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The Ryokan Experience—Is It For You?
by Charles N. Barnard

The first time I stayed in a Japanese inn, or ryokan, I thought I had never been more uncomfortable in my life. This was years ago, in Kyoto, in October. The peculiarly furnished room with its straw-mat floors and paper walls turned icehouse cold during the night, a party of drunken Japanese thundered songs in the next room, the toilet could be reached only by putting on a pair of wooden sandals and clogging along a stone path to a smelly outhouse — and breakfast, when it came with the dawn, consisted of a dozen or more dinky boxes and bowls containing pickles, dried fish and other globs which I could not identify.

Ryokan, phooey! I thought. Who needs this kind of discomfort in order to understand or appreciate "the real Japan?"

In retrospect, I now know there were two lessons to be learned from this experience: 1) some ryokans are better/worse than others, and 2) if tourists in Japan will reserve at ryokan which are suitable to foreigners — and take the trouble to learn in advance what is expected of the ryokan guest — this culturally unfamiliar experience can be turned into something both pleasant and memorable.

There are some 90,000 authentic inns in Japan, many of them dating back several centuries. Their numbers decline every year as competition from western-style hotels increases. For the most part, they are quaint aggregations of interconnected wooden buildings which sprawl around in a country setting; many are in hot-spring (ensign) areas; most have a formal garden. Some ryokan are converted from old Samurai mansions; some from the estates of wealthy merchants. (BYO = travel; an = mansion.) Authentic antique furnishings are not unusual.

Thousands of ryokan were built along major travel routes, such as the famed Tokaido road between Tokyo and Kyoto. Over centuries, thousands have been destroyed by fire and rebuilt; many do not meet adequate fire safety codes even today.

Perhaps the single most important fact about ryokan is that all have, as their most essential and traditional facility, a public (but not necessarily unisex) bath, the ofuro.

Visitors to Japan are often urged to try at least one night in a ryokan "as an experience." This will not be as easy as checking into a hotel, however. It is possible to make reservations at some ryokan through U.S. travel agents, but a wider range of accommodations will be available through any Japanese agency after arrival in Tokyo. The choice will come from a select list of about 2300 inns which are members of the Japan Ryokan Association. These establishments, unlike the vast majority of inns in Japan, are at least somewhat accustomed to dealing with foreign visitors. Most of the other ryokan managements do not welcome western guests because of language and other cultural obstacles. Indeed, some of the more exclusive old inns do not accept reservation requests even from Japanese if they are not properly identified or introduced. To be a fifth- or sixth-generation Japanese innkeeper is to enjoy a certain aristocracy.

Although often rustic and plain in appearance, ryokan are not usually low-cost accommodations. Charges typically include one dinner and one breakfast and are stated on a per-person basis. Credit cards are not always accepted. Tipping is not expected and may offend if attempted.

Check-in and check-out times at a ryokan are quite rigidly prescribed. The guest is supposed to arrive in late afternoon (all hot and dusty from the road); he is expected to leave after breakfast, or by 10 a.m. Lunch is almost never served. Ryokan are for overnight accommodations, not for extended stays.

How does a visit at a typical ryokan go? Come along!

The guest with a reservation will be met at the street door by one or more members of the staff, all bowing and making sounds of obeisance. Baggage will be whisked away. Shoes will be removed and replaced with the inn's plastic slippers (which won't be big enough for most western feet) before stepping from the stone floor of the entry onto the polished wood floor of the reception area. The shoes will disappear into a compartmented "shoe box" until departure; guests who may wish to take a walk outdoors after dinner will be supplied with wooden clogs. Under no circumstances should a guest demand the return of his own shoes before check- out. In old Japan this was to insult the innkeeper.

If several guests check in together, cups of welcoming tea (green) and small cakes stuffed with sweet bean curd will be served in a reception room. If a guest checks in alone, the maid who shows him to his room will bring tea there. (Take a sip or two and smile, even if the liquid in the small cup doesn't taste good.)

The maid, in kimono, will likely be a woman in her late fifties these days, and she will speak no English. She may have been a Japanese war bride in the 1940's — or a war widow — and has likely worked in this particular ryokan all her life. It is a job which young Japanese women do not want today — one of the reasons many ryokans are going out of business.

The role of the ryokan maid can easily be misunderstood. She will flutter in and out of the guest's room frequently, sliding the paper-panel doors open without knocking. Do not speculate that she may be there for personal services. You want massage, you call the massage girl — about $15 for a 50-minute hour.

A first-class ryokan guest room will usually have a view of a formal garden through sliding doors which open onto a veranda. This front porch will be furnished with two chairs and a small table. The floor of the room will be covered in 3-by-6-foot, rice-straw mats called tatamis. The main part of the room will have six to ten such mats; an adjacent sleeping area, sometimes one step up, will also be tatami-covered (four to six mats). When stepping onto this soft, fragile surface, even slippers must be removed; stocking feet okay.

At the center of the guest room there will be a firepit full of gray ashes, the irori. A charcoal fire may be glowing at its center; an iron pot for boiling water will hang over the hot coals. There will be cushions on the floor for seating, but no chairs or other furniture. Most ryokan rooms will also be equipped with TV, a mini-bar, a safe for valuables (there are no locks on the room doors, remember). A light cotton kimono called a yukata will also be supplied, plus a heavier outer garment in cold seasons.

Almost immediately after arrival, the guest will be expected to take a before-dinner bath — not in his own bathroom (which will be equipped with a small, deep tub) but in the inn's communal facilities. After the guest changes into yukata, the maid will show the way.

First, a room for undressing: yukata, bath towel, wristwatch, etc., are placed in a wicker basket. Now stripped to what the Japanese call a "modesty towel" (washcloth size), the guest enters the steamy realm of the bath itself. Some shadowy figures may be seen sitting armpit deep in the large pool. Around its perimeter there are low stools, plastic pails, countless bars of soap and faucets supplying hot and cold water. The rule: lather up and rinse off before lowering the body into the bath proper. Beware: this should be done with caution because some Japanese baths are almost unbearably hot by western standards.

Dinner will be served to guests in their room, or in the case of a large party together, in a private dining room. It will be a sit-on-the-floor, chopsticks occasion. There will be no menu; the innkeeper supplies the same meal to all guests; it varies only slightly from season to season. For the western guest, it will be a potluck experience. Some of the many dishes offered will be familiar, some will be delicious, and some will be too strange to be enjoyed. Women in kimono will serve. Beer and sake will be available, but not included in the meal cost.

Upon returning to the room after dinner, the ryokan guest will find that a good fairy (the maid) has been in to create a great cuddly-looking nest on the floor of the sleeping area. This bed is made up of many pillows and futons (quilts) and is quite comfortable. In some ryokan it is possible to adjust the temperature of the room for sleeping.

Breakfast can be a problem unless the inn is humane enough to offer its western guests a couple of fried eggs, toast and coffee. Some do, but most don't, which means more fish, soup and rice. A tip: plop an egg on top of the bowl of rice, mix vigorously with the chopsticks, season with a little soy sauce. It's not exactly an Egg McMuffin, but it's not bad.

When leaving, the staff will see each guest off in a smiling, bowing, waving ceremony at the street door. A small gift may be presented, and the inn's brochures will be distributed. At this point, the traveler may be feeling almost Japanese — or, back in his own shoes at last, he may be saying, Never again!

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