When is a hotel not a hotel? When it’s a ryokan.
I’m not a big fan of cooked whole fish at the best of times; something about the teeth sends a shiver down my spine. So the tiny little fellow—no bigger than my forefinger—staring me down over the breakfast table had me worried. At some point the night before I had decided to be daring and order the Japanese breakfast as opposed to the western option. And now, in the cold light of day, there seemed to be an awful lot of little fish on the table.
I had just spent the night in a ryokan, one of a small crop of traditional Japanese inns that have been welcoming travellers for centuries. They range from the very basic (with share bathrooms and austere, monastery-like rooms) to the incredibly luxurious, from tiny historic shop fronts to more modern hotel-style retreats. What the smaller ryokans lack in space they more than make up for in service, and the hosts put them in a class of their own. At my favourite, Ryokan Kurashiki, our host Ritsuko was always impeccably dressed in an intricate kimono, hugely knowledgeable, effortlessly charming and laughed at all my jokes.
The first thing you’ll notice about your room is that something fairly significant is missing—a bed. But, that will come later. Many a night I would return from yet another sumptuous meal to find a cosy little futon had been made up in the centre of the room. It’s an interesting experience and feels slightly like a childhood sleepover, but it does give you the feeling of being truly Japanese—if only for the night.
And, where a standard hotel room will offer you a fluffy robe, at a ryokan you can deck yourself out in a yukata, a type of casual kimono. I was thrilled to open a drawer and find five or six brightly coloured yukatas with complementary ties (though there is a knack to tying them). Unfortunately, at close to six foot tall I am a little large for most Japanese kimonos—much to the amusement of other guests.
Bathing is a huge part of the ryokan experience and the more luxurious inns will have private onsens (baths) in the room. I spent a very pleasant evening soaking in my wooden tub, glass of sake in hand, gazing out at the perfectly landscaped (and frost covered) gardens outside my windows. Some ryokans will also have large communal baths, but these aren’t for the faint of heart—you’ll need to be completely naked.
But, back to the fish (and it’s not just for breakfast). Ryokans are famed for their food and dinners are generally elaborate degustation (called kaiseki in Japan) affairs; numerous courses, each more elaborate than the last, with the delicious morsels arranged as if for a diorama. Delicate slivers of fish nestle among brightly coloured pickled vegetables and a perfectly formed miniature apple could turn out to be tofu or bean paste or just about anything—but definitely not an apple.
Japan might be one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, but if you look a little deeper you can find a way of travelling that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years.
Three of the best ryokans
Here, in the centre of the fairytale-perfect old town of Kurashiki, time has stood still. The modern skyscrapers and flashing neon signs of Tokyo (around eight hours to the north) may as well be on the moon. The old town is a maze of cobblestone streets, willow trees lit with fairy lights and tradition 17th century Edo houses. The ryokan was once the home of a local sugar merchant and has been extended into a number of surrounding buildings, giving the inside a charmingly higgledy-piggledy layout full of low ceilings, hidden doors and tiny staircases. My bedroom was huge with a large sitting room and separate bedroom with a proper double bed. There are lots of thoughtful little touches, like beautiful floral arrangements and some delicate notepaper in case you should feel like jotting down a haiku.
Kifu No Sato
Though from the outside it seems like a modern hotel, this ryokan still dates back around 80 years and is set just outside Yunogo, one of the three hot spring towns of Okayama. The real stars here are the onsens; there are large single sex public baths, but also a number of private baths available if you don’t feel like putting yourself on show.
Gion Hatanaka, Kyoto
For the full Memoirs of a Geisha experience, head to Kyoto—the book is set here and much of the movie filmed in Gion (the old town). Gion Hatanaka is tucked away down a tiny alley in one of the city’s best-preserved historic areas and can arrange a traditional evening with a geisha or maiko (a geisha in training). Staff are very familiar with western guests (which isn’t always the case), so this is a great ryokan for travellers just starting out.
A Japanese adventure by Lucy Jones