Accommodation in Japan: Staying at a Ryokan
Simple pleasures - No visit to Japan is complete without one night in a traditional Japanese inn
"At last I had found one country on earth where simplicity is supreme."
Frank Lloyd Wright
The American architect's commentary on traditional Japanese design was not only profound for its own simplicity, but an astute observation of a country known for its crowds, clutter, and chaos.
Contrary to the sad, even inevitable, diminishment of the ryokan, or traditional-style inn, Japanese people still revere these perfectly simple retreats as necessary diversions from their personal commotion and cacophony.
The ryokan is where the body reposes, the mind plays, and the spirit frolics.
Historically, the Japanese have worked diligently at perfecting the art of relaxation, and ryokan are prominent evidence of this ethereal recreation.
A typical tatami-mat floored room in a Japanese ryokan
For the visitor whose idea of luxury is surely stuffed with exquisite fixtures and an unabashed show of opulence, a top-grade ryokan with its no-frills-no-weight-room compound and exorbitant price tag may seem almost like larceny.
Indeed, one must leave such expectations at the door with the shoes. From the instant the foot employs the slippers and the okami-san reverently bows in welcome, to a departure bid with grace and gratitude, the senses are treated to a sort of metaphysical massage.
For the bulk of visitors, a stay at a ryokan will be their most intimate encounter with the country's ancient traditions, even way of life. A ryokan is, after all, an effective example of bygone housing.
The ryokan's inception came about during the Edo Period (1603-1867) as rudimentary lodging along the Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo) highway. As their popularity grew, the Japanese interpretation of exquisite fixtures and settings became equal to spartan simplicity, dispelling the myth that more is somehow better, grander, or representative of comfort.
Visit any mokuzo-kaoku ryokan, or even a temple or historic house in Japan, and you will find only the plain and the modest. Such simplicity stands in clear and striking contrast to the cluttered home of virtually any contemporary Japanese.
A traditional Japanese dinner served at a ryokan in Ibusuki, Kagoshima, Japan
A ryokan's simplicity embodies the pursuit of a veritable nirvana. In architectural terms, it is the materials: the wood, the paper doors. In spiritual terms, it is the resonance of silence and stillness save for the pond's trickle. In design terms, it is the clean, straight lines of the tatami mats and shadows fluttering on rice-paper doors. The minimalism of a solitary flower arranged in the alcove curiously compels us to admire its beauty.
A ryokan visit begins at a sliding door at the end of a cobbled path in the shadow of bamboo or some other equally delightful green. You admire the maid's plain kimono as she quietly leads you to your suite where she serves green tea and perhaps a sweet presented on a simple porcelain dish. The crouching lacquered table in the centre of your room is flanked by cushions and brocade armrests.
As you sink to the floor, realising there is no bed, the smell of the pristine straw mats fills your nose and you breathe deeply for a greater taste as the maid slips behind the closing rice-paper doors, leaving you to the stillness of the room.
You turn to the window and your eyes are treated to a view of a perfectly pruned garden or a sweeping vista down some sun-soaked valley or even the sea. A calm descends upon you and a harmony unites your heart and mind, or perhaps you and your partner in a warm embrace.
It is soon time to bathe, either in your own room or in a communal room. You remove yourself to the cedar bath, disrobe, and crouch upon a little wooden stool on the tile floor to wash with douses of water from cedar pans.
Then, at last, you immerse yourself into the fiery bath, slowly, convinced you will blister all over but then falling into the grip of the heat, your body surrenders its tensions, aches and pains.
When you return to your room the maid is poised ready to serve you a seemingly endless assortment of vegetables, rice, and other locally grown treats, each to be admired for its colour, its art and when at last you are finished, you wipe your hands and face with a steaming towel as the dishes and table make way for the futons to be laid out neatly in the centre of the floor.
Feeling rested, pampered, and with the sake you were drinking weighing your extremities down, you want to resist the drowsiness which feels like a drug, for to capitulate is to relinquish this nirvana and sleep only brings on the morning and a regrettable departure.
In the morning, after the traditional breakfast of rice, miso soup, vegetables and perhaps fish, you collect your belongings and return to the entrance for your shoes, quite as alien to the inside of the ryokan as the existence you left behind the day before. The maid sees you off just as okami-san welcomed you, quietly, and with a deep, long bow. She may stay there, lingering, till you are firmly out of sight.
At home among your own clutter and chaos, memories of your ryokan also linger. In particular, the Nakai-san not so much your maid, as your angel.