Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Adventure 27/50 : Staying in a Ryokan

One essential experience in Japan is staying in a ryokan, or traditional family-run inn. We stayed at Tajimaya, located on the Nakasendo in Magome, and it was perfect.

The building itself is exquisite; the owner told us that his great grandfather ("who was short") built the inn and he's the fourth generation to run it.

We checked in promptly at 4. We had been told that check in was between 4 and 6 because the staff would be preparing dinner after 6, and it would be served at 7. We were shown to our rooms: a sitting room with a small low table and cushions on the floor, and a bed room with futons. 

Both rooms had air conditioning -- necessary during the hot summer -- and a small television, but those were the only concession to modernity. And that was fine with us. 

We also didn't have much of a view, but we were there for the experience, not the view. Some rooms did overlook the main pedestrian street, but given how quiet the village was at night, that would not have been a concern.

The rooms had tatami mats on the floor, which gave the room a lovely grassy smell. We were welcomed with cups of green tea and crisp biscuits, which we nibbled on while we relaxed for a while. 

It had been a ridiculously hot and humid day, and we also were caught in a thunderstorm during our hike. So we took our yukata -- more on those later -- and headed down to the shared, sex-segregated baths downstairs to freshen up before dinner.

The baths are the sort of thing that stresses out Western travelers, especially those who didn't play sports in school. (Hey, I was on swim team, okay?) You go into an antechamber and take off your clothes. Then you go into a "wet room" to shower and wash, being careful not to get any soap into the bath, which is usually covered unless in use. And after you get clean, you can get in the bath and soak and relax in the hot water. It's great.

Not my picture -- I'm not a person to bring a camera into a bathroom! Image from
But while we were there, I walked in to the dressing room while an older woman was finishing up her bath, and I have never seen anyone get dried off and dressed quite so quickly! By the time I headed in to the shower she was dressed and leaving the room. I showered and then climbed into the big bath. As I sat there, a young woman came in, opened the door, closed the door, stepped back into the hallway, and then came back in. She hesitantly asked me if I knew if this was the only place to shower. I said yes, I thought so, and she said, "Oh, okay. Well, when in Japan..." and she got undressed and had a quick shower. We chatted a little bit about how it was both of our first time in a ryokan, etc., and she headed out. Me? I just lay happily in the bath.

Eventually I got out of the tub, dried off, and put on my snappy, blue-and-white cotton yukata. Yukata are casual robes now typically worn only in the summer, but in ryokan they're "fashionable" year round. We had read that it's traditional to wear them to dinner and to wander the town after dinner, so of course we did.

Ah, but first, DINNER.

We arrived in the dining room, which was magically full of tiny dishes of food. Thirty minutes earlier, it had looked like this:

We had a table in the corner, labeled as hours, noting "vegetarian". When we booked, we asked if they could serve a dinner without chicken, beef, pork, etc. But we told them that fish was fine -- we often include fish in our diets when we travel; it just makes things easier. And in this case, totally delicious. Here's the full table -- our dinner for two...

I am giddy with excitement at the prospect of this dinner!

You can see that most of the guests -- including the young woman I met in the bath, way in the back of the image, but not her traveling companions -- were wearing yukata.  

The real challenge: what to eat first? What to eat next? 

You'll be happy to know that we persevered and ate ALL OF OUR DINNER. 

After dinner we put on outdoor slippers and went for a walk up and down the street. With the small lights and most people wearing yukata, it felt a little like time travel. 

During dinner the owner told us that at 8pm, he would teach us a samurai dance and song. We all laughed, a little, but when we came back from our walk at 7:58 he was in the entryway, smiling. We joined him around the traditional hearth.

Four of us started out, and then two more joined in. We warbled along -- or tried to -- and when he was satisfied, he attempted to teach us the dance. Thankfully, no photos survive of this, but we deemed it a success that no one fell in the hearth or knocked anything off the shelves nearby!

After the dance, he slipped into the next room and came back with a tray of mismatched sake cups and a big bottle of sake, and asked us all to drink with him. We sipped the sake as he told us a bit about the inn and his family. One woman asked if we were drinking local sake. He said, "Oh no... it's *my* sake." We followed up. "Your sake?" "Yes, I make it here. Just rice and mountain water and time." Need I say that it was delicious and smooth?

The quiet, the massive amount of food, the hot baths, and the hike meant we were ready for bed by 9am. We slept like logs on the comfy futons in the quiet house!

Oh, and in the morning, we enjoyed another massive meal -- a delicious breakfast:

Stuffed to the gills, we dressed and headed out for the day's hike to Nagiso via Tsumago. Tajimaya had been a definite highlight of our trip to Japan.

Bonus: they have a taxidermied tanuki which, until I saw pictures of him when I booked the ryokan, I didn't know was a real animal.

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