Do like the Japanese do… in a traditional Ryokan spa retreat
Ampersand adores ryokans. Literally translated as ‘traveller’s inn’, these havens of relaxation offer so much more than a place to rest one’s head. Sumptuous 'kaiseki' traditional meals often served in the comfort of your own room, hot spring 'onsen' baths that can be privately used, lovingly arranged Zen gardens… which all looks so picture-perfect that one seems destined to do something out of place. Like the time I realised with horror that my mother had added her own careening lines to a zen gravel garden by trundling a wheelie case across it. We passed the garden again fifteen minutes later and the patterns had been restored, a gentle reminder for us to go with the ryokan’s harmonious rhythms and arrangements.
If it seems daunting, don’t worry. Staff are warm and welcoming even if they don’t speak any English and there’s really just a handful of real dos and don’ts, foremost being footwear. Many ryokan are family-run and shoes should be taken off straight away in the 'genkan' entrance hall where slippers are provided. This makes anyone over a size 8 feel like Gulliver in Lilliput, but once in the tatami straw mat room one goes barefoot with a separate pair of slippers for the bathroom. The slippers also have the effect of slowing the pace, as your host bows to welcomes you and says "konnichiwa! Go-yukkiri kudasai", which literally means ‘good afternoon! Please take it slowly.’ One soon starts bowing back reflexively, attuning to the quintessentially Japanese space.
When bathing in the onsen communal baths, take everything off and wash first using the shower attachments and soaps provided. A small towel is provided for modesty but this should not go in the water. Sometimes these baths can be booked for a private session, called 'kashikiri'. The Japanese are very polite people and do not stare at others, but for complete privacy the luxury ryokan have 'rotenburo' ensuite hot spring tubs on secluded open-air balconies. These are recommended for anyone with tattoos, which are associated with the 'yakuza' mafia and should not be shown in public.
Ryokan rooms usually have delicate 'ikebana' flower and 'kakimono' scroll arrangements in a 'tokonoma' alcove, and only the arranger should step within this space. Definitely don’t put a suitcase in it as our director once did! Taking things slowly helps to ensure that the guest doesn’t put a foot in the 'washi' paper panes of 'shoji' sliding doors that separate the eating and sleeping spaces in larger rooms. Food is served at a low table with guests sitting on 'zabuton' cushions or sometimes dinky chairs without legs, but it’s perfectly comfortable as there is no expectation to sit in the formal 'seiza' kneeling position these days. There is an expectation to be on time for dinner though, and there will be a lot of food so it’s best not to snack beforehand.
After the feast it’s time to unwind Japanese style, in the 'yukata' evening robes provided. Staff lay out the futon unsprung mattresses and the ryokan quietens down fairly early. This is a great time to soak in a private tub and absorb the sounds of nature, peace and quiet. The only blot on this serene picture is the occasional whiff of cigarette smoke as Japan historically allows it indoors, but this is gradually being phased out. And as time goes on we find more and more staff speaking English, so with the Yen at last weakening in our favour this is a great time to visit Japan and experience a ryokan.
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