We’re up early this morning, our last in Tokyo, so I thought I’d make one more post while I was here. I am so ready to be home! But on to more interesting thoughts…
There is no question, one of things I was looking forward to most about our trip to Japan was our stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan, or guest house. Friends of ours said that the stay in a ryokan was the highlight of their trip, and even though I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, I knew it would be a great experience. This website gives a fairly good general description of what a ryokan is like.
Our ryokan was called Yazuya Hotel. A yazuya is a citrus-type fruit, kind of a cross between a lemon and an orange, and it is very fragrant. This was our first view of the ryokan:
There were many stone steps to go up before reaching the entrance to the lobby:
During the check-in process, they asked us what time we wanted to have dinner and breakfast the next morning, and whether or not we wanted porridge or rice (with breakfast). Contrary to what one might expect at a ryokan, the staff here spoke English very well–I’m pretty sure that’s not the norm, however. After we checked in, a lovely Japanese woman, called a Nakai-san, showed us to our room. First, however, she led us to an area where we had to remove our shoes and don simple black slippers. Our shoes were placed in boxes in a large cabinet, and were readily accessible whenever we wanted to go out.
Our room was on the second floor. The stairs were steep and it was hard for me to walk in the slippers, but I managed. I was so scared of doing something wrong!
When we got to the room, the first thing we saw was a small entry where you are meant to remove your slippers. The floors of most ryokan rooms are tatami, and nothing heavier than a socked foot is meant to be placed on them. One thing I learned on this trip is that as impractical as tatami flooring might be, it is very pleasing to walk on. I’m sure they wouldn’t last two days with the sharp claws of Kramer and Stuart running around on them though.
Obviously, ryokans weren’t made for tall gaijin:
But I fit right in.
The Nakai-san explained our room to us. There was a “living room” type area with a table, two chairs, and a chest which contained our yakutas and haoris.
The main room contained a low zataku table, and zaisu (legless chairs) with zabuton cushions placed on top. Shortly after we arrived, the Nakai-san brought tea and Japanese pickles made from Kyoto vegetables as a welcome.
At this point, it was time to begin the relaxation. Many ryokan have lovely gardens outside of its guestrooms, but ours did not. Unfortunately, ours had a view of the busy street below:
We were pretty well shielded by shades, however, as you can see from the photo below. It would’ve been nice to have a garden, of course, so if that’s very important to you, make sure you find out in advance.
Mick took a minute to review the some of the rules of the ryokan:
Bathing is a very important part of the ryokan experience, especially public bathing. I chose not to participate in this experience, which I kind of regret now, not because I was self-conscious about public bathing, but because I was kind of just afraid of doing something wrong (a common fear I had on the entire trip to Japan). However, our room did have a private bath so Mick and I were able to enjoy the tradition.
Before entering the bath, you must wash yourself, making sure that all soap is rinsed off.
Near the tub, there is a bowl of yazuya which are meant to be placed in the bath water.
The bath was fantastic–a great way to relax before dinner.
Even Mick liked it! (Though again, the tub was not made for big gaijin).
After the bath, one puts on the yakuta. When tying the robe, the left side is put over the right because the opposite is used for dressing the dead.
The yakutas are meant to be worn to dinner and around the ryokan, although it is not obligatory. Mick and I opted for the full ryokan experience and wore ours to dinner and breakfast every day.
One thing that got a bit tiresome about the ryokan was the footwear issue. There was a pair of slippers for every occasion–even for using the toilet (pictured below). One is constantly putting on and taking off slippers in a ryokan.
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The routine is this: You enter your room in slippers provided at the foot of the stairs when you enter the ryokan. There is a small entrance area of your room where you slip off these slippers and leave them. In the room you are either barefoot or wearing socks (preferably the toe socks called tabi). When you leave the room you put your slippers back on, and go down the stairs, where you take off the slippers and put on a pair of geta, which is a type of traditional wooden clog. You wear the geta into the dining room (some ryokans serve dinner in the room–ours didn’t) and slip them off before going to your table. When you are ready to leave, the whole process begins again, but in reverse.
All About Eating
Even more than the bathing, the ryokan experience is about food. Ryokans use this opportunity to serve traditional Japanese cuisine, much of which is produced locally. I have truly never had an eating experience like it.
I was very nervous at first because again, I was nervous I’d make a faux pas. The staff was so nice, however, that I soon felt comfortable. At our table, which was kind of a Japanese-Western hybrid (you sit low, but there is empty space below the table so you can sit as you would at a chair), there was a menu, napkin, and chopsticks (this photo only shows the napkin and chopsticks):
The same Nakai-san who showed us to our room brought a drink menu and we ordered the local sake.
Now the real fun began. The first dish they brought was abalone:
Before I continue–if you don’t like sashimi or sushi, a meal at a ryokan is probably not for you. They can make allowances for vegetarians, but need advance notice. Next came roasted bamboo:
I had to ask how to eat this. It turns out that it is very similar in taste and texture to an artichoke. It smelled wonderful. Presentation is a huge part of the meals served. I’ve never seen such beautifully presented food.
The next dish was sashimi. One thing I learned in Japan is that wasabi is not served with sushi–only sashimi. Sushi is eaten only with soy sauce. In this picture, the clear liquid next to the soy sauce is a type of vinegar.
Next came a kind of roasted fish which Mick forgot to photograph until after he’d eaten some.
The food just kept on coming! The next course was the most delicious shabu-shabu I’ve ever had. Like tempura, the shabu-shabu in Japan is quite unlike anything I’ve had in the U.S. I have a new appreciation for it.
The final dish was rice mixed with egg and yazuya. It was had a very soft consistency and was very delicious.
The meal ended with fruit and a traditional Kyoto sweet. They also served green tea.
While we were eating, a maid set up the futons in our sleeping area. The photo below is the cupboard which all the bedding was stored in.
Unfortunately, Mick never got a photo of them all set up for sleep, but suffice to say it looked very inviting. After such a long day and that huge meal, we tumbled into the futons for a nice sleep, preparing us for the sight-seeing of the following day.
Next chapter–More sights in Kyoto.