The taxi stopped amid the hubbub of a bustling street of souvenir stalls and sightseers approaching Nara's temple of the Great Buddha, one of the most famous shrines of Japan. "Koko" "Here" , said the driver crisply, pointing to a tiny lane between two stalls. We carried our suitcases a few yards down the path and turned right through a gate into another world -- that of a Japanese inn.
First sight to meet the eye was the large rock garden, white and grey gravel carefully raked in precise rows and circles around a big rock with moss and flowers and several small trees. Beyond was a low wooden building with a slanting roof of old-fashioned hand-set tiles.
We opened the sliding door and stepped into the entryway, where we were met by a kimono-clad attendant, bowing a greeting. We took off our shoes, donned the inn's waiting slippers and were led down a carpeted hall, across a little bamboo bridge between two parts of the building and back to a traditional Japan of decades and centuries past.
Kanka-so Inn in Nara is neither the most nor the least traditional, neither the most nor the least expensive, of the 90,000 ryokan or Japanese inns in this country. This inn, originally the private house of a rich man friendly with the royal family, is one that my wife and I have stayed in several times before, to our delight, in an ancient city that is one of our favorites. On a recent vacation in Japan we returned for a night at the Kanka-so and found it just as we remembered it from our first visit a decade ago -- suspended in time and place as an exemplar of the inner Japan.
Japan is a place of paradox, at once the most modern and most traditional of countries. The modernity is right on the surface of the advanced electronics, computers, robotics, glitzy neon-lit shops and the super-express "bullet train," which had whisked us in three hours from Tokyo to Kyoto en route to nearby Nara. The traditional side is harder for a foreigner to know, for much of it is in the private ways of living in rush-mat rooms behind the outer doors.
Given the severe limitations of space as well as problems of language and culture, it is seldom possible for foreigners to be guests in a Japanese home, especially a traditional one. The next best thing -- and one of the most intensely Japanese experiences readily available to Westerners -- is to stay in a ryokan. I recommend at least one night in an inn -- which may be about all most visitors can handle -- for anyone who is serious about seeing that country and who is spending more than a day or two in Japan.
It is clear from one's very arrival that this is Japanese turf where western manners are checked along with the western shoes at the front door. Our accommodations were a big bamboo-mat room for sitting, eating and sleeping, all on the floor; a tiny balcony-like alcove with a wood floor and two wicker chairs looking out on a lush greenery-and-stone garden; and a private bath with -- blissfully -- a western toilet rather than the hole-in-the-floor Japanese type.
A few minutes after our arrival, the kimono-clad attendant appeared in our rooms to serve the frothy, somewhat bitter green tea that is served at tea ceremonies and other formal occasions, and to obtain our signatures in the guest register. Despite the fact that we were only a few yards off the busy and noisy approach to the renowned temple of Todai-ji, first built by the Emperor Shomu more than 1,200 years ago, we could hear nothing but the birds and insects in the garden outside and see nothing of the crowds.
We left the inn to see the giant Buddha, the tame deer in Nara Park nearby and other touristic attractions. When we returned shortly before dinner time, we were taken by the attendant to the big Japanese bath, or ofuro, a deep sunken, tiled tub of an irregular shape that would accommodate eight or 10 guests in communal Japanese family fashion. We were told -- as best we could make out, for little English is spoken there -- that it would be ours alone for the time being.
First we soaped and washed outside the tub, using wooden buckets to rinse off, and then slipped into the very hot, steamy bath to soak as long as we could stand it -- in our case less than 15 minutes. Afterward we donned the inn's cotton robes, or yukata, which we wore instead of western clothes for the rest of our stay.
Dinner was brought to us as we sat on the floor at the low table in our room, about 15 dishes for each of us presented in precise and artistic fashion. These were mostly little bits of things: a tiny whole crab smaller than my thumb with a single piece of sushi and a few other delicacies on a lacquered fan; a sashimi (raw fish) dish of tuna and a firm, sweet white fish on a bed of slivered giant radish; two snow peas and a sprig of some tiny flavorful leaf; a little mound of fish-based custard molded in the shape of a chrysanthemum petal; tempura; a small grilled trout and many other dishes made to please the eye as well as the palate.
Such a profusion of exotic dishes would be hard to find in any but the most elegant, expensive and often inaccessible Japanese restaurants, many of which are not open to the general public. Inns are justly famous for their classic cuisine. A foreign visitor must only make sure somehow, through the language barrier, that the ever-thoughtful innkeeper does not undertake to "do a favor" to his guest by presenting mostly western foods instead of the accustomed fare.
After dinner the table was removed to a corner and futon were brought out of a closet and placed on the floor for the night, just as in most Japanese homes. The attendant wished us good night a little after 9 p.m., which is typical for an inn. There was a small television set (also typical, despite its incongruity in such classic surrounding), but mostly we were left to our own devices, with the makings for green tea and, at our request, a bucket of ice.
In the morning the bedding was folded up, the table was brought back and breakfast appeared. It was another traditional Japanese meal that was a delight to us but might have been a horror to the uninitiated or unadventurous: bits of bean curd; boiled vegetables; a piece of salted fish; soybean paste soup; various small pickled things including a single tangy plum; a square of rolled omelet; rice; strips of dried laver, which we wrapped around mounds of rice; slices of apple; toasted tea, and so on.
Then came the bill, presented in our room on a little lacquer tray. It came to 37,850 yen, about $160. This is quite modest for an inn of this quality, according to our Japanese friends. The dinner alone could have cost a hefty share of this in a fine Tokyo or Kyoto restaurant, if we knew how to order it and had been properly introduced. Taking this into account, our overnight stay cost less than we would have paid in a major western hotel. It was worth every dollar in the intensity and uniqueness of the experience.