Sunday, 27 November 2011

A Night in a Ryokan

Over the years Jules and I have stayed in many different styles of accommodation. Although hotels are fine, in many ways we often find them cold and impersonal. Where possible we much prefer private apartments or bed and breakfasts, as it’s nice to meet a local in order to put the whole experience in context and to gain the benefit of their experience. Such was the case when we recently visited the little coastal town of Uno, en route to Naoshima Island where we had our first experience of staying in a Japanese ‘ryokan’.

This form of traditional guest house still remains very popular in Japan as it is generally better value than the mainstream hotels while also providing a much more authentic experience for travelers such as ourselves. Jules’ extensive research had led us to a nice little place, which was owned by an interesting bloke called Max (not his birth name I would imagine) who, fortunately for us, spoke very good English as a result of living in New York for many years. Upon our meeting, he explained that he actually subsidized his documentary filmmaking career by running his ryokan in the house that was originally owned by his parents. Despite a few westernized inclusions, it had remained pretty much as it had been in their day, providing a warm and reassuring ‘lived in’ feel, which was certainly what we were looking for from our first Japanese guest house experience. After walking up steep and narrow steps, we found ourselves in the cozy entrance area that sat under the deep eaves of the building. We entered through the traditionally lightweight wooden sliding door that we now recognize as the hallmark of early Japanese architecture. At that point I strangely pondered about the notion of door hinges, thinking that they must have been a relatively recent inclusion into Japanese house building and that they were most likely only introduced into common usage after the war. Until then all interior rooms were simply denoted by a series of sliding screens that also offered a degree of flexibility to the room layout. This was certainly a notion that was quite ahead of its time and to a degree later adopted by a number of European modernists.

Once inside the entry, we can see a clear demarcation between the inside and the outside with a significant step upward from tiles to wooden floorboards. With slippers neatly lined up, it also signals that at this point we need to remove our shoes. We are shown our room, which not unexpectedly had a tatami mat flooring (woven rush grass) on which our futon beds are invitingly rolled out. As is the Japanese way, the room was sparsely decorated with just a couple of nicely crafted wooden cabinets and a selective collection of traditional pottery items. There was a small dressing area that could be hidden away by shutting gridded screens, allowing us to also close off our view of the garden at end of the day. While these barriers to the outside world provided some extra insulation from the cold weather, we were grateful for the modern luxury of air-conditioning as we slept within the thin walls of the old Japanese house.

Waking from our first night on our futons, we felt remarkably refreshed and ready for a busy day of sightseeing. To help us on our way Max had promised us one of his famous breakfasts, however this time the more traditional Japanese rice dish gave way to New York style pancakes! It seemed that he had learnt more than just the language in America. As he flipped the pancakes, we chatted about his life, family and the changing nature of Japanese society. It was a great way to start the day and although he had seen many visitors over the years, we felt like we were the first. Good hospitality was important to him and by the end of the day we knew that his ryokan guesthouse would certainly be a warm, welcoming and comfortable place for us to return.

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