Staying in Traditional Japanese Accommodation Part 1 – Ryokan

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, a Buddhist Temple.

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
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
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.

Tips for Driving Around New Zealand

New Zealand is deceptively large with relatively poor public transportation. There isn’t really a train service, for example. This means that driving around the two islands that make up the country is probably the best way to see everything you want to see. Not only that, but driving around New Zealand is pretty spectacular, with some simply incredible scenery regardless of which direction you’re driving.

However, there are some things you should be aware of when traversing the country in a vehicle. Having driven almost completely around the country on two occasions, I thought I’d share some tips to make you’re life a little easier.

Pick Your Weapon

I’ve driven New Zealand in a car and in a camper van. They are two very different experiences. There are pros and cons to each, and your choice will largely depend on the type of trip you want to have. Either way, I would urge you to go for an auto option (most happen to be automatic). Some of the roads are very challenging and having gears to worry about is something that can only distract. Given some of the distances you’ll be travelling, your left foot will also appreciate the rest.

I’ll write a separate post about taking a camper van around New Zealand, because there’s a lot to cover.

Cross on the Ferry

At some point, you’ll want to move between the islands. It’s possible to fly between various points on each island but if you do, you’re missing out on the stunning ferry crossing.

It’s a toss up as to whether it’s best to cross in the day or the evening. I departed Wellington in the evening and caught an amazing sunset as we left. However, by the time we reached Queen Charlotte Sound (the most stunning part of the journey) it was dark. The pictures above are from a combination of day and evening crossings.

A few things to note about the ferry crossing. If you’ve hired a car, you CANNOT take the car on the ferry. It is expressly forbidden in the hire agreement and if you get caught by the rental company taking the car across on the ferry, you’ll face a substantial fine. Instead, you drop your current vehicle off at the ferry terminal an pick up a replacement vehicle on the other side. Be aware though, if you’re on an evening crossing you may have to request the rental office on the other side open for you and this will incur a charge. If you let the rental desk know that you’re heading to the other island when you first pick up your car, they should give you an information pack explaining all this. Note I say should, because Avis failed to do this for me on my last trip and I was very fortunate to get a vehicle. If you’ve got a camper van, you cross with the van.

Watch out for Cops

The maximum speed limit anywhere in New Zealand is 100kph (that’s roughly 62mph) and the Police in New Zealand enforce this incredibly strictly. In fact, around major population centres they operate a zero tolerance policy during public holidays. Yes, even 1kph over the limit will result in a ticket. I got fined for travelling at 111kph on a clear, straight road in perfect conditions. Police in the UK (nor I believe most of the US) simply wouldn’t bother you at that speed.

Beware the Terrain

The roads in New Zealand are hugely varied and some are unlike anything you’ve seen elsewhere. There are desert roads, mountain roads, motorways (sort of), single lane bridges, blond corners, steep elevations and, rather memorably somewhere south of Greymouth, a roundabout with a train track going through the middle of it. In the same area there’s also a bridge that you share with trains (hint: If you see a train coming the other way, reverse very quickly unless your close to the passing point).

Luckily, New Zealand is one of the best sign posted places I’ve driven, so just keep your eyes open for helpful signs

Don’t Run Out of Fuel/Gas/Petrol/Energy

As I’ve mentioned a few times, New Zealand is deceptively large. It’s also not densely populated, which means you can go for large stretches of time (easily 100km) without seeing a fuel stop. When this is likely to be the case, there tend to be signs warning you. Pay attention to them. And remember to rest. There are plenty of places to stop next to most roads and some amazing views to take in. Make the most of them, and don’t fall asleep at the wheel!

Have you experienced driving in New Zealand? Share your tips below!