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Staying in Traditional Japanese Accommodation Part 1 - Ryokan

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Staying in Traditional Japanese Accommodation Part 1 - Ryokan

Simon Thomas

Japan is a wonderful country to visit, one of my favourites. In particular the variety of environments you encounter when there is extremely endearing. On our last visit to Japan we stayed in some really great hotels, including the Park Hyatt Tokyo (aka the Lost in Translation hotel) but the standout memories were from spending the night in more traditional Japanese accommodation.

When thinking about traditional Japanese accommodation, the first thing that springs to mind is a Ryokan but there's another option that we'll cover in part 2.

First up is the default option for traditional Japanese accommodation, a Ryokan. Ryokans differ from hotels in a few key ways. Most notably, you sleep on the floor rather than in a bed. As you are served food in your room, the "beds" aren't made up until after dinner at which point the small table used for dining is moved or removed and the padded covers put down. You're also given Yucatan to wear (similar to a dressing gown) and it's entirely acceptable, if not encouraged, to wear them the entire time, including in the communal areas.

The construction of the rooms also differs from a typical hotel. The walls are made of paper and the floor is made up of tatami mats. Most ryokans have shared bathrooms and communal baths.

We stayed in a Ryokan called Ryokan Tanabe in the town Takayama, a 5 hour train journey from Tokyo and a sensible second stop in Japan if you're moving from Tokyo to Kyoto (the train journey is actually in two parts, the first part bullet train and the second part a very scenic and picturesque trip from Nagoya station to Takayama). Takayama is an enchanting town that's known for it's Edo period heritage buildings and festivals (as well as sarubobo, the faceless baby monkey dolls meant to bring good luck). For me the stand out memories were the awesome autumn colours and the incredible hida beef (Japan is a beef lover's paradise).

This particular ryokan appears to be run by a delightful elderly couple who take care of all your needs, including making the beds and serving the food. We opted for a slightly more expensive room that included a private bath, toilet and small private garden area. The communal baths are, by all accounts, very nice. They have both wooden and stone varieties and helpfully alternate which gender uses which in the evening and day, so all guests can try both. Unfortunately we were stretched for time so only used our private bath.

There is a knack to using this. There's a small wooden bucket with a tap/faucet above it. Pressing the button fills the bucket with warm water. You use this bucket to wash your hands, feet and private parts before going in to the main wooden bath, that's to the right of this area. There's a small stool to sit on when you're doing this - it was a bit of a struggle for my 6'3" frame, as was fitting comfortably in to the wooden bath.

Overall though, it was a pleasant experience and really rather relaxing. It made for a refreshing change to the normal underpowered hotel shower with a shower head placed at roughly nipple height.

As you can see from the photos above, there's a small table and legless chairs in the middle of the room. This is where dinner was served, and it was a real experience. At the agreed time there's a gentle knock on the door followed by the elderly lady shuffling in to the room on her knees. What followed was a procession of food and drink being positioned just so on the table. The care given to presentation rivalled most fine dining restaurants. It was completely symmetrical, given there were two of us dining.

Thankfully there was also a brief demonstration of how to eat some of the elements presented. Given that I don't speak Japanese, and the lady serving us spoke very little English, it was remarkably effective. There were huge smiles all around, and it was a wonderful experience. I don't think I've ever felt so welcomed when being served anything, anywhere.

I'd love to tell you what was served, but I'm largely in the dark. There was definitely some delicious hida beef, some miso soup, some tempura dishes, rice, seaweed (nori), tofu, noodles and all sorts of other elements. I honestly found some elements challenging (my partner, a fair weather vegetarian, even more so) but most of it was delicious and filling. Breakfast was similarly served in the morning (the lower of the two photos above). One of the most remarkable dining experiences I've ever had.

Some of the dishes served

Following dinner, our plates were cleared, the table and chairs put away and the beds made. I felt a little awkward at this point. The beds were made by what I assume to be the elderly lady's husband who was also quite elderly. This clearly didn't bother him as much as it bothered me as he scrambled around on the floor laying out and then covering the mats and blankets in a very choreographed and agile display.

Beds in the Ryokan Tanabe

I actually found the beds quite comfortable. The pillows, in particular, were very nice indeed. What was strange though, was waking up in the morning, realising you're on the floor and your brain assuming that something went wrong in the night.

This ryokan, as is typical, had a pleasant communal area where you could spend time with the hosts and other guests should you wish. There was also a small gift shop and the obligatory area to store your shoes on entry (shoes have to be removed upon entering and slippers are provided).

Overall, this was a very pleasant night in a lovely part of Japan. I'll write up a more detailed report on Takayama at a later date as it's a special location that warrants exploring a little more.

An alternative -  Buddhist Temple

Ryokans are relatively popular in Japan (although can be more difficult to find, and are certainly more expensive in the larger cities) and are often occupied by tourists looking for a more traditional Japanese experience. But there is an alternative. In Part 2, we'll look at what it's like to stay in a genuine, functioning Buddhist Temple in a mountain village.