Friday, August 6, 2010

The Traditional Ryokan - Step Back In Time

One thing that is distinctive to Japan's accommodation scene is the extensive number of Japanese styled traditional inns, also known as "Ryokans". Ryokans are an integral part of Japanese history and culture, harking back several centuries. Stepping into one is like going back to the Edo Period, where you are either a Geisha (ahem) or Samurai (ahem) travelling to or from Edo (currently Tokyo), and taking a rest at these inns. And indeed, many of these existing ryokans are more than a hundred years old (but not to worry, they have very modern amenities.)

The first thing that greets you when you enter your room is the tatami flooring (yeah, the real thing!). Ryokan room sizes are usually measured by the number of tatami mats - 8, 10 or 12. Obviously, the higher the number, the bigger the room. Some large rooms can house up to 4 guests. There is also a low wooden table in the centre with legless chairs so you have to sit cross legged on the floor or feet tucked under your butt. Depending on the ryokan and/or the size of your room, these tables and chairs will be cleared to one side during the night to lay the futon where you will be sleeping. Other Japanese features may include sliding paper doors (shoji) or windows and decorative alcoves (tokonoma) filled with flower arrangements or artwork.

Most of the ryokans will actually provide you with traditional yukata (both men and women) to wear during your stay at the inn. Some will even provide "geta" (wooden clogs) for you to walk around town. This gets me all excited of course - the idea of playing dress-up. In certain ryokans, lady guests are presented with a choice of yukata design, and during my last stay at Arima Onsen, I chose RED (all the more to look flamboyant, no?) That's me below (I'm too shy to show my face....)! I have a green overcoat wrapped around my red yukata. Usually guests will wear this overcoat for dinners at the inn, which I suppose is to prevent you from soiling the beautiful yukatas. But Samurai T and I did not know. We stormed into the dining room in our full yukata glory, thus announcing to the world we were silly ignorant tourists. Still, this is so quaint, and so very fun.

The third highlight (besides sleeping on tatami and dressing in yukata) is the onsens. Any ryokan with good repute will usually come with a good onsen. Normally it is single-sex communal bathing where one has to strip bare like a baby. Now, Samurai T is very shy showing off his body (and I thought I was the one with the body complex, but I would gladly jump into a pool of naked women), and thus I was forced to look for ryokans which has private onsens for reservation. I can write a thesis about the art of onsen, but I hope to get a friend who is an expert to do so. :) Suffice to say, if you are aching all over for whatever reason, a 15 minute dip in the scalding waters chockful of minerals will cure you in no time. (And now we know the secret of the long living Japanese.)

Last but not least, for those who have been slaves to the television series "Japan Hour", you will know that there is a wonderful dinner spread, known as the "Kaiseiki" waiting for us. Kaiseiki is viewed as the ULTIMATE Japanese feast, a traditional multi-course (usually more than 10) traditional dinner in which the food, its preparation and presentation becomes high art. The courses are never set, but depends on the available ingredients for the season. The food generally looks too good to eat, but you will eat them anyway. Not everything will be to your liking, depending on individual taste, but they will always be fresh, and certain courses will bring you to heaven and back, and you are guaranteed to be stuffed by the time dessert is served. And did I mention there is a full course breakfast waiting for you in the morning???

To truly savour and appreciate the Japanese culture, a stay at a traditional ryokan is a must. A good ryokan stay is expensive, especially in hotspots like Kyoto or famous onsen towns like Arima, ranging anything from SGD600 to more than SGD1,000 per night! However, just think of all the experiences you will be getting (and the food too!), and it is really a worthwhile stay - at least once in your lifetime. Whether you will get backache sleeping on the futon (I DID!) is another matter. But then there is always the onsen to soothe away your pains. :)

P.S Do note that there are also many "modern" ryokans around where there is a mix of Western and Japanese features (like normal beds with tatami). If you want to experience the real thing, do your homework in advance. I have a link on the "Websites" page if you want to research and/or book ryokans.

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