The gentle art of the Japanese ryokan
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.