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A ryokan in the hot springs region of Japan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A ryokan in the hot springs region of Japan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The secret world of ‘ryokans’

Tucked away along the Old Tokaido Highway, family-run traveller inns are reviving an Edo-era Japanese tradition

At first glance, it has the look of a sprawling, languid country home. Just off the busy main road, the approach is discreet, nestled amid sumptuous plum trees. A short winding path leads to the main entrance, inset in stone and splashed with water, the traditional sign of welcome. I remove my shoes and step inside the main hallway. There are hand-painted screens and delicate scrolls of ink paintings; it is tranquil. I feel miles away from the traffic outside and centuries removed from the present. That, of course, is the idea.

“If you want to experience true Japanese culture, there’s nothing more immersive than a traditional ryokan. Here, it’s all about balance and harmony," says Kazuko-san, the fifth-generation owner of a small 17-room traditional Japanese inn, a ryokan, near Hakone-machi.

I do not know of people that value tradition as much and as elegantly as the Japanese do. Yet there are not many hotels in Japan that enfold you in the essence of the way things were. Unless you stumble upon a ryokan. These traditional family-run traveller-inns where guests eat and bathe together are a quiet nod to a world gone by.

There has been a revival of sorts, thanks to tourist interest in the world of ryokans, and many establishments have reinvented themselves, incorporating, begrudgingly at times, Western elements and a more cosmopolitan vibe. But there are also those who have stuck stubbornly to their traditional roots. Most of them don’t advertise and have a peripheral existence on the World Wide Web—and many of them get by almost exclusively on repeat customers and word-of-mouth publicity.

Most of these are located around what used to be the Old Tokaido Highway, which was the most important of the Five Routes during the feudal Edo period (1603-1868) of Japan. The old highway was a stone-paved road that connected the mighty shogun’s capital in Edo (renamed Tokyo around 1868) with the imperial capital in Kyoto.

Like many, I break my journey at Hakone. It used to be the last checkpoint before Edo on the Old Tokaido Highway, and thus the most perilous. Today, Hakone is Tokyo’s favourite escape. A land of onsen (hot springs) on the banks of the lake Ashi, where Mount Fuji rises in the distance, overlooking its reflection in the cool waters of the lake.

A quick taxi ride from the Hakone-Yumoto railway station brings me to the Fukuzumiro Ryokan on the banks of the Hayakawa river. An old kimono-clad okami, the house mistress with kind eyes, leads me in.

The wooden corridors of a ryokan in Hakone that the writer visited. Photo: Sanika Prabhu
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The wooden corridors of a ryokan in Hakone that the writer visited. Photo: Sanika Prabhu

A heady smell of tatami fills the room. Barefoot, I savour the tingling coarseness of the mats as I explore my little suite—a living room and a dressing room separated by slightly frayed shoji. Outside the big window, there’s an old crape myrtle tree laden with showy pink blossoms. Delicate petals fall gently into the frothy, tumbling waters of the Hayakawa river. Across the river, on the Yusaka mountain, maple leaves are about to shed their fresh green for unruly tufts of deep red and bright yellow. Autumn colours fill the air.

I sit on the floor by the window in a simple linen yukata that constitutes one’s wardrobe while inside the ryokan. My nakai brings a cup of magnolia tea with daifuku, the red bean sweetmeat, and ever so graciously exits by inching backward on her knees. Looking at her, I am reminded of Yasujiro Ozu—the father of Japanese cinema—and particularly of his “tatami shots", distinguished by a still, low camera which was placed to match the eye level of the characters kneeling on tatami mats.

Customarily, a bathing ritual precedes dinner, and traditional ryokans like this one do not have private bathrooms. The prospect of communal bathing seems a bit daunting. There are separate baths for men and women, although the tradition of men and women bathing together was quite common in Japan until the Meiji period, which began in 1868 and ended in 1912. While this is no longer the case, communal bathing seems to have attained the status of a national leisure activity in this country. In a place of sprawling natural hot springs such as Hakone, the art of onsen is taken rather seriously.

I follow the giggles across the ryokan garden to the onsen where the hot spring water is pumped from 100m underground before it’s mixed with cooler water. This evening, the bath is kept warm by its massive wooden lid.

Just as you are not supposed to wear shoes inside a Japanese home, you are never to enter an onsen without washing yourself thoroughly. As I step gingerly into the deep cedar tub, water pours decadently over the edge of its polished wooden brim. It has a slushy sweet scent. I drop my inhibitions and sink in.

Since most of the customers of these traditional ryokans tend to be Japanese, the meals reflect the exclusive and authentic culinary practices of the region. And there’s no better place than Kyoto to enjoy the elaborate kaiseki (traditional multi-course meal)—haute cuisine almost synonymous with the city.

It’s also the season for pickles and unusual sansai (mountain vegetables). Autumn sansai usually consists of a variety of robust root vegetables, tender sprouts, stems and seeds from plants. Sansai, as a rule, is never cultivated; it’s foraged along the jagged mountains. There are tender buds of kiku, the chrysanthemum flower, which bloom in magnificent yellow when mixed with clear miso soup; or gently tempered tane-nasu, eggplant seedling, and zuiki, taro stems, swaddled in fermented fish, whose sensational taste confounds its sloppy appearance.

A street in Kyoto. Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images
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A street in Kyoto. Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

The fish is served as tataki (lightly seared outside and raw inside). The silver on its unblemished flesh takes you back to the sound of the Hayakawa in the sun. Crispy sansai tempura is seasoned with matcha (green tea) salt. There’s also a variety of fish skewered at the table, spiked with Japanese pickles and white crab meat dusted with roasted millet. I lose count of courses by the time the succulent omi-gyuu beef steak arrives.

Midway through the meal, I am greeted at the table by the okami. She is graceful and charming in her luscious silk kimono. As the mistress of the inn, this is the role she was born into and has taken after her mother. Her family has been running this ryokan for two generations—a relatively young legacy since there are ryokans that can trace their lineage back 10 generations.

Back in my room, the nakai has laid fluffy futons on the floor. I am about to wrap myself in one and unwind with a book. There’s a knock on the door. The shoji slides and the okami appears with a smile and a small serving tray, which she places by my side. It’s matcha ice cream. Is this a part of kaiseki as well? I ask her. No, of course not, she says. She explains that a majority of the foreigners who visit traditional ryokans are not always comfortable with its unfamiliar cuisine and rituals. “They miss their foods," she says. Unlike her mother, she fears alienating her international guests by being “too traditional".

She doesn’t know how wrong she is.

Nippon Airways flies directly from New Delhi to Tokyo. Alternatively, you can connect to Tokyo via Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong. The famous Shinkansen, a bullet train service, from Tokyo to Kyoto via Hakone, is extremely efficient and fast.

Stay

For a variety of semi-modern ‘ryokan’ accommodation, try Ryokancollection.com and Ryokan.or.jp/english/ or explore Japaneseguesthouses.com for a more traditional ‘ryokan’ collection. Ryokans tend to cost more than hotels or spas, but they are worth every yen.

Eat

Try freshly skewered meats and fish in Hakone, the sensational ‘mochi-dog’ (cooked meat wrapped in rice cake, served on a stick) from the streets of old Kyoto.

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