Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ryokan 101!

Do you know what a ryokan is? I didn't, not until I started doing some research for my upcoming Japan trip, and the more I read the more excited I am becoming! Japan personifies hospitality, and a ryokan is all about that and more....
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, a perfect way to experience Japanese culture and customs. You live in a room with a Tatami (straw mat) flooring, you take a bath in an Onsen hot spring bath after which you change into a Yukata or robe, then you sleep in a futon put down directly on the Tatami mat! Oh, and in between all this you get to eat traditional Japanese food that not only looks fabulous, but tastes fabulous too.

So here is a little Ryokan 101 for you......just in case your next vacay happens to be in Japan, you'll know what to expect!
First off, as soon as you enter the ryokan, you are welcomed by the Okami, or the Japanese equivalent of the manager/landlady, but whereas an inn landlady conjures up visions of a ruddy faced tough lady, your Okami will be a petite porcelain faced beauty. In the majority of ryokans, the role of the okami is handed down from mother to daughter or to daughter-in-law. 
Once all the deep bows of welcome are over with, you are asked to take a seat in the lobby! This is just so you get some time to rest, decompress and recover from the fatigue of your journey! It also gives you a few moments to sort of soak in the culture, the sounds of trickling of water and Japanese music, the refined beauty of your surroundings and it fills you with a sense of anticipation of the ryokan hospitality you are about to receive! Nothing is hurried here....not like a Western hotel, where you get your card key and are whisked away in a speedy elevator to your room trying to get there before the bell boy and your luggage.....!
Then the Okami assigns you a room maid or Nakai-san, sort of like your very own maid-in-waiting, who also serves as an attendant and is often in charge of general services for guests, from receiving the guests to seeing them off upon their departure. She will be typically dressed in a kimono and will look after you with the meticulous attention that they are famous for.
Before entering your room you will be  requested to take your shoes off and wear slippers. The corridors usually have wooden flooring or are tatami-matted, in which case the guests are to walk along without shoes or slippers.
In general, the guestrooms of the ryokan are washitsu (Japanese-style rooms). You can relax comfortably in any style you like in the washitsu which mainly consists of a wooden ceiling and pillars, walls and tatami mats. In the middle of the main room, you will find a low zataku table, and zaisu (legless chairs) with zabuton cushions placed on top. In the deluxe guestrooms, arm rests called kyosoku are placed by the zaisu chairs.
The guestroom has large, wide windows, so that the guests can enjoy panoramic views. When the sunlight pouring in is too bright, you can close the shoji (sliding screen) made of wood and paper which will soften the light.
Shortly after you have been shown into the guestroom and given time to settle down, the Nakai-san in charge will bring a serving of tea and sweets (Chaka or Wagashi). The practice of serving tea and sweets to guests as a gesture of hospitality is not something special to ryokans but is a daily custom which is deeply rooted in Japan. The custom of preparing tea when entertaining a guest has its origins in the art of sado (tea ceremony), and is an expression of welcome.
Once the tea and sweets have been served, the Nakai-san will chat with you, confirming the time for serving meals and generally making sure all your needs are met. This series of actions will be carried out by the Nakai-san in a half-sitting posture (chugoshi), but she will sit straight (seiza) when making her initial greetings and also when conversing or taking leave. After relaxing for a while in the guestroom, slip on geta (traditional wooden clogs) or zori and step into the garden of the ryokan. 
The garden of a Japanese ryokan has seasonal trees and flowers, with natural stones and sand carefully arranged to produce diverse scenic expressions. In some gardens, water is incorporated ingeniously in the form of ponds with Nishikigoi carp (colored carp) swimming majestically, or gently murmuring small streams and waterfalls.
Then comes the best part - at least that's what I think! The hot steam bath......Japan, which is a volcanic archipelago, is known worldwide for its many hot springs (onsen). People often travel to hot springs hoping to be refreshed both mentally and physically, in other words, to benefit from the therapeutic effects of the hot spring (known as toji).

The Furoban (attendant in charge of the bathroom) regularly checks the quality and the quantity of the bath water and always keeps the bathroom and the dressing room clean so that the guests can enjoy bathing in a pleasant atmosphere.

A morning bath is a luxury unique to a ryokan. Immersing yourself quietly in the open-air bath in the morning mist, your mind and body will gradually start to awaken.

If you're like me and the thought of a public bath has you breaking out in a cold sweat, then you can choose a guestroom with bathroom attached. In recent years, ryokans are increasing the number of guestrooms with a private rotenburo (private open-air bath) attached. Thank goodness!
After taking a bath, you to change into the yukata placed in your guestroom. The Nakai-san will make sure that the yukata is the right size for you. Sets of yukata, haori and obi are placed in accordance with the number of persons staying in each guestroom. The tanzen and tabi will also be provided depending on the season. You will also find bath towels and face towels, and other amenities for your use.
Dinner at a Japanese ryokan is generally a course menu of washoku (traditional Japanese food). Each dish is extravagantly prepared, using plenty of seasonal ingredients all so beautifully presented that it will leave you gasping at the sheer aesthetics of it all.

The Japanese food served at a ryokan is prepared by master chefs specializing in Japanese cuisine. At a ryokan, meals are generally taken in the guestrooms. The attendant will politely explain about each dish as she serves the food soyou will be able to fully enjoy the skills of Japanese cuisine which cannot be experienced even in Japanese homes.

The various dishes of your dinner will be brought to your guestroom by the room attendant. They will be served at the best temperature for each of the dishes, in other words, hot dishes will be served hot, and cold dishes will be served cold.

A day filled with the pleasures of travel passes quickly by and is about to close, when you suddenly realize it is already past bedtime. Lying down, chatting or reading on clean soft bedding, feeling cozy in the afterglow of your travel, you will soon slip into a world of dreams and sleep soundly, looking forward to the pleasures that tomorrow will bring.

In a washitsu (tatami-mat room), a futon, a J
apanese-style mattress and bedding are spread out over the tatami mats. At a ryokan, attendants take care in putting out the futon. Efficiently and carefully, they prepare the bedding so that guests can enjoy a good night's sleep.

If you happen to be one of those folks who can only sleep on a bed, trust me, you're missing out on a fantastic experience! 

The Japanese strongly believe in starting out with a huge breakfast, so you will find a sumptuous array of dishes on the table.
Breakfast at a ryokan is essentially washoku (Japanese food). Some large ryokans serve breakfast in buffet style in a grand dining hall, but it is still the norm to eat it in the guest room.
Steaming hot rice, miso soup. grilled fish, tofu, egg dishes, nori and tsukudani make up the standard Japanese style breakfast! 
Again, if you're really hankering after a Western style brekker, they'll whip one up for you. 
So there you have it, a day at a traditional Japanese ryokan! Isn't it simply fascinating? Just writing this post has got me really excited about this whole new experience, I cannot wait.......
All pics via flickr picture sharing!


Krithika said...

Hi Kamini
That was a lovely post !! I just felt like I revisited Japan. I've been there before, and I should say that the people are extremely friendly. The houses and rooms are small but they have all the amenities.... That's very efficient use of space.
In restaurants they have plastic displays of the food served inside.
But food could be a bit of a problem for vegetarians. Looking forward to more about Japan after your trip !!

Anonymous said...

WOW!! What a treat and I am yet to read your travelogue :). Japan was a country which I had put on the back-burner. With four vegetarians I break out into cold sweat and land up staying in Hilton or Marriott chains just so that I can make sure the kids have something to eat for breakfast in the Orient :). Looking forward to your trip. Have a great great trip.


Sreelu said...

wow what an amazing experience it would be to visit Ryokan , thanks for the write up, this sure got added to my bucket list. have a great trip !!

Roshni Mitra Chintalapati said...

it sounds great but definitely should be a trip without kids!! :(

Vinita said...

wonderful post. Very informative and great pictures to go along with it. I too always wanted to visit japan but didn't know where to start. Now that you will be going, and hopefully making a detailed post about it, including what you saw, ate. where you stayed, how you traveled etc and most importantly what would be the cost for everything ... that will make it easier for us to plan the trip too,

Emreen said...

Have a great and enjoyable trip Kamini... !! Japan is a wonderful place to visit -The people are extremely friendly....!! and The Japanese trip is one that I will always fondly remember in life... !!

Don't miss Hakone in your trip - The place is magical... !!

Don't worry about the food - Most hotels have microwave and necessary utensils,, and everything (rice, veggies) are available in stores there. If you cannot manage Japanese food, you can get something ready-to-eat and do it for yourself...!!

Kamini said...

Thanks all. Actually not worried about food at all! Some stir fried veggies and tempura, I'm good! But I'll let you all know how easy/tough it is as a veghead!
Vinita - its expensive. Fortunately we're staying in Tokyo with good friends, but the 2 nights acco in Kyoto is costing us a mini fortune, especially with it being sakura season! Same with bullet train tickets! Pricey!
Roshni, My3 - our friends there have 2 daughters, 9 and 5 yrs old....the kids love the city.
Emreen - have to add Hakone now...

Geeta said...

Ever since my daughter's friend moved to Japan she has been wanting to go there (before that it was because of pokemon). Your write up and pictures are so tempting.

Thanks to you, Japan is now on my wish list too.

Patricia Torres said...

I want to visit this gorgeous land.. some day!! *sigh*>. for now.. i can only pray!!

xvmonarose said...

i LOVE this!!!