It was 28 years ago when I first visited Japan, at the time I lived and worked out of London. I was the working for Thistle Hotels head office, as a 20-something International Sales Manager (Far East).
I stayed in my first ryokan when I visited Kyoto en route to Osaka. I was there with a group of STB and BTA (now VisitBritain) delegates on a sales mission. It left a deep impression on a young hotelier, a memory that I will never forget.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868), when such inns served travellers along Japan’s highways. They typically feature tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata. Ryokans are more typically located in scenic areas, such as in the mountains or by the sea.
Most ryokan offer dinner and breakfast, which are often included in the price of the room and the ryokan usually promote themselves on the quality of their food.
Arriving in Ibusuki you can imagine my anticipation – we had booked a famous and award winning ryokan which was situated in the region. Syusuien has been voted for many years one of Japan’s top ryokans and no.1 for for food and beverage.
I can tell you we were not disappointed. It was exquisite. Ryokans showcase Japanese culture at its pinnacle. You experience a deep and almost spiritual form of traditional Japanese hospitality first hand, it is noticeable from the moment that you enter the courtyard.
In the lobby entrance a beautiful young lady dressed in a kimono kneeling on a tatami mat – how long she stays there I don’t know – welcoming, kneeling and bowing graciously to all who arrive at her ‘home’. We were also welcomed by the owner, not uncommon in ryokans.
The size of the lobby is in keeping with the size of the building not overly large, the inn has only 53 rooms and suites. From the lobby window you notice a gorgeous Japanese garden outside, petite and perfect in every way.
We were shown to our room, I quickly realised that this was no ordinary room, it was the presidential suite! We had been upgraded – a gift from one hotelier to another.
I can tell you I spent 30 minutes just taking pictures, it was traditional and wonderfully photogenic.
A typical ryokan guest room contains:
the “agari-kamachi” (after opening the door guests step into this small area and take off their shoes)
“shoji” (sliding paper doors) which separates the agari-kamachi from the room
“tatami” mat flooring (reed floor matting)
low wooden tables
“zabuton” (sitting cushions)
“futon” (sleeping quilts)
a “tokonoma” (an ornamental alcove built into the wall used for placing flower vases and hanging scrolls)
an “oshiire” (a closet for futon sleeping quilts)
an “engawa” (a glass enclosed sitting area separated from the room by a shoji)
We had it all and more.
As soon as we had unpacked and stored our belongings, we decided that prior to dinner, we will change into our yukatas and visit the onsen, the traditional Japanese bath-house.
A yukata is a lightweight cotton kimono, everyone is encouraged to wear them. Like a uniform, we all appear to be the same, there are no clues as to guest’s social standing. To me it was liberating and like fancy dress – it was fun! Actually it’s a very comfortable garment.
The onsen was special, quiet and tranquil and like most establishments in the area, they take advantage of the underground thermal springs which provide a steady and free supply of piping hot spring water. The steam generated from this volcanic thermal activity also powers the local electricity generating stations.
After a quick visit – all too short in my mind – we returned from our warm baths to our suite to prepare for dinner.
Dinner turned out to be the most exquisite 11 course meal of the very highest standard. It sounds a huge and filling undertaking, but it wasn’t. Instead a most wonderful display of food artistry, colour and presentation I have seen.
You often hear that Japanese eat with their eyes and dinner this evening was no exception. It was fresh, delicious and beautifully presented and the service was just faultless. I can see why the inn was number 1.
I slept very comfortably on the futon. It had magically appeared on the tatami matting in the dining room cum bedroom, in a quick and seamless conversion, whilst we had dinner. For less than US$300 for two people, dinner and breakfast is included in the room rate along with all taxes, at this amazing ryokan. A real gem.
And what a breakfast! Another wonderful culinary experience with a traditional Japanese offering – served as the night before in an impeccable and utterly Japanese way. Beautiful and delicious.
The day head was going to be full of new adventures and being in this region we absolutely couldn’t leave without trying a hot sand bath. We made our way to the Yamakawa sand baths, just a short drive away.
Here the sand on the beach is infused with hot water from deep underground. The volcanic activity makes the resort famous for its natural hot sand baths.
After taking off all your clothes and donning a yukata in the bath-house changing rooms, you make your way outside with the slippers (flip-flops) provided.
We are then buried in the hot black sand by an attendant. As it was lightly raining we were under covers in a special roofed off area adjacent to the beach. The attendant shovels sand on you while you lie down and relax with a sand head rest for support and a towel around your neck and head to stop sand getting into your hair. It’s surprisingly pleasant, the weight of the hot sand is the only draw back. 10 minutes is the recommended limit before you push yourself out and walk back to the bath-house to shower and take a natural hot water bath in the onsen.
These are usually segregated, one male and one female. They can be quite intimidating if you’re not used to them, but the etiquette is straightforward enough: undress completely and take a small hand towel, which is usually provided; wash sitting on one of the stools at the specially designated area; using the towel for modesty if you wish, slide gently into the bath; after you’ve soaked, return to the dressing area to dry off and get dressed.
Written by : Andrew J Wood
About the author: Andrew J. Wood (right) is a travel writer and a regular university guest lecturer. A long-time resident of Thailand, Andrew is a former hotel General Manager and a Director of Worldwide Destinations Asia Co Ltd in Bangkok, as well as the Immediate Past President of Skal International Thailand.