The gen­tle art of the Ja­panese ryokan

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - ZOE DELEUIL

I AM in Tokyo, ad­mir­ing a burst of frilly white flow­ers planted in a tiny gar­den out­side our ryokan. They’re oddly familiar, but I can’t re­call the name. Soon a team of staff sur­rounds me, fran­ti­cally typing into their phones. “Lily of the val­ley!” they an­nounce.

“Stan­dards are slip­ping,” mut­ters my hus­band. “It took them at least three min­utes to get us a pos­i­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.” Be­ing treated like a wel­come guest isn’t some­thing you ex­pe­ri­ence in many me­trop­o­lises and for us, in the Ja­panese cap­i­tal, the nov­elty never wears thin.

It’s the lit­tle things, such as the green tea of­fered while we wait for take­away sushi or the tiny origami crane some­one gives our tod­dler on the train (it doesn’t last long, un­for­tu­nately). Even the toi­let seats are gen­tly heated.

And then there are ryokan, those tra­di­tional guest­houses that ap­pear in the most pic­turesque ru­ral set­tings, but also on back streets in the big cities. What unites them is a purely Ja­panese hos­pi­tal­ity, which harks back to their orig­i­nal func­tion as places of rest for weary trav­ellers. While re­search­ing our trip, I come across vague warn­ings about the rigid tra­di­tions of ryokan and the faux pas you will in­evitably make as a gai­jin (for­eigner). Some rec­om­mend avoid­ing them al­to­gether and stick­ing to West­ern-style ho­tels. Ad­mit­tedly they won’t suit ev­ery­one — if you don’t en­vis­age sleep­ing on a fu­ton on the floor, for ex­am­ple — but clear eti­quette guide­lines in English are read­ily avail­able, and aren’t par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing: wear slip­pers in­side, and spe­cial ones in the toi­let, don’t wear your yukata robe too loose, and keep the noise down, to men­tion a few.

Our Tokyo ryokan, Kamo­gawa Asakusa, is down a quiet back street of Asakusa, a dis­trict that is home to Sen­soji, one of the city’s old­est Bud­dhist tem­ples. We are greeted with a bow by the owner, who squeezes with us into a tiny, rick­ety lift that takes us up, up, up to a tatami-floored room that looks out over rooftops.

The ryokan has a pri­vate on­sen, which we can re­serve, says the owner, so book it we do, af­ter a day of traips­ing around the city. The on­sen room is tim­ber-lined, and as warm as a Swedish sauna, and my rosy-cheeked two-yearold takes to the fam­ily-sized tub like the prover­bial duck. That night, all three of us slip into the kind of deep, loose­limbed slum­ber you rarely ex­pe­ri­ence at home, let alone in an un­fa­mil­iar room in a bustling city.

There’s only one in­ci­dent that leaves me red-faced. Af­ter yet an­other long soak in the shared bath­room of our inn in Osaka, Imazato Ryokan, I ab­sent- mind­edly pull the plug, be­fore re­al­is­ing I’m sup­posed to re­place the lid on the bath, to keep the wa­ter hot for the next guest. Be­fore I re­alise my er­ror, the bath is half-empty, and I scut­tle off in shame. But no one calls the eti­quette po­lice and, any­way, I tell my­self, to ago­nise too much about the odd stum­ble would be to miss out on the unique ex­pe­ri­ence of­fered by th­ese wel­com­ing inns, a world away from bland ho­tel rooms. I just re­ally hope no one else wanted a bath that night.

Back in the room, our fu­ton beds have been un­rolled, and as I stretch out, warm and re­laxed, and pull a cloud-like quilt over me, I marvel at the cosi­ness of Ja­pan. I had ex­pected it to be ef­fi­cient, fast-paced and hy­per-mod­ern but not so ut­terly easy on the soul. My son, who is stand­ing at the ri­cepa­per-screened win­dow, seems to agree. “I like Ja­pan,” he says hap­pily, gaz­ing down at the ryokan’s other guests, a team of school­girls prac­tis­ing base­ball in the laneway be­low. “I like Ja­pan peo­ple.” Both ryokan can be re­served via Book­ing.com.

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