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Ryokan and other Japanese traditions

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When I was planning my trip to Japan, I wanted to have as many traditional experiences as time and budget would allow. One of those experiences was to stay in a traditional Ryokan (bed and breakfast) for at least one night.

Choosing a Ryokan

There were a variety of options available in all the cities I would be visiting, but as a solo traveler I was looking for reasonable prices and a special experience far from mainstream tourism. I was super excited to find Isumyia Zenbe. Located in the outskirts of Matsumoto city (20 mins by taxi from the train station-U$20), in the Utsukushigahara hot-spring area, Isumyia Zenbe was exactly what I was looking for. It was reasonably priced for one person (~U$60), had a variety of outdoor baths and private onsens (U$3/hr), was traditionally Japanese in architecture and decor and served multi-course meals.

In other words, it was perfect!

Assimilating into the Japanese culture

After visiting Ishii Miso Brewery, Matsumoto Castle and meandering through the quaint streets of Matsumoto, I went back to the train station to retrieve my backpack and take a taxi to the Ryokan- dinner was served promptly at 6pm and my only goal was not to be late for dinner. You see, in Japan efficiency and respect work hand in hand. Everything works as it should because there are rules and the rules are followed. Nothing is delayed for one individual. There are no special privileges.

Dinner would be served at 6pm and if I was not there, I would simply not eat dinner. In this aspect, Japan is very black and white and as a person that loves efficiency, I am all for it. I think it makes living/traveling so much easier when you know that if you follow the rules, everything will work as it should. This would drive some people crazy, but it works for me.

[tweetthis remove_hidden_urls=”true”]I often find that the best way to understand and show respect to a culture is to assimilate to it as quickly as possible. [/tweetthis]

Change of plans- this is travel after all!

One of the best qualities that travel bestows in a person is the ability to adapt. Even in the most efficient country in the world, the process sometimes fails.

After arriving at the Ryokan, I was welcomed by a really nice lady that served me tea and gave me bad news- the multi-course dinner that I reserved in advance and was so excited to consume, would not be available.

Through my best efforts to communicate with her, I still could not get to the bottom of why dinner was not available. Then I decided that the reason didn’t change the fact that I would not be having dinner at the Ryokan that evening, so I had to think of plan B: where was I going to eat?

On the hunt for a restaurant

Lucky for me, the innkeeper lady was able to tell me there was a restaurant up the hill from the Ryokan.

With the name of the establishment written in Japanese in a piece of paper and my trusted Google translator, I ventured out on the hunt for food. (I highly recommend having the name of establishment written in Japanese anytime you are looking for a specific place. Even if you are in a big city where more people speak English, nothing is quicker than written words.)

[tweetthis remove_url=”true” remove_hidden_hashtags=”true” remove_hidden_urls=”true”]Travel requires patience, flexibility and an open mind. None of these exist when basic needs are not addressed properly.[/tweetthis]

The restaurant was actually a huge 4-star hotel about a mile away from the Ryokan that overlooked the city of Matsumoto. I stood outside the Shoho Hotel staring at all the glass and glitz.

Even wearing the best travel outfit I packed for this trip, I was really under dressed for this place and would be spending a lot more money than I had expected. The restaurant was fully visible from the outside. It was surrounded by glass walls to allow for a great view of the city below and the tables were set up in private dining rooms. Everything in it screamed luxury, from the decor to the private attendants cooking the meal table-side dressed impeccably. I hesitated, but my grumbling stomach pushed me forward- maybe they would have a hotel store where I could find some snacks.

I hit the jackpot when the hostess led me not to the hotel’s fancy restaurant, but the hotel pub instead- an Izakaya, where I enjoyed some buckwheat noodles (a specialty in Matsumoto) and gyozas. As entertainment, I could choose from Japanese game shows on TV or to watch a group of older drunken Japanese men letting their hair down.

Every change of plan in this trip had led me to an unexpected find.

Post dinner soak

After dinner, I made my way back to the Ryokan under a pitch dark sky and quiet hilly streets. I passed a local park and made a mental note to visit it the next morning before checking out.

I checked out the outdoor onsens before going to bed and rented a private one as well (I will write another post on Onsen etiquette).

After a good soak, I was feeling completely relaxed and ready for bed. It’s amazing what quiet time in a big wooden, steaming tub can do for the body after a full day of walking- I slept like a baby in my Japanese bed, which was super comfy!

A morning hike and a well endowed symbol

The next morning, I woke up early, went to take a look at the local park and found the longest metal slide I have ever seen and a shinto shrine with a huge carving of a penis tucked away in a section of sacred objects. Let me tell you, that was weird!

But hey, when in Rome… So I paid my respects to the well endowed sacred symbol and laughed a lot in between bows.

A proper breakfast

Upon returning to the Ryokan, I took one last dip in the outdoor onsen, put on my cotton Yukata and headed for breakfast at the dining room.

In the middle of the room was the cook, making freshly prepared Tamagoyaki (omelette) and several other guests were also enjoying breakfast in their Yukatas (it’s the norm at a Ryokan to walk around in your Yukata and house slippers).

I tried my best to sit on my floor cushion as graceful as I could muster, hoping my incorrectly tied sash would not suddenly fall apart.

A high school aged boy, kneeled beside me to light up the heating lamps under some of the food that was cooked at my table (the grilled fish and fresh tofu). He started to explain my meal and once he understood I was a foreigner (a lot of people mistook me for a local during my entire trip to Asia), he switched to English. It was not necessary, but a true testament that even in remote locations in Japan, you can still find English-speaking folks- something I had been told was rare.

Looking at the incredible number of dishes in front of me I knew it didn’t matter what each dish was- I would have tried everything anyway. It looked too good not to!

More dishes were brought out and I thought to myself: “I should eat like this more often!” what a wonderful experience to have a carefully prepared meal that is both visually stunning, and also delicious!!! There were so many textures, so many flavors.

A partying gift and the true spirit of hospitality

There is no question that travel memories are the best gifts money can buy, but it’s the simplest and most heartfelt of moments that last the longest. As I checked out the Ryokan, I made sure to let the innkeeper lady know that I had a great time and had truly enjoyed the hospitality, the food and the onsens. She in turn, presented me with a gift, a pair of wooden chopsticks. They are simple and inexpensive, but what a great way to be sent off to my next destination.

Have you ever stayed at a Ryokan? What was your experience like?

If you liked this post on Japanese Ryokans, you might also enjoy these other posts on travel across Japan:

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