Ian Ropke writes…
The exotic world of the Japanese inn
At the beginning of the 20th century in Japan and Europe and elsewhere, there was a class of people, often men, who spent great portions of their life living in inns and hotels. Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was one of the last people to live in ryokan in what could only be called “the age of the gentleman”. Indeed, Japan’s great ryokan inns still are and probably always will be connected with wealth and leisure. Some of the finest of these host the stars and nobility of the world when they come to Kyoto, the Old Capital.
The best ryokan of Kyoto continue to inhabit a world that expresses the very essence of tradition and perfection. The traditions run to the very generations of families that clean, cook and otherwise service the guests. In some inns in Kyoto, one can still request the services of a blind masseuse at bed time. Reposed and relaxed in the comfort of your exquisite futon the masseuse adds the final touch and puts you to sleep long before the massage ends. In the morning, as always, the perfection and patina of master craftsmen and time awaits you. This is another of the wonders of the ryokan world. The flagstones and wood have been worn smooth in places by the long vanished guests of centuries past. The gardens breathe with a sense of time that only generations of care by skilled landscape artists can create.
The ryokan world of Japan was strung out on the major highways connecting the major places of wealth and power. In this respect they are similar to the great inns of Europe. However, many of the inns in Japan and this includes some of them in Kyoto also came into existence in the 17th century when the Tokugawa shogunate decreed that either the daimyo lords or their wives and children had to be residing in Edo (present day Tokyo). And so every other year the great processions would move from the lord’s fiefdom of power up to Tokyo and back. Naturally, a great number of Japan’s most powerful lords had to pass through Kyoto and stay at an inn appropriate to their level of power. Some lords moved with hundreds or even a thousand servants and vast amounts of luggage.
Today, the charm of the ryokan is all about sinking into past. This includes as well the pace of the past, something that has become a priceless experience in the modern world of “Hurry, hurry, hurry.” Things move slowly but surely behind the fine closed doors of Kyoto’s ryokan; slowly enough to relax and yet surely enough to get everything done on time.
Entering a ryokan is like entering a world of the past. All the materials around you are natural and exquisitely hand crafted. Much of the design, including your room, will express the wisdom: less is really much, much more. Thus the bedroom is really a fine sitting room (the futons are hidden away). In the best rooms, there will be view of a traditional garden. However, most rooms have a ceremonial alcove with a scroll and a ceramic vase filled with flowers. If the room has more than one room, then expect elegantly designed and painted sliding doors (probably priceless antiques) and white translucent sliding paper doors.
Some will wonder at the expense of staying in a good inn. It is understandable if you don’t understand, but only then. First you must consider the staff and their duties, then the upkeep of the place and then the food. Ryokan specialize in serving masterpiece meals. In Kyoto this means the multi-course kaiseki meal. These meals take hours to prepare (if you already have years of training behind you) and require the very finest and fresh seasonal ingredients. Such a meal by itself in a restaurant usually costs over 15,000 yen. This does not, however, include the extraordinary space and luxuriant ambience where the meal will be enjoyed.
Many of them do not advertise, preferring instead to do business with the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of their guests. A great number of ryokan lie in areas that are discreet. Indeed, if you didn’t know you would never guest it was a ryokan. Some of the best and, in a way, oldest ryokan in Japan are located in Kyoto. Many of them do not advertise, preferring instead to do business with the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of their guests. A great number of ryokan lie in areas that are discreet. Indeed, if you didn’t know you would never guess it was a ryokan. For a listing of nearly all the best ryokan (except for the movie star magnet of them all: The Tawaraya) see the accommodation section of the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide.
Full text by Ian Ropke. Pictures by Michael Lambe. Ian Ropke is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto, editor of Kyoto Visitors Guide, and director of Your Japan Private Tours. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here.