinawa to research a story about the elderly residents of Ogimi Village, a town that had become internationally famous thanks to its citizens’ longevity – the motel was chosen as a convenient spot to rest, nothing more, and was not meant to feature in our story at all.

As we approached, the minshuku’s art-deco façade made it appear as if an apricot-coloured submarine had surfaced alongside the freeway. From a distance, it gave a great first impression. I have a habit of designating key words to places I come across in my travels, and by the time we’d pulled into the driveway I’d categorised it as Casual Coastal Cool. Sure, the building was pock-marked with concrete cancer and its render had been blasted so brutally by sea salt that it looked as if it been hit by machine-gun fire, but that just added to its charm.

The first clue that the night ahead would be a long one came while it was still daylight, upon entering my room

After being given our room keys, we entered a musty vestibule, climbed a steep set of stairs and proceeded along a low-ceilinged corridor to each face our allocated doors. The photographer opened his door first and promptly sprang back into the hallway. “No way I’m staying here,” he said.

As my own door swung inward I saw nothing to be alarmed about, because there was nothing in the room at all. Nothing but tatami matting and the squashed sandwich of a futon, folded in half and oozing sheets. “How cool,” I thought, “to be travelling as locals do.” To my right, the bathroom floor was awash with water that, it turned out, covered my toes when I used the toilet and reached my ankle bones when I was in the shower. But I didn’t worry for long about faulty plumbing, because out of the corner of my eye I spotted something else: small blockish things, rat baits in fact, which were positioned in each corner and halfway along each wall – the only “furniture” in the room. There was no question posed by that poison. Not: are there rats in this hotel?

There was no question at all: there are rats in this room

I never unpack when I’m travelling – my occupancy in any new dwelling is defined simply by opening my suitcase and leaving it spread open right there on the floor, the better to pull out electronic cables and clothes, hairbrush and power adapter. As a consequence, every hotel room I’ve ever stayed in soon becomes a simulation of my teenage bedroom, complete with dropped clothes and scattered undergarments that lead like stepping stones towards the bed. No way was I doing that here. I left my suitcase right by the door, in case we chose to leave, and headed out to dinner.

Things soon took a turn for the better. Downstairs, the restaurant opened up before me like a forgotten 1950s diner. A long row of pine booths flanked each wall, their bench seats upholstered in lurid floral vinyl. At the back of the room, a shadowy arched nook housed a massive old Wurlitzer, which stood dark and unworking in its pulpit. There was no pretence here. This wasn’t one of those newborn retro diners you sometimes see in shopping malls and on cruise ships. None of the seating here was sculpted from a severed Cadillac tail, there was no black’n’white laminate flooring, no faux advertising signage in tin, nothing of the kind – this was an ageing room, with tatty curtains and stained and splitting menus.

This was the real deal

The photographer looked much happier with a beer in his hand. I ordered my own beer and that was it. Alcohol has a way of making you stay right where you are. We scrutinised a menu we couldn’t read and took our translator’s word for it that this was a great restaurant, authentic, incredible. Past the curtains and out the window, I could see a dense green lawn, a barbecue, a sleeping ginger cat, and a spool of fishing line that draped over a balcony rail and down, seemingly, into the brightly translucent sea.

Okinawan food is delicious. Rafute is a specialty – fatty pork belly doused in black sugar and awamori, a type of local rice-alcohol not at all like sake. But here we ate fresh seafood apparently caught just offshore. A crispy whole fish, glistening sashimi. As we cleared our plates, the chef appeared from the kitchen still wearing his crisp paper hat. He reached for a sanshin, an Okinawan three-stringed banjo-like instrument covered in python skin. As he began to strum he was joined by his twenty-something son and small grandson, and the three stood there in a row, all at different heights, twanging up a storm.

They’d periodically yip and shriek, strings ablur

A woman at a nearby table stood up and grabbed a green awamori bottle from behind the bar, resting it on one shoulder as she danced between booths, neck crooked, legs bent, in a merry rhythmic shuffle. I shot video of this and showed it to the chef. His smile faded; he didn’t like it. In the video, the credits of a Hollywood action movie begin to roll behind them on a wall-mounted television above the bar. The three men play on, two in bright Hawaiian-style floral shirts, the man and boy, with the chef still in his whites. You can hear me cackle throughout the recording, like Santa Claus – ho ho ho; I was clearly stonkered. My laughter continued as the little boy sat himself at our table and taught the photographer how to play the sanshin.

I wore my glasses to bed, wishing above all else to see in the dark. There was no pillow and the futon may as well have been the floor, but still I didn’t want to open my suitcase to retrieve something soft and comfortable in case a living thing managed to work its way inside. Besides, I was too scared to stand and try to find the cord to the overhead light.

I lay there in the gone day’s clothes and shoes, stiff with fear

As I vainly tried to go to sleep – or was I trying to stay awake? – I replayed a scene from my childhood. It had taken place at a motel in Yass, a country town in New South Wales, Australia, while on a family road trip. The motel was flat, long and pastel fibro, plopped on a concrete slab in a car park – the kind of structure you’d expect to collapse in on itself in high wind. My parents stayed in one room; my brothers and I were in the room next door. During the night I felt something crawl across my stomach. There was another thing at my feet. I sat up and turned on the light. Small brown mice scattered in all directions across the floor, across my brothers, across me. I screamed and my brothers began to shout. No one had mentioned that the region was in the middle of a mouse plague when we checked in, but when we crossed the car park in our pyjamas to rattle at the manager’s screen door she blearily issued us each with our own plastic flyswatter and sent us back to bed.

Memories like that make rat traps a nightmare

I imagined I could feel the rats gnawing my shoes though I thought it equally likely that they weren’t there at all. Pre-dawn, a soft grey sheen shrouded everything, intercut by large dark triangles on the ceiling and what I believed were scuttling shadows on the floor. I was editor of an inflight magazine at the time, and the plan was to experience as much of the main island as possible in a week, to gather enough material for a year’s worth of stories. I ran through our itinerary in my mind, jam-packed as it was with the kind of experiences travellers can expect in Okinawa: tours of the Orion beer factory and awamori distilleries; snorkelling daytrips to idyllic islands; lessons in martial arts in the birthplace of karate; and home visits with elderly residents, complete with feasts of pork knuckle, stringy green vegetables and fermented tofu. It mentioned nothing about vermin. I willed it to be the next day.

Morning did come, eventually, and I stood in the tepid shower water while my clothes hung on a towel rail, safely off the floor

Downstairs, the car park was clotted with cars. They were stopped with their engines still running, their drivers queueing to buy breakfast bento boxes through the minshuku’s open window. Customers would boing thin rubber bands from the boxes and gromph mouthfuls of sashimi on the way back to their cars. I felt hungry and wanted a bento box too, but as soon as I took my seat in the tour van I fell asleep, still unsure if the rats were a dream.

A good night’s sleep in a beautiful hotel does not always cement the place in a writer’s mind. I’ve forgotten so many great hotels in favour of this one – one I need your help trying to identify. As time has passed, the memory that has most stayed with me from my Okinawan journey has been an auditory echo of those three men, playing their sanshins in unison, smiling, singing and letting out the odd whistle or woop while a complete stranger danced among the tables. There was a real story there, I know, but I missed it because I didn’t take notes.

View from the minshuku's window. Photo: Elisabeth Knowles
View from the minshuku’s window. Photo: Elisabeth Knowles