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Romantic Getaways: The Japanese Ryokan Experience

By: Joanna Hall
Photography by Joanna Hall

For a truly authentic Japanese experience, there's nothing quite like spending a night in a traditional Japanese inn.


Visitors to Japan quickly discover something unusual about hotels when they are booking a room; many offer a choice between western, and traditional Japanese accommodation. The latter is a spin on the traditional ryokan, or Japanese inn, usually decked out with tatami mats, raised sleeping platforms and futon mattresses which are hidden away during the day to provide the occupant with a "living" space. But staying in a real ryokan embodies the very essence of Japan, and is an ideal way of embracing its culture and customs. There are over 58,000 of them scattered across the country, and 1,400 of these are quality establishments belonging to the Japan Ryokan Association. A ryokan experience goes way beyond sleeping a night in a room. It involves immersing yourself into Japanese customs, from leaving your shoes in the entry way of your room (so as not to damage the delicate tatami mats), and taking a hot spring bath, called an onsen, after dinner. A word of warning, though - many of the people working at ryokans do not speak English, but this just adds to the flavour of the authentic experience. Here's what I discovered on an overnight stay at one of Uji's famous ryokans, Hanayashiki.


The Room


After my luxurious western-style accommodation in Kyoto, my first impression of the room was definitely a culture shock. Ryokans in general bring new meaning to the word minimalist - just entering one feels like you are leaving the modern world behind and returning to a bygone era steeped in tradition rather than comfort. There's almost a religious feel to it, where the serenity forces you to drop the tone of your voice a notch or two. The room was spacious, warm, softly lit and ultimately spartan. In the middle of a floor adorned with a beautiful mosaic of beige coloured tatami mats, was a low level wooden table and two legless chairs with cushions - and that was basically it! But this isn't a room designed for lounging in front of a plasma screen TV, tapping away on a computer or making phone calls. It's an oasis away from the bustle of modern life, a place to relax and reconnect - and you don't need a lot of pretty furniture for that. The expansive view of the Uji River, the calming sound of running water, and the pink hue of early cherry blossoms outside the  window below quickly demands your attention.



Here you have options: you can choose to eat in the privacy of your room, in the restaurant, or if you are a group, in one of the ryokan's private rooms. In your room or a private room, the seating is traditional Japanese using a low level table and legless chairs with cushions. Once you get used to sitting on the floor, it's surprisingly comfortable, and you can sit either the way the Japanese do, with your feet tucked under you, or with your legs crossed. Dinner is a set-menu affair in typical Japanese style, with a focus on fish and vegetables. A large number of small courses are served over a period time, including miso soup, sashimi, steamed fish and tofu, hot pot, vegetables, rice and fresh fruit. The emphasis is on local, fresh produce, always freshly cooked and delicious.??Breakfast can be taken in your room or in the restaurant. It's also traditional Japanese featuring fish of some kind and rice among other things. And it's perfectly acceptable to wear your kimono.




After dinner in a ryokan, it's commonplace to enjoy the onsen, or hot bath. Japan is famous for its hot springs which are underground springs which are warmed volcanically and rise to the surface naturally heated. Many ryokans cluster around these springs as they are used for therapeutic purposes as well as for relaxation. In some ryokans, however, the baths aren't derived from hot springs but simple large tubs. Although some ryokans provide an individual bath for each guest room, or for family use, mostly they are communal with separate ones for men and women. You go along in your kimono, remembering to bring the modesty towel from your room with you, and you undress in a dressing room before entering the bath. If you are not comfortable with nudity, it's acceptable to wear a swimsuit. There is a certain etiquette surrounding onsen in Japan. For one, it's customary to wash yourself before entering the tub. The bath is surrounded by a lot of washing stations, which commonly have a mirror, a hand-held shower head, soap, shampoo and a stool to sit on, and Japanese people usually wash themselves sitting down.

The Verdict


Spending one night at a ryokan offers visitors to Japan an opportunity to step back in time, embrace tradition and custom, and enjoy a multi-faceted slice of Japanese culture in one experience. It's a must for anyone who wants to experience the true essence of Japan.


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To find a ryokan in Japan, visit the Japan Ryokan Association at www.ryokan.or.jp.






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