Traveling alone with two teenagers in Japan should have been enough of a challenge for me. Add to that the fact that we are kosher and eat only certain fish and vegetarian food when we travel, and we do not speak Japanese. Those factors alone should have dictated that we play it safe in choosing accommodations. Yet when my husband suggested that we stay in a traditional Japanese inn during our time in Kyoto, I was intrigued.
Japanese inns, called ryokans, are found all over the country, though they are typically in scenic areas and towns that feature hot springs. There are also ryokans in larger cities, but they are older and often not as pretty as those in smaller towns. Ryokans were developed in the 1600s to serve Japanese travelers journeying between Tokyo and imperial Kyoto.
Today there are more than 60,000 ryokans, ranging from small family-run inns to larger, modern ones. The buildings are often at least 100 years old and have the traditional Japanese architecture of wooden buildings, pointed roofs, bamboo and greenery. Many have beautiful gardens. Ryokans have simple and serene guest rooms with sliding paper screen doors separating sitting and sleeping areas, tatami (reed) mats, low tables and closets to hide the bedding. Linens cover the telephone and television, lest they upset the soothing environment.
I chose the Seikoro Ryokan in Kyoto because online reviewers mentioned that the staff spoke English, which was critical for us because of our dietary needs. Travelers often say, though, that the lack of English is not an obstacle to enjoying a ryokan. The level of hospitality at ryokans is so high, and the staff is so eager to please, that guests are able to communicate their needs even where the English skills are minimal.
Guests are expected to follow certain customs during their stay, and the procedures are the same at all ryokans. Upon arriving at Seikoro in Kyoto, we had to surrender our shoes and put on slippers. (The ones provided were two inches too short for my son Jake’s size-10 feet.) We met our attendant, Aya, who was dressed in a colorful kimono, and followed her up the narrow stairs to our room. Ryokans typically do not have elevators, so don’t bring too much luggage, or risk watching a wisp of a lady carry your bags up narrow stairs and refuse all assistance, as we did.
We were instructed to leave our slippers in a specific place outside the room. I noticed that after we removed them, Aya always turned them around so they would point toward the inn’s door. Jake had to bend down to walk into our room. At 14, he is almost 6 feet tall and clearly too big for Japan.
Ryokans serve Japanese breakfast and dinner, which are often included in the rate and consist of between 10 and 20 separate dishes. All meals are served in your room on your low table, so you sit on the floor to eat. When we arrived, Aya brought us a pot of green tea and pancakes filled with a red bean paste. We were grateful that the legless chairs at the table were cushioned and had backs. (We’re supposed to embrace travel in our Golden Years, but I’m not yet 50, and I found it hard to sit so low.) Jake’s feet came out the other side of the table. Once we got comfortable, though, our afternoon snack was the perfect welcome.
After sitting on the floor, I appreciated the appeal of the onsen, an indoor hot spring on the bottom floor of the inn. There are separate ones for men and women, and bathing suits are not allowed, which meant that my teens had no interest in going. The guest room provided yukata, traditional cotton robes with long belts, for each of us, which are very comfortable. I put on my robe and went shuffling off in my slippers to find the onsen.
Signs in English direct guests to rinse off in a space with shower sprays and little wooden benches to sit on. There are also small wooden buckets that I assumed were for rinsing yourself. Next you are told to soap up, rinse and then relax in the pool. The water was really hot and made all my traveling aches disappear. After only 10 minutes, however, I felt fully cooked. After I dried off, I put the yukata back on and tied the belt. On the way back to the room, a staff member told me that I had wrapped myself in the wrong direction. I learned later that you are supposed to tuck the right side under the left. Only corpses have the left side tucked under the right!
Jake should have gone into the onsen because he could fit into the tub in the guestroom only while in the fetal position. The shower head sprayed water no higher than the middle of his back, but he managed to get the job done. At the lower end of the height scale, my daughter, Emily, and I had no problem showering.
Japanese bathrooms are extremely clean, and the toilets offer a full spa treatment. In Japan, even the toilets in public places have warmed toilet seats and a console with buttons to press to play music, spray water or activate a dryer. This fastidiousness was also in evidence at the inn: Guests are given separate slippers to wear into the toilet room and are forbidden to wear them anyplace else.
My son’s size was not the only challenge we faced in Japan. As kosher Jews, we had to be careful about food, so we were armed with a printout from the Web site of the Jewish Community Center of Tokyo that explained our dietary restrictions. I gave the printout to Aya, who told us it would not be a problem for us to have the traditional Japanese breakfast. It wasn’t always so easy: One night in Kyoto, we presented our sheet to a chef who, after reading it for 10 minutes, simply said “No.” Other restaurants were more accomodating, including a vegetarian eatery in Kyoto’s Gion neighborhood called Mitoko.
I slept nine hours straight on both our nights at the ryokan, something I haven’t done since college. The futon on the floor was so comfortable, the linens made of the softest cotton and the duvets, luxurious. Jake slept well, too, although the bed was too short for him. Within minutes of our waking, Aya had cleared away all the bedding and set up our table for breakfast.
Don’t stay at a ryokan if you don’t like Japanese food; there is no other option. Each day started with Aya bringing us a lavish breakfast. We ate grilled salmon or mackerel, dried fish, grated radish, pickled turnip and eggplant, dried seaweed, tofu, miso soup and rice. The first day we had egg custard, the second day we had a barely poached egg that is mixed into the rice with chopsticks. Each food item came on a separate plate, which made me glad I was not a Japanese housewife. The food was prepared simply, yet everything was delicious. No one missed their cold cereal.
The stay was extremely relaxing, and the ryokan was a true oasis for travelers like us, rushing to pack in a week’s worth of sightseeing in Kyoto and Nara into three days. Every time we returned to the inn, we were greeted by a team of people, our slippers, glasses of cold water and smiling faces.
Although staying in a ryokan is ideally suited to the nimble and petite, the experience was well worth any minor physical discomforts. We experienced travel the way the Japanese did 400 years ago, a far cry from staying at a Western-style hotel. And although I cannot imagine crawling across a tatami mat in my 70s, I noticed that the elderly people I saw in Japan were very spry.
Accommodations from $290; $340 with breakfast.
Gion Hanamikoji Shijo-sagaru, Higashiyama-ku
Menus start at $67 per person for multi-course meals with tofu, vegetables and seafood, and tempura.
521 Masuyacho, Nakagyo-ku
Udon soup with different types of fish or tofu and tempura. Dishes start at $12 to $15.
565 Karatohanacho, Higashiyama-ku
Udon soup, seafood and tofu over rice; be sure to order the mango shaved ice for dessert. About $15 per dish.
1 Kinkakujicho, Kita Ward
Zen temple (“Temple of the Golden Pavilion”) and garden complex from the Muromachi period (approximately AD 1333-1570). Admission, about $3.30.
Zen temple (“Temple of the Silver Pavilion”) from the Muromachi period. Admission, about $4.20.
541 Nijojocho, Nakagyo Ward
Flatland castle conisisting of two rings of fortifications and a palace inside and gardens. Admission, about $5.
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward
Head shrine of Inari, one of the principal spirits worshipped in the Shinto religion. Free.
13 Ryoanji Goryonoshitacho, Ukyo Ward
Zen rock garden in northwest Kyoto. Admission, about $4.20.
The average cost of a ryokan stay is $125 to $208 per person per night, although in some places it can run over $300. Some are priced per person and others are per room.
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Shoyer is a Washington writer and cookbook author. Her Web site is www.thekosherbaker.com.