Philippe Bourget - 2012-03-07
A stay in a typical Japanese inn gives the western traveller an opportunity to discover an exotic art of living that is traditional and elegant. Protocol, pampering and gastronomy define the refined universe of the ryokan.
Japan is a country where contradictions are commonplace. Modern capitalist economy notwithstanding, it has retained a thousand traditions that seem to assert that culture is more important than the self-indulgence that holds sway in much of the world today. The traditional inns called ryokan are a case in point. They offer frazzled, overworked Japanese – and weary westerners – a place to retreat and enjoy the finer things of life.
Etiquette is the same whether the inn is in Tokyo or any other part of the archipelago. Upon entering, the first thing to do is remove your shoes. Carpeted with a woven rush-covered straw tatami – warm in winter and cool in summer – the hall is a welcoming introduction to the rest of the establishment. Cleanliness, relaxation and consideration are the supreme qualities of the ryokan. Once an employee has wiped off the wheels of your luggage and you’ve placed your shoes in their designated spot – where they will remain until you check out – you may proceed. Next, a predictably courteous employee (this is Japan, after all) who may or may not speak English will give you the key to your room.
A cotton kimono for guests
They may not be spacious, but the rooms are always very comfortable, with a minimalism that imparts an immediate sense of well-being. On the floor you will find the traditional futon and a duvet on which a carefully folded thin cotton kimono called a yukata has been placed for your use. A sliding screen called a shoji separates the bedroom from a small bathroom. The only surprising features here may be the heated toilet seat, water spray and electric control panel.
Some western tourists may not be entirely comfortable padding down the halls wearing a yukata kimono and sandals (with those special socks that have a separate space for the big toe), especially in front of the local clientele. But this is, in fact, the usual dress code when one is en route for the traditional communal bath called an o-furo that is present in all Japanese-style hotels. When the waters come from hot springs, the bath is called an onsen. The ritual is as old as Japan itself: you remove your clothes (men and women are separated) before entering the bath space, small towel in hand, and then have a careful wash with plenty of soap and water before sinking into the waters at a temperature of around 40 °C (104° F), immediately leaving the stress and worries of the outside world behind. The ritual ends with a good rinse. Delicious.
The bath is as delicious as the massage, which you can also book. And as the meals which you may enjoy in your room or in the inn’s restaurant. After the o-furo, fine dining is the second requirement for a successful stay in a traditional ryokan. Beauty, elegance, impeccable service, the first-rate quality of the food served in small quantities (beef, raw fish, sushi, pickled vegetables, soup), a variety of sauces (wasabi, soy, miso…), tea, beer and sake: when you are finally comfortably full and utterly relaxed, it will be time to head for your room for a perfectly peaceful night.