I'm the Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet. We launch undiscovered consumer products. It's also the birthplace of Citizen Commerce. I write about design, cultural anthropology, and start-ups, mostly.

Real Deal Road Trip #14: Visiting Japanese Ryokan

Ryokan in Hakone

Ryokan in Hakone

There’s a risk to writing publicly about a foreign country based on a short stay or vacation. I once learned that the hard way after I moved to Ireland and published a widely-read newspaper article about some chronic rude behavior I observed on Dublin streets.  It did not win me friends.

So, I should know better than to write about my limited Japanese experiences.  I’ve only had a total of one month in the country  (spread over three visits.)  But I can’t resist, because I also know that there is also a short shelf life to the kind of fresh-eyed, honest, and often laughably off-base reactions one has in these early encounters.

So I am taking the ill-advised plunge again.

I’m sharing what it is like to stay in traditional Japanese inns, or “ryokans.”  Surely there are countless expert explanations of the revered ryokan tradition online, but I am doing my own interpretation of what I experienced, with my own photos.  For better or worse.

I have stayed at four ryokan:

1) In the northern Japanese Alps: Tanabe Ryokan, a mid-price option, in Takayama–a beautiful traditional town

2) Also in the Alps: Katuraginosato, located in a little hamlet tucked in the mountains.  Pricey.

3) In Hakone–the Mount Fuji area: Gora-kansuiro.  Kind of a Tokyo getaway destination.  Pricey.

4) In Tokyo:  Andon Ryokan–kind of a hipster urban version.  Low cost/high style, shared bathrooms, you get the picture.

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Approaching the Japanese alps inn

Above is how you first encounter the Japanese alps inn, off of a little dirt road on a tiny country lane. Ryokan often start as ordinary, albeit large, houses so they are not necessarily in commercially prominent positions.

Exterior of Tokyo's Andon Ryokan

Exterior of Tokyo’s Andon Ryokan

——————–Exterior of small town Tanabe Ryokan in Tanagawa

Exterior of small town Tanabe Ryokan in Takayama

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Entrance to the Hakone/Mt. Fuji area ryokan.  Note the gorgeous seasonal greens and flowers arrangement.

Entrance to the Hakone/Mt. Fuji area ryokan. Note the gorgeous seasonal greens and flowers arrangement.

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You usually encounter a sort of Japanese version of a "mud room" when you come in.  It's a place to take off your evil dirty street shoes before you step on the pristine tatami mat in your socks.

Entrance to the Takayama mid-price ryokan.

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You usually encounter a sort of Japanese version of a “mud room” when you come in. (I did not take a photo of it but it is just before the tatami mat starts in the above photo.) It’s a place to take off your dirty, evil street shoes before you step on the pristine yellow straw (bamboo?) tatami mat in your socks. You will thereafter find your street shoes carefully stored on nearby shelves and handed to you when you are going out.

This presumes there is always someone hovering near the exit door waiting for you–to walk a few feet and retrieve your shoes.  That is a very safe presumption.  Japanese have a word for their high service culture:  “omotenashi.”  It’s a lovely thing to experience except when it crosses over to borderline “stalking service,” which my son Gray–who came on my last trip–called it at times.  More on that in a bit.

Here are my boots, carefully labeled with what?  My room name?  My name?  My description:  "silly American woman with yellow hair and giant yellow hair son"?

My boots, waiting for me to come back.

Above are my boots, carefully labeled with what? My room name? My name? My description: “silly American woman with yellow hair and giant yellow hair son”?

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Communally shared slippers

You find rows of communally shared slippers for your use as you travel in the hall ways. They are to be removed whenever you encounter a tatami mat. There is an art to lining them up backwards to how you are facing, as you remove them–so they can be slipped on when you come back from the opposite direction leaving the tatami mat area. As you can see, we had not mastered the art. It is easy to see which slippers the Americans deposited.

Never fear.  We returned five minutes later to find all was right with the world.  I think it must deeply upset Japanese hosts to see slipper chaos.

Never fear. We returned five minutes later to find all was right with the world. I think it must deeply upset Japanese hosts to see slipper chaos.  In this particular case the tricky transfer was from “inside slippers–the gold colored ones–to the “outside slippers”–the tan ones on the lower level.  Japanese people seem to do all this effortlessly, never bending down or touching the slippers. Oy vey.

Rural Ryokan seem to have expanded organically with long serene hallways leading to out buildings on different levels.

Rural Ryokan often have expanded organically with long serene hallways leading to outbuildings with accommodation on different levels.

Some of the accommodation is reached by covered foot paths.  These are two workers delivering early morning breakfast courses.

Beautiful foot paths

Some of the accommodation is reached by covered foot paths. These are two workers delivering early morning breakfast courses.

This is an old traditional Japanese kitchen, in the entrance to the Alps ryokan.  If you get to see the new Japanese move "Oshin" (based on an old popular TV series) it features a lot of these kitchens and is a really lovely film.

Traditional Japanese Kitchen

This is an old traditional Japanese kitchen, in the entrance to the Alps ryokan. If you get to see the new Japanese movie “Oshin” (based on an old popular TV series) it features a lot of these kitchens and is a really lovely film.

Every ryokan I've stayed in shares the common feature of a simple spare tatami mat room with various niches for storing things and displaying art or flowers.  But I appreciate their subtle differences, and additions, like this mirror covered with a silk fabric print.

Mirror covered with a silk fabric print.

Every ryokan I’ve stayed in shares the common feature of a simple spare tatami mat room with various closets for storing things like futons and bedding, and a niche for displaying art or flowers. But I appreciate their subtle differences, and additions, like this mirror covered with a silk fabric print.

And this fairly rustic sink and bathroom with sweet little touches like the wooden drainboard.

And this fairly rustic sink and bathroom with sweet little touches like the wooden drainboard.

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And this handmade soap dish

And this handmade soap dish

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And the handmade fabric covered cardboard sleeve used to corral the blow dryer cord.  There is something very Japanese about the contrast of this attention to detail, the leaving the hairdryer free and vulnerable to theft (not a big risk with Japanese people) yet a kind of weak and cheesy dryer design.  Maybe they did find they were getting stolen too often, by non-Japanese?

Handmade fabric covered cardboard sleeve for the blow dryer cord

And the handmade fabric covered cardboard sleeve used to corral the blow dryer cord. There is something very Japanese about the contrast of this attention to detail; the orderliness and simplicity of the solution, and the leaving the hairdryer free and vulnerable to theft (not a big risk with Japanese people) contrasted with a kind of weak and cheesy dryer design. Maybe they did find that nicer hair dryers were getting stolen too often, by non-Japanese?

The biggest thing you have to get used to in a ryokan is the staff coming in your room nearly at will.  Here is our twice daily visitor who handled the wooden window shutters.

The biggest thing you have to get used to in a ryokan is the staff coming in your room nearly at will. Here is our twice daily visitor who handled the wooden window shutters.

More dramatic is the intimate involvement with this "mother" figure.  This is a person who will consistently serve you your meals, either in your own room like is shown in this case.

More dramatic is the intimate involvement with this “mother” figure. This is a person who will consistently serve you your meals, either in your own room like is shown in this case.

Or in a private dining room like this.  In either case, due to the remote locations and the privacy instilled, you barely even see other guests at a ryokan.  We learned to gauge their "fill rate" by the number of shoes and slippers increasing and decreasing at the entrance ways.

Private dining room

Or in a private dining room like this. In either case, due to the remote locations and the privacy instilled, you barely even see other guests at a ryokan. We learned to gauge their “fill rate” by the number of shoes and slippers increasing and decreasing at the entrance ways.

Gray had a love-hate relationship with our "mother" who was amazingly graceful in serving the many course meals, constantly narrating in Japanese.  The food is unfamiliar and overwhelming at times.  And she seemed to care DEEPLY whether Gray ate.  At one point when she was out of the room to get another course, he said "I want to throw this down the toilet to make her happy--some colorful cold dish of pickled something--but she will think I liked it and bring more.  I can't win."

Gray, myself and our “mother”

Gray had a love-hate relationship with our “mother” who was amazingly graceful in serving the many course meals, constantly narrating in Japanese. The food is unfamiliar and overwhelming at times. And she seemed to care DEEPLY whether Gray ate. At one point when she was out of the room to get another course, he said “I want to throw this down the toilet to make her happy”–it was some colorful cold dish of pickled something–“but she will think I liked it and bring more. I can’t win.”

Here is Gray meeting dinner on the first of three nights.  I knew then we were booked for two nights too many, in his estimation.  Over the next day he started periodically measuring his wrist circumference as a  proxy for his starvation level.  It's not that there wasn't massive quantities of food.  He just could not get his bearings with virtually everything but rice being unfamiliar, small, often cold, often pickled or raw.  Or in this case, extremely artfully displayed to look like it was still au naturel.

Gray’s reaction to “dinner”.

Here is Gray meeting dinner on the first of three nights. I knew at this moment that we were booked to stay for two nights too many, at least in his estimation. Over the next day he started periodically measuring his wrist circumference as a proxy for his starvation level. It’s not that there wasn’t massive quantities of food. He just could not get his bearings with virtually everything but rice being unfamiliar, small, often cold, often pickled or raw. Or in this case, extremely artfully displayed to look like it was just minutes away from its natural habitat

Gray's second night savior:  shabu-shabu.  It's kind of a raclette or fondue procedure with a boiling broth, vegetables, and beef.  It was delicious.  Gray used his Google translate app to ask to have the same dinner the next night.  Our mother was surprised, pleased, and discombobulated because we were slated for a whole new tantalizing array of Japanese dishes.  She went and consulted with  the rest of the staff (I guess) and they agreed to let Gray live one more day.

Thank goodness for shabu-shabu

Gray’s second night savior: shabu-shabu. It’s kind of a raclette or fondue procedure with a boiling broth, vegetables, and beef. It was delicious. Gray used his Google translate app to ask to have the same dinner the next night. Our mother was surprised, pleased, and discombobulated because we were slated for a whole new tantalizing array of Japanese dishes. She went and consulted with the rest of the staff (I guess) and they agreed to let Gray live one more day.  I texted my husband about this interaction and he said “Gray must be pretty desperate if he is loving boiled beef.”

A couple times the next day, as we were doing a strenuous mountain hike Gray commented, "It is so nice not to have to worry about dinner all day."

Which way should we go?

A couple times the next day, as we were doing a strenuous mountain hike Gray commented, “It is so nice not to have to worry about dinner all day.”

I have to admit that the only menu item I worried about was coffee.  They did not have any in my last ryokan and I walked miles to try and find some.  I had sent a message ahead at this one...."please provide coffee at breakfast."  They did.  It was steaming, hot and delicious.

Finally, coffee!

I have to admit that the only menu item I worried about was coffee. They did not have any in my last ryokan and I walked miles to try and find some. I had sent a message ahead at this one….”please provide coffee at breakfast.” They did. It was steaming, hot and delicious.

Beyond the sheer relaxation, sleeping on tatami mats, and the special food, a key reason to stay at a ryokan is their hot springs baths, called onsen.  This is a view of a private one.

Beautiful view of the hot spring baths at the Alps-based ryokan

Beyond the sheer relaxation, sleeping on tatami mats, and the special food, a key reason to stay at a ryokan is their hot springs baths, called onsen. This is a view of a private one.

This is a public one, for women only.  It takes some getting used to--bathing with strangers.  A Japanese friend says she does it about five times a day when she is at a ryokan.  There is a whole ritual for cleaning, preserving some privacy, and being polite.  Since I have not had a lot of direct guidance, I am probably screwing up the whole onsen scene when I arrive.

Outdoor onsen at the Gora-Hakone/Mt. Fuji location

This is a communal bath, for women only. It takes some getting used to–bathing with strangers. A Japanese friend says she does it about five times a day when she is at a ryokan. There is a whole ritual for cleaning, preserving some privacy, and being polite. Since I have not had a lot of direct guidance, I am probably screwing up the whole onsen scene when I arrive.

But beyond the food and baths, there are countless reasons I love ryokan.  It's fun to swan around all day an night in a "yukata."

Here’s another reason I love ryokan. It’s fun to swan around all day and night in a “yukata.”

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Gora-kansuiro ryokan garden

I woke to this light snow sparkling on Gora-kansuiro ryokan garden where I could wander peacefully alone feeling like I was in a fairy land. I am starting to understand the special appeal of Japanese gardens that look so out of place to me in the US. The “real” ones are set so carefully into the landscape and have so many intimate vignettes. It’s like many little gardens in one.

Oh the exquisitely arranged food…even the most ordinary items become painterly.

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My favorite thing of all are the ordinary expressions of grace, like these casual ties on a bamboo privacy fence. They’re not plastic, industrial, or beefy. But they do the job beautifully.

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As a designer I am naturally going to geek out on all the visual and sensual stimulation of ryokan life.  But what I most appreciate relates to what I used to say when friends asked me for advice on visiting Ireland.  I would say “By all means come visit us in Dublin.  But know you are visiting Dublin.  And Dublin and Ireland are two different things.”

I have the same instinct about Japan.  Sure, I could have a blast by just passing my free weekends over there in Tokyo.  But I know I would be missing learning about Japan.  And if I am going to sit on two 13 hour flights in the course of a few days, I sure as heck am going to maximize my time and satisfy some deep curiosity better by hopping on a train to….who knows where next in Japan?

I am taking suggestions!

Mount Fuji, captured from a  gondola high up on another mountain.

Mount Fuji, captured from a gondola high up on another mountain.

2 Responses to “Real Deal Road Trip #14: Visiting Japanese Ryokan”

  1. Mark Frautschi

    Thank you for this wonderful post. You brought back good memories. I am not Japanese and lived there for only three years in the late 1980’s, so, I cannot speak for a Japanese audience. I can only say thank you for taking this risk and I think you will find your posting will speak to many cultures in a way that pleases many readers and offends few.

    Your Hakone stay reminded me of the Fuji-Hakone Guest House. http://fujihakone.com/en/ I believe that this qualifies as less of a Ryokan and more of a Minshuku. I will let you google the differences. I can only say that I have been very well cared for in both.

    If you can stay in Hakone for several days, do so. See/sail the funny red pirate ships on Lake Ashi if they still exist and then see the Hakone Open Air Museum. You could spend a few hours on Picasso and Henry Moore alone, however, for western audiences, the greatest discoveries may come in the form of the Japanese artists. I treasure the souvenir book and my own photos to this day. http://www.hakone-oam.or.jp/english/

    If you can stay two or more nights, and you are traveling with your significant other (and your kids, if they are with you, have their own room) I’d like to make a small (slight spoiler alert) suggestion for couples. Spend time together the first night. Read the guest book (which is filled with many languages) as soon as you like, but before the last night. Use than knowledge as you see fit the last night(s) you are there. If you are not familiar with the benefits of tatami, you may be pleasantly surprised. Then, as appropriate, record your experiences in the guest book after your last evening. If you wait until you are leaving to read (and optionally comment in) the guest book, you may be left with the sense of missed opportunity.

    Reply

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