There’s just something about the spectacle of a lady old enough to be my grandmother climbing on hands and knees across a tatami mat to bring me a dish of fermented bean paste that makes me wince. Maybe it’s an effect of coming from an elderly family composed principally of great aunts, but when I stay at a ryokan, I find myself wanting to help out. To volunteer to take that plate from the lady in question would, of course, be a matter of utmost rudeness; likewise, there’s no chance I can insist on cooking my own hunk of fish over the tableside camping stove – the one time I tried it, I was reprimanded smartly, and the fish, which had gone to a nicely tender-looking translucency, was placed back over the flame until the lit glob of blue gel had burned out, and the fish achieved what was, to our host, the correct degree of desiccation for it to be edible.
I was reprimanded smartly, and the fish, which had gone to a nicely tender-looking translucency, was placed back over the flame
For the first time visitor to Japan, staying in a ryokan is the way to feel immediately immersed in the country’s culture: everything is stylised, scheduled and ritualised, from what you wear to when you bathe to how you sleep. Surrender to it. Accommodation in the ryokan – traditionally, an inn or B&B for travelling samurai – is in an open-plan room, with tatami-mat floors, in which you eat, sleep, and, behind filmsy wooden doors inset with panels of rice paper, do your ablutions. (A sort of culture-wide terror over the potential… audibility of said ablutions means that some bathrooms are fitted with speakers that, on your closing the door, transmit an obliterating white noise, burying the sounds of teeth-scrubbing or mouthwash-gargling beneath the noise of some virtual waterfall.) You leave your shoes by the door and, for dinner, dress in a yakuta, a lightweight gown in a fetching pattern, with or without bedjacket-like shawl over the top, and sit crosslegged (or, for the knee-injured among us, in an undignified crouch, one leg extended, the other folded, like a spider in a drain) at a low table on which you are served your kaiseki dinner.
Kaiseki, oddly, combines something both of the banquet style of dining, with (almost) every component brought to table simultaneously, and the contemporary European tasting menu. The table is soon covered in small dishes of all shapes, containing mouthfuls of mostly unidentified foodstuffs, though grilled fish and pickles (especially pickled plum) are among the staples.
The timid diner needn’t worry overmuch: a lot of kaiseki cuisine seems geared to texture, rather than flavour. Little I ate – and I ate a lot, at a rapidly increasing rate, once it became clear that the worst a food would be was bland, rather than unpleasant – was outright disgusting, with the exception of a wet translucent weed of some sort, like rotted lettuce, that one tugged from a bowl of stock in long, slimy strands; and natto, whose name I took pains to ascertain so that I could ask never to have it again: a dish of fermented soybeans the size, shape and colour of the Queen Mother’s teeth, dressed in a sort of sticky webbing as if recently infested with silkworms: no thanks.
Without exception, anything I didn’t like was described to me as a “delicacy”; no doubt I showed up the immaturity of my palate, but better that than another mouthful of webby beans. There seems no particular order in which to consume kaiseki dishes, bar the introductory bowl of miso soup, and a cauldronful of boiled rice that finishes the meal, as if to plug any gaps the extensive meal has not closed up. And, oddly enough, the components of a kaiseki breakfast are indistinguishable from those of a kaiseki dinner, give or take the odd serving of peach yoghurt. It doesn’t take long before you rather crave something strongly spiced, or citrussy.
I caught a whiff, a ghost echo, of sweating middle managers with neckties round their foreheads, drunkenly essaying “The Time Warp”
Of course, there are ryokans and there are ryokans. At the celebrated Relais & Chateaux Gora Kadan, a mountain residence within sight of Mount Fuji, the setup – despite the building’s Tudor-ish exterior – is less “traditional Japanese inn” and more “traditional English conference centre”. The public spaces, including a coffee lounge with all the convivial atmosphere of a funeral home waiting room, are evidently recently refreshed but – in their attempt to resemble some slightly distorted sense of Western décor – fall flat. The rooms, traditional ryokan style, are much more pleasant than the walk to them would suggest, and the wine list to accompany the in-room kaiseki experience points to a discerning clientele. The outdoor hot bath is spectacularly beautiful, a shallow, just-beneath-boiling volcanic pool in which you immerse yourself nude, propped against one of the large rocks projecting from the water, in a sort of natural scoop taken out of the landscape. The architectural design of the main building’s corridor and staircase, too, is stunning. And the location of the ryokan and its surrounding scenery, is peerless.
At Kaichoro, in the town of Ikaho (an onsen, or natural spa town, which has some famous stone steps, dotted down which are bars, ramen restaurants and deeply intriguing gift shops), the ryokan really is built onto a conference centre, through which the visitor accesses Kaichoro. You will see devices which resemble the confused offspring of CCTV screens and ATM; you might falter, as I did, on sighting something called Club See You Later (regrettably closed when I visited, yet somehow I caught a whiff, a ghost echo, of sweating middle managers with neckties round their foreheads, drunkenly essaying “The Time Warp”).
Having passed all this, as the lift doors open on to Kaichoro, you might be forgiven for thinking you’d come to a different building, or perhaps a different century: this is a terrific, super-luxe, super-modern mix ’n’ match of ryokan fixtures and contemporary stylings, in a setting that’s as Alpine as Switzerland. Hallway walls are printed with geometric botanical silhouettes, rooms have Western-style beds rather than tatami bedrolls, and the views over the mountainside – I visited as autumn was in full effect, and spent several hours trying to get my camera to capture the respective intensity of the red maple leaves and a cloudless, piercingly blue sky – are spectacular, especially from your private outdoor hot tub, another thing most ryokans offer. Here, too, you don’t dine in your room, but sit at a counter in a windowless private dining room (at least, I did: I’m not convinced I wasn’t being kept out of sight) where you are brought dish after tiny, beautifully styled dish: wedges of roasted pumpkin, robata-grilled beef, sashimi, gingko nuts. Unlike the world famous Gora Kadan, word doesn’t seem to have got out beyond Japan about Kaichoro; I saw no other Western guests during my stay.
At Unzen, I stayed at Fukudaya, my first “real” ryokan. Here were bedrolls on the floor, and a sleeping area set on a platform one step above the “sitting room” area, which contained a floor-level sofa and a TV set far too big for the space. The public areas had something of the youth hostel about them, and also – in the looped six-song soundtrack of saxophone-led “lite jazz” covers of songs I never much liked in the first place (“Lady in Red”, “The Look of Love”) – something of the torture chamber. This being my first visit to Japan, I didn’t want to spend my time identifying “us and them” idiosyncrasies, but the topsy-turvy regulations on smoking did stand out: you can’t do it outside, but inside’s often fine, and Fukudaya astounded me by having no non-smoking rooms – necessitating a 20-minute wait while my room was “de-smoked”, a process evidently involving several bottles of Febreze. Note that the six-song cycle repeated more than once in 20 minutes. I was humming “The Girl from Ipanema” for days afterwards.
I’d started to hanker for some non-kaiseki food, which proved an object lesson in being careful what you wish for. Foolishly I plumped for a “Western” breakfast, its centrepiece a metal dish of sliced peppers, onions, cabbage and beansprouts, in which were embedded two raw, Walls-style “sausages”, which I was encouraged to attempt to cook over the provided heat-source, which was essentially a tea-light. I could have left the dish over that light, or a succession of the same, all day without the sausages cooking. Eventually a host came in, took pity on me, broke an egg over the concoction, and stirred everything together with a chopstick. Thus breakfast: raw sausage, semi-scrambled egg, singed veg. Scant consolation: I closely observed the “Japanese” breakfast, which proved to consist of everything I had had, but with two slices of what appeared to be luncheon meat instead of the sausages.
The air in Unzen, another spa town, was rich with sulphur, and great clouds of volcanic smoke drifted across the streets. Wooden walkways by the roadsides are starting to disintegrate under the attritional onslaught of this mineral stuff, but to walk the trail they led over the grey wasteland of volcanic earth, all drab clinker and pools of ripe ichor, was nicely unsettling; when the clouds started to obscure the undeniably grim Unzen skyline, it didn’t seem unlikely that they might clear to reveal another planet entirely. The cheering local name for this volcanic pit, incidentally, is “Hell”. Dinner at Fukudaya, in which again I felt slightly like I’d been bustled into a corner room in the dining area where I could cause no offence, included abalone, upturned in its iridescent shell, and which I inspected with curiosity that turned to alarm when I realised it was moving – its helpless, upturned “foot” squirming in slow motion, suffocating in air. That might have been a less painful fate than what actually awaited it: a brisk hostess came in, lit one of those tealights, and overturned the abalone onto a gradually heating bowl of sake. For a while it tried to escape up the sides of the bowl; gradually, inexorably poached, it stopped struggling. If you’re not vegetarian, you don’t really have the right to remain ignorant about where your dinner comes from, but it was a bit upsetting to watch the de facto slaughter process enacted in front of me – not least because, like the fish a few mornings before, overcooking turned the sad mollusc into something with all the savour and deliciousness of a bicycle tyre’s inner tube.
Worst of all, the saxophone soundtrack was still playing. When the manager came by, I turned baleful eyes on him and asked if he might, please, turn it off. He complied, but not before saying, rather plaintively, “We don’t have any other music.” Someone send Fukudaya some CD-Rs, stat.
Onwards to Kinosaki-Onzen, another spa town, and Nishimuraya Honkan, a spectacular ryokan. Here, as at Gora Kadan, contemporary touches have turned the ryokan into much more than the trad Japanese inn; showing me around, the manager noted the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on the interiors of a new annexe; outside is a beautiful ornamental garden densely packed with shrubs and trees. The town it’s in, meantime, is the prettiest place imaginable. It’s touristy, and the streets are fairly busy, but very peaceful; the spa’s aura of calm seems to have seeped into the very air of the place. A broad, clean river filled with koi carp (and visited by the occasional wading bird on the hunt for supper) runs down the middle of the main street, with arched bridges at regular intervals, and overhung by willow trees trailing their sorrowful branches into the water. There are numerous public spas, and visitors do a kind of “spa crawl”, trotting between one venue and the next in their yakutas and clogs; the soundtrack is of gentle clip-clopping, wooden soles on cobbled pathways. You might pop in to see a temple, marvelling at the offerings left there: scraps of paper, candles, cans of Minute Maid.
Crab sashimi, the noodle-like strands of meat sucked from within the raw limbs, off those strange collar-stay bones, was a revelation
I eschewed the public places in favour of visiting the private spas at the ryokan’s other, spectacular, sibling property, Nishimuraya Shogetsutei; there are three, surrounded by forest, each with a different theme. I chose the Japanese-themed spa for a pre-breakfast soak, though in all honesty there was little to choose between: I’d have been happy in any of them, watching the steam play just over the surface of the water, and my breath form clouds in the cold air. I’m not much into meditation, but the air of calm – the balance of elements – sent my mind pleasingly blank, and I emerged more refreshed than I usually do from anything that involves getting out of bed before 8am.
Nishimuraya is almost perfect. Even the omnipresent kaiseki dinner here had a twist: the six-month-long snow-crab season had just begun, and each stage of dinner involved that crustacean in one form or another. Crab sashimi, the noodle-like strands of meat sucked from within the raw limbs, off those strange collar-stay bones, was a revelation. (For kaiseki-jaded palates, the hotel’s restaurant serves a lunch that draws from Western cuisine, including a remarkably good tarte tatin, as well as local delicacies like Tajima beef.) My only qualm was when the now familiar bedroll was laid out on the floor of my room after dinner. There’s something a bit infantilising about sleeping on the floor, and I’m not sure it did my back – which is most certainly not a young person’s back – that much good either.
My last ryokan stop – after a couple of nights in Western-style hotels and proper beds – was in Kyoto, at Sumiya, whose tiny, blink-and-you-miss it entrance on a busy sidestreet hid a labyrinthine succession of corridors and an unbelievable number of rooms. By now, I knew the drill: crouch down for dinner; resist the temptation to offer help to the elderly hostess; repress, too, any feeling that being served dinner on the spot where you’ll later sleep is a bit weird and intrusive; suck the crab meat from a cracked-open limb. Oddly, there was exceptionally good mushroom rice at dinner here, but come breakfast time, I longed for eggs benedict, which was confirmation that, after staying in five or six such places, I’d started to find the ryokan a hard place. C
Gora Kadan, 1300 Gora, Hakonemachi, Ashigarashimogun, Kanagawa, Hakone
046-082 3331; relaischateaux.com
Fukudaya, 380-2 Obamacho Unzen, Unzen
0957-73 2151; fukudaya.co.jp
Kaichoro, 5-4 Koto, Ikaho, Ikaho-machi, Shibukawa City, Gunma
0279-20 3040, kaichoro.jp
Nishimuraya Honkan, 469 Kinosakicho Yushima, Toyooka, Hyogo
0796 32 2211; nishimuraya.ne.jp
Nishimuraya Shogetsutei, 1016-2 Yushima, Kinosaki-cho, Toyooka, Hyogo
0796-32 3535; nishimuraya.ne.jp
Sumiya Ryokan, 621-0036 Yunohana Onsen, Kameoka City, Kyoto
Neil Stewart travelled to Japan as a guest of Air France, JNTO and ViaJapan
For details on flights to Tokyo via Paris, visit airfrance.com
Visit the Japan National Tourism Organization at jnto.go.jp