I was young, single, and travelling alone through Japan. Not only was it my first time abroad, but I barely spoke more than a word of Japanese. It would have made sense to stay at a traditional hotel, check out the local sushi scene, and hit up a few tourist attractions. But no, instead I was determined to have the most authentic, quintessential Japanese experience possible. I was going to stay in a ryokan.
For those who aren’t familiar, ryokans, for lack of a better definition, are traditional Japanese inns with both the feel and traditions of bygone eras. Commonly over 100 years old, the historic properties can be found throughout the country, both in cities and scenic countryside alike. Like more conventional hotels, the options range quite widely — from small family-run inns in mountainous Takayama — to larger, more contemporary accommodations in the heart of Kyoto. What they all share though is the traditional wooden architecture, tranquil gardens, and often, natural hot springs.
For my adventure, I choose to visit lovely Hakone, a national park overlooking Lake Ashi and just an hour’s drive from Tokyo. I had done my research and thought I knew what to expect. However, between the time I arrived and the time I left, I was surprised to find how much my impressions had changed. As I walked up to the front door, the first thought was how elegantly simple the entire place was. Ryokans are intended to be a place of serenity and peace. No flashy décor or special amenities. Just unassuming sliding paper doors, low tables with comfy cushions, and tatami matted rooms that can easily convert from living to sleeping areas. As my hostess, Akiko, escorted me around the property, I found myself amazed at how seamlessly both the outdoors and indoors blended. Her pale pink flowered kimono matched the cherry blossoms outside while the natural stone décor gave the feel of an indoor zen garden.
Akiko clearly picked up on my sense of amazement, though, and was more than happy to brief me on the standard ryokan procedures which all guests are expected to follow. I traded in my shoes for a pair of small but cozy slippers which I was expected to wear through the ryokan, except in my room. I was shown were to leave them and sure enough each morning when I emerged, they were always perfectly arranged and waiting. As Akiko showed me to my room I was glad I had only brought a small piece of hand luggage. The hospitality at ryokans (and Japan in general) is such that no one would ever dream of letting you carry your own luggage. In fact, I cannot recall having met any staff more friendly or service oriented throughout all my travels. They were pleasantly able to anticipate whatever I needed before I could even say a word…which was especially wonderful considering the language barrier.
When I first entered my room, I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical of the bedding situation, which was nowhere to be found. Instead, I found a low table with a pot of tea green tea and small snacks awaiting me. Akiko informed me that dinner was to be served shortly and shortly afterward my room would be arranged for the night. What caught me off guard though was not that all meals, as I found out, would be served in my room, but that each meal was around ten courses long. And so I dove headfirst into my first Japanese Kaiseki dinner. Travelers be warned, a kaiseki dinner, while amazing, is a vast undertaking that requires patience as well as a hefty appetite. My first dish consisted of some stir-fried veggies which were shortly followed by nimono, sashimi, grilled fish, and a rice dish. Each dish was more impeccably presented than the last, a work of art to say the least. And as I began to feel I could eat no more, I was finally presented with the final dish, dessert, and matcha tea.
After dinner, my food coma quickly began to set in. Before I had the chance to yawn, though, Akiko had cleared the table and begun to lay out the futons. Though only six inches or so thick, the futon proved to be pleasantly comfy, especially when topped off with what must have been the softest linens and duvet I have ever encountered. It’s a miracle I was able to get up the next morning at all. Of course, as soon as I did Akiko was there to tuck away all the bedding and deliver a freshly cooked breakfast extravaganza. Thankfully, breakfast was only five courses.
Since I had survived my first night, it was now time for part two of my adventure: the onsen. A natural hot spring usually located alongside a ryokan, onsens are not quite your typical spa experience. Thankfully Akiko had prepared me. But as I walked next door in my robe, I still felt a bit self-conscious knowing I would be completely naked in front of complete strangers. As I walked into the showers though, I found the other women seemingly at total ease. Signs instructed guests to rinse off with small shower sprays and little wooden stools lining the wall. We were also asked to soap up and clean ourselves off as much as possible before entering the baths, a standard request aimed at keeping the mineral water as pure and clean as possible. I was surprised at how hot the water was initially... quite a bit warmer than any hot tub I had ever experienced. Once I had adjusted though I found the waters as well as the setting (I had a panoramic view of Mt. Fuji) to be exceptionally relaxing. About twenty minutes in I had had my fill and strolled back to my room feeling quite refreshed. One more delicious dinner and good night’s sleep later it was regrettably time to say goodbye.
At the end of the day, I can only liken my experience to a step back in time, to more peaceful and contemplative era. And while it certainly isn’t an exploit for everyone, for those with an open mind and a true spirit of adventure, a ryokan stay is something you won’t soon forget.