05 Friday August, 2016
By David Wall, Japan Specialist
If I had to divide travellers into two camps, it would be those who say ‘once you’ve seen one temple you’ve seen them all,’ and those who find something unique about each one and love to explore for more. Japanese ryokans (traditional inns) have the ‘marmite’ factor – some people return to Japan several times and eventually spend more of their holiday in remote rural ryokans than they do in city hotels. Others have seen enough after one night on futons in tatami straw mat rooms, the endless etiquette about shoes, the dearth of English-speaking staff and the adventurous selections of food in the ‘kaiseki’ meals (cod sperm and raw horse meat being among the more intriguing local specialities I’ve been served with a flourish).
It’s fair to say that ryokans are something of an acquired taste, and I approached the planning of renowned travel writer Stanley Stewart’s itinerary with some trepidation. There is no doubt that he is a well-travelled and brilliant writer – his ‘India by Motorbike’ series in the Sunday Times a few years ago is one of the most absorbing and well written pieces I’ve read in recent memory – but would he get it? It was particularly vital that Stanley would take to the ryokan experience, as the aim was to get him off the beaten track where western-style hotels are few and far between.
The Japanese treasure their ryokans as the English do their heritage B&Bs and country spa hotels. An illustrious range of archaic Japanese terms are used on their websites to build the sense of immersion in Old Japan, free of the stresses and strains of life in the modern megacities. For example, the word ‘ukabu’ 浮かぶ means both ‘floating’ or ‘bobbing’, like a leaf in a gentle wind, or a tired Tokyo salaryman in the revitalising volcanic waters of an onsen hot spring bath. ‘Ukabu’ can also mean floating into mind, a vision of the rural good life suddenly appearing to the salaryman (or woman) in the middle of their working week. The poeticising on the websites does put ryokans in danger of becoming more style than substance, but fortunately many of them are still family-run and have kept their integrity and standards intact over the generations.
The sheer pace of urban development in 20th century Japan makes these rural mini-breaks even more precious for the Japanese, and the Izu Peninsula also makes for a wonderful sojourn for westerners as it lies halfway between Tokyo and Kyoto. The best way to see it is by hire car, which sounds daunting, but in fact the Japanese are very courteous drivers and they adopted the English system of driving on the left. But how to get all this across to Stanley in a phone call?
“So, these tatami mat rooms, then – what else is in them?” was one of his first questions.
“Well… not a huge amount, really.” I explained, badly. I’ve never really figured out how to convey the Buddhist concept of emptiness and the significance of space rather than things, which is so alien to us in the materialist West. “There’s a tokonoma”, I ventured. “A kind of small altar in the room, generally with a hanging scroll and an arrangement of one or two flowering stems…”
Suffice to say we didn’t get off to a flying start, but Stanley patiently persevered with my ruminations. I told him of the time I spent an hour immersed in the volcanic hot spring water of an onsen bath at the Amagisou ryokan in Kawazu, deep in natural surroundings, gazing at the churning waterfall within the grounds and sensing the graceful descent of leaves falling from the trees around me.
“Hmmm… sounds lovely. I can wear my swimming trunks though, right?” It happens that the Amagisou is one of the few that allows swimming costumes and mixed bathing, to Stanley’s relief. He ended up putting his suitcases in the tokonoma and wearing the room slippers in the public area, but by the time he’d got back from a long soak the suitcase had been moved and there was a fresh pair of perfectly aligned slippers in the room’s genkan (hall).
This was Stanley’s first experience of omotenashi – a form of hospitality where staff move like ninjas to arrange things in the background without fussing around the guest. When Stanley got back from his multi-course ‘kaiseki’ traditional Japanese dinner in the restaurant at the Amagisou, his futon was laid out ready for him to sleep. Again it’s a marmite thing, but I’ve known people take to it so well that they buy a futon mattress on their return to the west.
Next morning, after a fairly full-on breakfast of grilled fish, vegetables, rice and tofu, Stanley set out to nearby Kawazu, where a particular variety of cherry blossom blooms in late February due to the Izu Peninsula’s microclimate. It is a distinctly Japanese affair, with local stalls selling cherry-blossom themed mochi bean-paste sweets and snifters of floral sake. It may only be a 500-metre riverside stretch of blossom trees, but it is mercifully free of the huge tour groups and backpackers that clog up the main cherry blossom spots in Tokyo and Kyoto come April.
He then drove on down the coastal road and stopped off in historic Shimoda on the southern tip. This is where the Americans forced Japan’s hand and opened Japan up fully to trade with the West in the mid-19th century. Stanley was thoroughly enjoying the driving experience by now and becoming rather wistful, as he is usually doing battle with traffic on the streets of Rome. I prefer to take local transport, the coastal train ride down Izu peninsula second only to the Scottish West Highland way for natural beauty in my experience. My own fondest memory of Shimoda was the jolly holiday crowd on board and the super-fresh bowl of kaisendon (raw fish ‘sashimi’ on rice) at a little open-kitchen restaurant I found on arrival.
The road then winds up into the hills towards Shuzenji at the heart of the peninsula, and for me to the essence of what Japan is all about once the layers of neon and urban noise are stripped away. My face was pressed up against the back window of the bus like a mesmerized child, watching the hills fading into the background like a Japanese watercolour painting. At that moment, a Japanese crane flew into the scene and landed majestically in a lake, a moment of sublime beauty. It’s been ten years and ten trips since then, but I still treasure that moment.
And at the apex of this ride is one of Japan’s very finest ryokan and a Relais Chateux property, the Asaba. It is unique amongst ryokans in having a traditional Noh mime theatre stage which is situated on the opposite side of a lake from the ryokan itself. The panoramic windows of the larger rooms allow guests to drink in a scene of cultural and natural riches, and Stanley was quite spoilt with a personal attendant and one dinner served in-room. The delicate aesthetic of the traditional ‘kaiseki’ here ironically appears more like nouvelle cuisine to the western eye. Hester Blumenthal would come away inspired by the Asaba’s signature dish - Amagi game fowl and sea kelp hotpot – and the exquisitely delicate arrangement of side-dishes such as sashimi (raw fish), local mountain vegetables and the prized matsutake mushrooms which most perfectly capture ‘the fifth taste’ umami (neither savoury, sweet, salty or bitter).
Izu is a big step beyond the comfort zone of Tokyo’s luxury western-style hotels, English-speaking staff, cosmopolitan dining scene, Uniqlo and Starbucks. But what it lacks in familiar creature comforts, it more than makes up for with quintessentially Japanese cultural and natural riches. Intrigued? Delve deeper into the locations and view photo galleries on Ampersand’s website here: Seeking Ancient Japan - Following in the Footsteps of Stanley Stewart.
For more information or to start planning your tailor-made holiday to Japan, please get in touch with David:
firstname.lastname@example.org / +44 (0) 207 819 9770