Travel Agent's Asia editor, Mark Rogers is traveling throughout Japan this week. Here's his report from his experience of staying in a ryokan over the weekend.
I've always had a love for all things Japanese. It started with my innocent teenage years watching such epic films as Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, and continued into my not so innocent later years, when Japan's Zen-influenced design ethos hinted at a simpler life that seemed frustratingly out of reach. During my first trip to Japan this week, I got the chance to experience traditional Japan when I stayed overnight at a ryokan, which is basically country inn-style accommodations, complete with wooden bathtubs and pickled vegetables for breakfast. Is it for everybody? No way. If you're on business, if you need to stay plugged in, if your knee joints audibly creak - a ryokan may not be for you. Otherwise, I heartily recommend the experience, but probably not for more than one night.
I stayed at the Yoshi-ima ryokan (www.yoshi-ima.co.jp) in Kyoto's historic Gion District, a neighborhood where you can actually see real geishas walking the streets at night, en route to private parties. This is a fascinating neighborhood of antiques shops and small restaurants and definitely worth a visit, even if you've opted for accommodations in one of Kyoto's five-star hotels.
The first thing to realize about a ryokan is they're a world onto their own. You don't blithely enter - first you knock and wait to be greeted. Then, once inside, you take off your shoes and exchange them for a pair of brown slippers. I thought the shoe thing was aced by now, but no, I had to change into a pair of beige slippers when I came to the interior garden. I then traversed a path of stepping stones leading to my room. When I reached the sliding doorway to my room, I then left the slippers at the entrance and entered in my stocking feet.
The room was wonderfully simple. The floor was covered with tatami reed mats and the walls were paper screens. A low black table sat in the center of the room, with a strange chair of sorts - a concession to the west. The chair had no legs; just a padded seat with a back. Believe me, after spending a few hours sitting cross-legged on the floor, you'll be glad you have a backrest to lean against. As I got settled, one of the staff - a cheerful woman named Hiroki - poured a cup of green tea and took my dinner reservation, which would be served in my room.
After Hiroki left I changed into my yukata, a traditional Japanese robe. This is a big part of the experience. In warmer months, guests are encouraged to venture out onto the streets of the Gion District wearing their yukata, or in a woman's case, a kimono. No one will laugh at you, although the desk clerk did tell me that walking out of the district wasn't recommended. I suppose you could look a little too incongruous, strolling past fast food restaurants and mobile phone centers dressed in garments from the 18th century.
Some ryokans have shared bathrooms, but luckily mine had private facilities. When booking a ryokan, it's definitely something to consider. During the middle of the night the rain came pouring down. I don't think I would have enjoyed navigating the stepping stones in loose fitting slippers, getting soaking wet as I tried to remember where the toilet was.
There's a TV in the corner, but I can't figure why anyone would want to put it on. I had two hours before dinner and I began reading a book I'd chosen for the occasion, Snow Country, a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata. The book was about a rich dilettante and his doomed love affair with a geisha. There was something magical about reading a passage about a character sitting in an "eight-tatami mat room" and then looking around and realizing that I also was in an eight-tatami mat room. If you're traveling alone, I definitely recommend choosing a novel by one of Japan's lyrical fiction writers -Kawabata is one of my favorites.
There was a tap on my screen and Hiroki brought in my multi-course meal, consisting of artfully arranged dishes of tempura, salmon, miso soup, sashimi, pickled vegetables, white rice, green tea and strawberries for dessert.
After dinner I was invited to a complimentary tea ceremony in the property's tea house. Once again it was a fascinating glimpse of Japanese ways that began with entering through a two foot high door, so everyone would be humbled and rank wouldn't exist; to receiving the tea cup with the good side of the cup facing you and then cradling it in the palm of your left hand and turning it so the good side of the cup faces the bearer.
The owner of Yoshi-ima joined us in the dimly lit tea house. He gave a talk about the history of the property and some of the lore associated with the tea ceremony, but my favorite part was when he finished his prepared speech and asked, "So how about that Obama? I hear he's winning the primary in Wyoming."
When I got back my futon was prepared on the floor. After sitting cross-legged for hours, the thought of lying down prone seemed like a blessing. The pillow was filled with buckwheat hulls and made a pleasant rustle when I moved. In the middle of the night the rain began and it was pure pleasure listening to it fall on the roof and sluice down onto the ground.
In the morning, Hiroki brought my breakfast. I'd been given a choice of Western-style or Japanese, and had chosen the Japanese. It was a little daunting - sweetened egg with pickled ginger, vinegary spinach, a very odd pickled cherry. The simple white rice and green tea got me through it.
For more information on this ryokan, visit Yoshi-ima (www.yoshi-ima.co.jp) (MR)