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Japanese Traditional Inns ("Ryokan")

Once every year or so, the urge to reacquaint ourselves with the "real" Japan finally overcomes our reluctance to abandon the daily conveniences of modern life. We timidly venture out from our cozy existence in the paved city and, guidebook firmly in hand, head for a stay at a traditional Japanese inn. Although having long ago lost the innocence of a tourist's fresh perspective, I suspect these inns embody all that normally come to mind when thinking of Japan. Kimono-clad geisha. Tatami mat (tightly woven straw) floors. Shoji (paper) sliding doors. The scent of jasmine incense wafting through the air. Soft sounds of water trickling down ancient rocks. Naked old men bathing together in the hot spring. We'll get to that last one a bit later.

My parents were in town from Oregon so we graciously gave them the opportunity to spend some quality time with the girls (ages 1 and 4, very active, and deeply suspicious of people taller than themselves). Leaving our guilt at the doorstep, off we went to what our travel book promised was a quaint, exquisitely traditional inn nestled deep in the mountains of old Japan. Many hours later we finally turn off the expressway, a short two miles from the indicated destination. We find ourselves in the middle of a densely packed city. Shopping centers, apartment buildings, parking lots, coffee shops with internet access. Lots of bustle, no quaint. Concerned, we follow careful directions to the end of the city and turn a corner. We are startled to find ourselves looking down into a small valley with an inn nestled in a corner along a river. Looking around, the city is nowhere to be seen. How Japan manages these feats of geographical magic, I'll never know.

We coax the car timidly down the steep, winding path and across the oh-so-quaint traditional (and crumbling) bridge. As we approach, there is a sudden flurry of activity. Five people that look like extras from the set of Memoirs of a Geisha rush toward us. As we step out of the car, two of them disappear with our belongings and the remaining guide us to the inn. Christine asks me desperately, "what about the pillows?" This isn't a stupid question. But it's too late to retrieve these precious belongings.

Inside the inn, lining the entryway are about 40 pair of tan slippers and, front and center, one bright green pair, extra large. They anticipated my arrival. I put on the Godzilla slippers and follow our guide through multiple twisting corridors, steep stairways and along an ancient garden to our room.

We catch our breath and soak in the atmosphere. Christine looks around, finds the private bathing area and notices that it has an interesting door, "How do you open this thing?" "Whatever you do, don't pull on..." It's too late; she shows me the 200 year old latch in her hands. Ten minutes from stepping out of the car and we're already taking the place apart one latch at a time. As I'm contemplating the cost, a memory of our last experience suddenly comes back to me: We have to change out of our clothes into the house kimono before the maid shows up! The staff doesn't bother to knock and last time I was caught in a state somewhere between street clothes and kimono. We rush to change. But I'm stuck. Do you wrap right or left?? One way is for the dead at funerals and one is for the living. I have no idea and no time. The maid is already in the room. I flee to a corner, tie up, and return to kneel at the low table to greet the maid. Looking at her I see that, predictably, I have it wrong. For the record, kimonos go from left to right unless you are dead or a dolt. Christine is smirking. She had it right.

The maid gives us two bowls. One is a traditional bean paste dessert and one bowl has a thick, foamy, green tea. She looks at us expectantly. Okay. I guess we have to finish this before she will say anything further. The dessert is pure sweet and the tea, vile bitter. After I finish the two dishes I realize that, as with everything Japanese, there is a sequence. Bitter first then sweet to cancel out the former. Strangely, doing it backwards instead has the effect of simultaneously enhancing both flavors to unpleasant effect. I manage a smile and thank her. Christine looks a bit like the foamy green tea she just had. Satisfied, the maid beams and enthusiastically launches into a lengthy discussion of the room, bathing facilities and inn. Finally she leaves and we are able to relax.

Now that we are here, what do we do? Most Japanese inns exist primarily for one reason – hot springs. Hot springs are big business in Japan. I've always admired the Japanese ability to make lemonade out of lemons. An entire country sliding around on top of a bed of molten lava? Bad news: Earthquakes. Great news: Hot Springs! This inn, like most, is noted for its water with "curative properties." I'm not sure what that means. We go our separate ways to the divided areas (many springs offer mixed bathing but, for better or worse, this one does not).

I do it but I don't get it. Bathing as a recreational activity? What's the attraction? Sitting alone in the spring, I await the effects of the curative properties. Eventually an old man saunters in, naked as the day he was born but with a few additional wrinkles. The years have not been kind. He pulls up a stool where he diligently and enthusiastically washes and rinses. He then eases himself into the water next to me. The curative properties come to him in a rush and he makes appropriate sounds of appreciation. That's enough for me – I feel plenty clean. I beat a hasty retreat but not before bumping into three other men. Way too much information.

Back in the room, dinner is served. The meal consists of many small dishes of precisely arranged, delicately colored pieces of edible art. You hardly want to spoil the party by eating the masterpiece. A bonus for us is that since this inn is not located near the sea, the dishes aren't all fish and none of the contents is so fresh that it still moves. There is nothing more disconcerting than having a dish watch you eat it (a different story entirely).

Finally, bedtime comes. I can't wait to turn out the lights if for no reason other than to stop the constant flow of traffic in and out of the room. The "futon guy" brings bedding out from the closet and arranges it on the floor. Christine grabs a pillow, shakes it vigorously and gives me a dirty look. As suspected, the pillow is filled with husks of rice. Unfortunately the car has been whisked away to some hidden location so there is no chance for retrieval of the pillows Christine wisely thought to bring. We tuck in and enjoy the sound of the river in the background and the scritch-scritch of pillows in the foreground.

Days start early in the old country. At 7:00, the futon guy comes in again, clears out the bedding and prepares the room for the day. Then the maid appears and sets out our breakfast (tea, rice, fish, soup).

We had prepared for, and argued about, the next moment. Our guidebook informed us that it is customary to tip the maid. Tipping is not normally acceptable so it seemed that this was the one exception. We take out some bills (carefully calculated not to be or resemble a 4 – the symbol of death) fold them carefully in a sheet of paper per instruction and give the presentation to the maid. Failure. She is taken aback. "I am only happy that you hold a kind feeling towards me in your heart. The pleasure is entirely on my side" she says over and over. So much for believing everything you read. Positive side: 30 bucks extra we can spend on gas.

I take a dip in the private (but tiny) hot spring bath in our room in a final attempt to find those elusive curative properties. Alas, no curative properties but it is at least relaxing knowing that old men likely won't be intruding in on my space.

We check out of the inn and go to the car. The inn's staff line the bridge and wave to us. And wave to us. As we turn the corner to the reality of the city, I look back and they are still waving. Goodbye until next year. Or the year after.

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Ryokan steveiijima's Ryokan photoset