Ryokan Stay the Japanese Way
A stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, should be on every itinerary of first-time visitors to Japan. It’s no gimmick and very popular with Japanese and Western tourists alike. Ryokan’s are typically found outside city centres in scenic locations and often near the onsen, hot springs, offering a relaxing city break.
Our first ryokan experience was at Fukuzumiro in the small town of Tonosawa, Hakone. A total of two hours with the Shinkansen bullet train from Shinjuku, Tokyo to Hakone-Yumoto station, and on to Tonosawa by local rail.
Hakone is an internationally popular destination, renowned for its hot springs and views of Mount Fuji, where Fukuzumiro is the perfect choice. Steeped in history, it was established in 1890 and has since hosted a number of famous Japanese writers and artists. We stayed for three nights in March 2013 in room Sakura 1, where script writer Hojoh Hideshi once lived.
When you enter a ryokan, you are greeted by your host in traditional dress, who will take your bags and show you to your room. But not before you’ve stepped out of your western shoes and donned a pair of slippers. It’s all part of the experience. A yukata and slippers are worn when inside the ryokan, and good outdoor clothing is recommended for exploring the incredible landscape.
The interior of Fukuzumiro is something from a movie. It met all of our expectations, from the beautiful glassed porch in our room, overlooking the Hayakawa river, to the sliding doors, tatami-mat flooring, traditional futon bedding, and stunning communal facilities such as the central Japanese garden and large banquet room, where our imaginations were free to reenact movie scenes. Not all rooms have a private bathroom, but this felt like part of the experience, while the shared facilities were clean and always available.
Ryokan’s are beautiful reminders of days long past. You’d do well to forget about technology and modernity and immerse yourself in the daily rituals, beginning with breakfast served in your room, followed by a day-time excursion, and returning in time for a soak in the hot springs before kaiseki-style dinner is served.
Kaiseki usually consists of several different meals, like a taster menu, using seasonal and regional ingredients. It’s the chef who decides what you’ll eat.
The surprise Kaiseki dinners were the most exciting culinary experience of our trip. The most delicious meal we ate was succulent beef sukiyaki, the strangest thing was abalone drowned in sake, and the most surprising was fugu, blowfish! It’s not really something we had ever thought about trying before, but when it ended up on our plates in front of us, served by our smiling host, we swallowed it down like it was nothing, giggling away at our brush with death.
On other nights we ate all types of sashimi, sea snails, fish heads, tempura, charcoal grilled sea bream, and a few things I can’t even name!
Our host helped make our stay extra special and memorable. Using a combination of basic Japanese, English and sign language, we were able to communicate life stories, jokes, and understand what we would be having for dinner that night. Just don’t ever draw an abalone, our host learned blushing bright crimson, it’s not what it looks like!
Hakone has plenty of hike trails, shrines, a natural park and a lake worth exploring during the day. To this day Hakone’s hiking trails remain among the most beautiful I’ve ever explored.
Next year we’re heading to Hawaii, which is also supposed to be fantastic. We really love Japan and will be flying via Tokyo instead of LA to get there, in order to spend a few cheeky days in Tokyo before returning to London.