On Halloween, Nori and I were making the move from Yamagata to Towada-ko (train to Sendai, shinkansen (200 mph) to Hachinohe, and then a bus to Towada-ko). Both of us were schlepping considerable luggage and if possible would take up two seats each. But the train to Sendai filled up and we made room for two gentlemen to sit in the seats facing ours.
Ah ha! I thought. This is when we engage in conversation with complete strangers. But the gentlemen were silent and I worked on editing photos. A little while later I shut my computer and as if on cue, the man across from me starting asking us questions. His name was Suto-san. He spoke very good English and told us that he, his seat partner, and the two women sitting across the aisle were all going to Sendai to say their thank you’s to the prefecture administrators for the tourism campaign (http://yamagatakanko.com.e.db.hp.transer.com/). Each of the four ran ryokans and were part of a ryokan association in Akayu Onsen, another part of Yamagata Prefecture. He said that the two women each ran their own ryokans and were, emphasizing with fist raised, “…very strong”.
The earthquake from March 11 (2011) caused a lot of damage in their area. While Sendai and Fukushima received a lot of help from volunteers, (Suto-san acknowledged and thanked us for the help the American troops provided right after the tsunami) Yamagata was virtually ignored and they struggled to fix the damage. They also lost a lot of business; he said that his ryokan used to have visitors from the US and from Hong Kong but not now, not since the earthquake. Which is why they’re engaged in the tourism campaign “Yamagata Biyori” (Always a perfect day to visit Yamagata). The campaign’s logo is a little man who’s head is the shape of Yamagata Prefecture (http://yamagatakanko.com.e.db.hp.transer.com/log/?l=368256). They gave us buttons with the logo; we gave them pens that said “Hawaii”.
I promised to visit his ryokan next year (mom and dad- pack your bags). Here is the website: www.takinami.co.jp. Pretty sweet looking eh?
So, you might very reasonably ask, what exactly is a ryokan? A ryokan (re-YO-kahn) is, typically, a traditional Japanese inn. Some date back to the 1600’s, some are converted homes, but almost all feature tatami mats for the floors of the guestrooms, futons to sleep on (on the floor), tea and a sweet for when your first arrive (or return for the evening), a communal hot bath (either hot spring or just hot water), yukata to wear to the bath and to meals and just around the ryokan, and a full breakfast and full dinner featuring local, seasonal specialties. I’m completely hooked.
When arriving at a ryokan, you must be prepared to relinquish your shoes. There is often an entrance way where you change out of your street shoes and slip into a pair of the house slippers which are usually waiting in a line. This is what you wear in the common areas of the ryokan. If you go outside to visit an outdoor bath, you with swap out the inside slippers for some outside slippers. And then don’t forget the toilet slippers. Usually there is a separate pair of slippers you change into when in the room with the toilet. When you enter your guestroom there is usually a small entrance area where you leave your slippers. Only socks or bare feet are allowed on the tatami (usually socks I think).
At the beginning of each day, the guests’ street shoes are made available at the entrance so you can exit the world of the ryokan and re-enter the regular, non-ryokan world.
When you first arrive at your onsen, there will be a low table in the middle of the room, with two cushions, one on either side, to sit on. Hot water for tea is waiting and you can take the opportunity to sit down and relax after your journey (of course, after taking off your house slippers).
Provided with the room will be your yukata, a sash, a bath towel and a smaller towel/washcloth (so called ‘modesty towel according to various websites) to use in the onsen or public bath. Sometimes various toiletries are supplied also, for instance a toothbrush and an adorably small tube of toothpaste (single use size). I typically change into my yukata before my first bath.
Bathing: Showers are set up for both standing or sitting, with a plastic or wooden stool to sit on should you desire. I will write another post about onsens and other public baths, so will leave it at that.
I mentioned the toilet room. Should your ryokan have toilet and sink (or even shower) in your guestroom they will be in separate rooms. If you have shared toilet and shower, the toilets will still be in separate rooms from where the sink/showers are. And the toilet is nowhere near the baths. Oh, and all the toilet seats are heated (key in the frigid north).
Eating: You will probably be asked what time you want dinner (bangohan) and breakfast (asagohan). These will either be served in a dining room, or in your own room, depending on the ryokan. The dining room seems to be one of the most impressive rooms at the ryokan, with views of an inner garden. Sometimes you sit at low tables, on cushions on the floor (this can be tricky if you’re only wearing a yukata), and sometimes at a regular table with chairs. The first course is already waiting for you, and soon you will be served the remaining dishes. I have never left a meal at a ryokan less than stuffed. The food is the best I’ve had in Japan (save maybe for sushi at Tsukiji market).
Sleeping: While you are at dinner or shortly thereafter, hotel staff will come to move the low table in your room to one side, and bring out the futons from the closet. These are not the futons from our college days; these are thinner mattresses with big fluffy duvets and substantial pillows. The futons may seem thin, but because they are set up on the tatami it is not as hard as one might fear. These beds also disappear during the day, usually after you’ve left for your day’s activities, and you return to your table, cushions, a fresh kettle of hot water, tea and sweets.
At this point I’ve visited a number of ryokans (and minshuku- less fancy, often with only breakfast and no big bath). All are a treat. All are an experience. But sometimes you get lucky. We were looking for a place to stay near Akita City, and Syohoen popped up in our search (http://www.booking.com/hotel/jp/syohoen.html). The websites say that Syohoen was completed in 1917, and that may be true, but parts of the house were 400 years old. This was a family run establishment with rich detail and very kind hosts. All the pictures from this post are from Syohoen.