One of the most unusual experiences visitors to Japan have is staying at a Ryokan and for us it was one of the most culturally interesting one and a highlight of our trip. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. There are numerous ryokans along the route between Tokyo and Kyoto, the latter having being the old imperial capital. Thus, this busy route attracted a lot of travelers of all economic classes and these ryokans have served weary travelers food and lodging as they halted for the day for multiple centuries. Ryokans, to this day, maintain their authentic style and the etiquette of the bygone traditional inns. Which is wonderful!
Kyoto has innumerable ryokans and we found ours via Rakuten Travel. November is very busy season for travelers in Japan but we were lucky to find this little gem. After making the reservation, we emailed the owner or “Okami”, Sumiko Tamaoki-san about vegetarian options for breakfast which was included in the price. She offered Japanese yeast bread, fresh fruits, yogurt and vegetables for our meal. Great! since it meant we wouldn’t go hungry.
She also informed us that check-in would be from 5 pm to 9 pm and check out at 10 am. We were allowed to leave our luggage at their ryokan in case we reached Kyoto early but had to email her first so someone could be home to receive us.
We were forced to spend our first night in Kyoto at the Westin Miyako since the ryokan did not have availability for three nights. We spent the first evening visiting the local temples in Kyoto. The next morning we took a taxi to the Ryokan and deposited our luggage before visiting Arashiyama and doing other sightseeing in Kyoto.
By evening, we were ready to return to the ryokan. It was situated in a narrow lane close to the Kiyomizu-dera temple. We gave the taxi driver the written directions our hostess had emailed us in Japanese and this helped finding our way on a rainy evening much easier. The ryokan is located about ten minutes from the Kyoto train station by cab and about 5 minutes walk from the nearest local bus station.
Upon arrival, a pleasant middle-aged lady greeted us at the door. We all piled inside a small chamber, an “agari-kamachi” where we removed our shoes. This chamber led to a hallway that connected the dining room, sitting area, the small kitchen, the bathrooms and the main guest suites.
We wore slippers that were given to us to use in the home. We turned right at the hallway and made our way to the end of the corridor where our guest rooms were located. We passed the kitchen and dining on the left and a small door to the garden on the right. The bathrooms were located to the left of the entrance hallway at the opposite end of our room. Ours was the largest room in the ryokan. There were two other rooms upstairs for smaller groups.
Our room was adequate and comfortably appointed. The first part was a sitting room of sorts with a low wooden table (“kotatsu”) and comfortable zabutons (sitting cushions) around it. There was a TV and a small dresser with a mirror above it. Nearby there was a small alcove (a “tokonoma”) in which hung a scroll, a small vase and a large musical instrument. There were some figurines and clocks on display next to the alcove. A sliding closet held the futons and quilts.
The entire floor was covered by tatami mats, made out of woven rice straw and covered in rushes. These mats are considered so sacred that one is not allowed to walk on them with slippers. Only feet encased in socks or barefooted. Tatami mats, I have read, are very helpful in keeping the dampness from seeping in from the stone floors. The adjoining sleeping area was also equally spacious and covered with tatami mats with four futons (sleeping quilts) laid out for us. There were also four Yukata or Japanese style robes for us to wear. One is allowed to walk within the ryokan in the slippers (on Tatami mat-less areas) and robes. The rooms were separated from the main hallway by a sliding door with paper inset (“shoji”). We had to leave our slippers just outside the room.
Now it was cold in Japan in November and I wondered how we would manage in this room. But the quilts that we were given along with the futon were very cozy and kept us warm.
The bathroom in the ryokan is a shared space. The hostess asked us to designate a time for our family to use in the morning and night and she posted a large note with our name and timings on the door. The toilet (separated from the shower area) and the shower were both clean and we did not have any difficulty with access to either of them or with adequate privacy when we needed it.
There was a small garden area outside that we enjoyed for short periods.
Our hostess was kind enough to check on our food preferences. She had to be a bit more creative cooking for us since most foods have fish flakes in them. Along with breads and eggs, fruits and yogurt, coffee and fresh hot chocolate, she provided some local delicacies but I can’t remember them any more. She was also helpful with information about local travel to Nara, Mt. Fuji etc. She helped us plan an early morning visit to the Fushimi Inari shrine and the Kiyomizu-dera temples on the morning of our departure.
While the stay wasn’t any different from one in a B and B, the tatami mats, the shoji doors, the yukata robes, the etiquette that we had to learn and follow, the variety of foods, the fun in trying to communicate when language is a barrier all combined to enhance and enrich this experience. That the Japanese are able to successfully blend a traditional lifestyle with a tech savvy modern society is cause for applause. There is a lot to experience in Japan and this is one small part of the culture that I enjoyed once and would be eager to try again.
To read more about Kamuroan, please visit: http://www.kamuroan.jp.