Shabby, but only sort of chic.
I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of this place when I walked up (sweating with my two heavy packs up a long hill from the river below). Was I in the right place? In which case, I got a DEAL! The staff were very courteous, all trying say my name correctly, taking my bags, escorting me to my room. The hallways are heavily incensed, but it’s pleasant. This is the big splurge for my trip, The vacation from my vacation. There’s a small entryway just through the door to my room, then you take off your indoor slippers (having left your outside shoes at the front entrance). Then there is a 3-mat sized tatami entrance area (Japanese room sizes are measured using tatami mats as a standard of measurement, with each mat measuring about 1.8m x 0.9m though there is some regional variation in size). Then the main room is an 8-mat room (large), with an additional alcove for tv and ikebana (separate). Then through the next set of shoji screens is a narrow area with two chairs and a small side table, in front of sliding glass doors to the outside (private garden area). To the left is my private outdoor bath (stone, with a view), and then a regular inside Japanese shower and bath, a sink, and a toilet room. When I say ‘regular’ I mean a low shower with a wooden stool and bucket so you can shower sitting down. I’m getting used to this practice. There is also a indoor tub, but it hasn’t been filled with water, because why bathe inside when you can bathe outside?
After showing me around my room and preparing tea for me, my host left. I had made a hasty trip of walking part of the Nakasendo road this morning and then spent about three hours on buses, so after tea I wasted no time in taking my first bath. Then after drying my hair and donning my yukata (I got to choose which color and pattern I wanted) I sat down to relax. I’d begun noticing little blemishes on the walls, and warping where the walls met the floor (I am my mother’s daughter). The design of the room is very nice, but the furnishings and condition of the room weren’t quite up to what I considered fancy ryokan standards. Maybe they took one look at the backpacking foreigner and thought “let’s stick her in the old room”. Maybe because I didn’t roll up in a fancy car they thought they could stick me in the less-nice room. Maybe I did get a deal and when they saw what I was paying they put me in this room. Or maybe, just maybe, the rest of the ryokan is in the same condition.
They had given me a sort of scavenger hunt sheet that helps in orienting oneself to the ryokan. This place is sprawling with about 8 interconnected buildings. The Japanese are fond of stamping tourist ‘passport’ books at the various temples and shrines they visit (there’s a longer explanation for this but I’ll skip it for now). In the same vein, I was presented with a sheet with 8 spots to stamp as I found the various destinations throughout the complex. I’d already stamped the (1) spot for the lobby when I first arrived, so what was left was: (2) entrance to public baths, (3) an observatory, (4) next to Emperor’s pics (why I know he was here too), (5) big red sunshade, (6) in front of the foot bath (oh yes, there’s a special pool outside just for your feet), (7) In front of the family’s private baths (these are just four private baths that can be used one party at a time, I will explore these more tomorrow), and (8) in front of the billiard room. It’s a little intimidating being the only (so far) foreigner and plunging into such a large experience. The scavenger hunt helped a lot and I trotted around in basically a light robe, trying to find my stamps.
As I stepped out of my room and made my way down the hallway I noticed that every other door looked much like mine (worn, scratched). There were marks on the walls and stains on the carpet. Oh my. Rustic is charming. Historic is impressive. Worn, is just, …worn. I began to feel a little sorry for the building, and realized that I clearly was not being treated any differently than any other guest. That would have been a first for this trip, but no nationality is perfect.
Most everyone I encountered was very kind, “konnichiwaaaaaa”. It was near check-in time so most folks were also exploring the place. I ran into three women coming back from the public baths. I’m very excited to experience these public baths. They’re outside overlooking the mountain valley. The baths are open all night too. They open at 1pm and are open until 10am the next morning. At 2am the men’s and women’s baths switch so everyone can experience both baths, even if you’re only staying one night.
As I was coming downstairs from the billiard room (and ping pong room with table from maybe the 1940’s) I ran into a small group. They stopped and one man asked “Doko kara desuka” (there might be one more word in there). I answered “America”. “Ahhh, something something furui something something” with a wave of his hand. “Hai” I giggled back, because I’m pretty sure he was saying “god this place is old isn’t it?”
(this ryokan is the onsen town of Gero)