Hostess, Margie and Ryokan Owner You drive towards Yamashiro, a pastoral utopia known for its hot springs, beautiful setting, and delicious seafood, and called "the hidden region" because it is tucked into the mountains. Your home is the exquisite ryokan, Araya-totoan (www.araya-totoan.com) where the emperor and his family stayed 100 years ago.
You pull up to the ryokan with your guide, Kinta from The Real Japan VIP Guides (www.real-japan.com), and as you step onto the wooden entrance, Kinta takes off his shoes. You follow. Kinta turns his shoes around so they face the outside, and you do, too. Ko nee chee-wah, you say as you bow to the owner, Asakio Nagai. She bows back, smiling, wearing a kimono tied tightly at the waist, looking much like a beautiful porcelain doll with flawless pale skin. Is it really this way? You wonder? Can anyone really be so graceful and gracious? She leads you into the ryokan, padding along in her feet, wearing socks, which remind me of mittens for the toes because four toes go into one space and the big toe has it's own space. This is so that you can keep your socks on when wearing wooden sandals, which you will wear outside.
Sashimi The lobby is a big open room with lacquer bowls displayed beautifully, some behind glass, obviously antiques, sliding rice paper screens, light woods, bamboo railings, and everything covered in tatami mats. There is a little desk, gracefully hidden behind a high table, where you can plug in your computer - if necessary. But who would want to break the spell?
You are escorted upstairs to the second floor (by elevator) by another graceful Japanese woman, who is probably the guest manager, but the way she escorts you and looks back to make sure you are following, you would think she is a doting mother. You do something funny and she laughs, covering her mouth not to show her teeth. You are shown into your room and while she doesn't speak English, she indicates you should get out of your western clothes. You do, and she slips a yukata (a cotton long blue and white robe) onto your shoulders, fixes it so that the left side is over the top (so you can stick your right hand inside in case you need to carry anything), and then, gracefully and patiently to make sure it is perfect, wraps a long blue sash around your waist, and ties it with a pretty bow. But it isn't finished. She takes a heavier cotton robe, slips that over your yukata, and ties a perfect little square knot to keep it closed. Inside the flap is a pocket for your key or anything else you wish to place there. She hands you a brand new pair of grey socks, just like the ones she is wearing. These will be yours to take home, a souvenir of the ryokan. She bows and leaves. You bow back. She bows again. You nod. She walks out backwards, never turning her back to you. You feel like the Queen of England.
You look around your beautiful room. There is a spacious living room with a TV, phone and some Japanese books on a low black lacquer table in one corner. In the middle of the room is a very large and very low rectangular table. On either side of the table is a black lacquer backrest with a soft pillow to make it more comfortable. You wish your boyfriend were here with you it seems so simple and romantic. But you are here on business. There is a Naguchi style lamp in one corner, a mini bar with everything plus tea implements in another corner, hidden by an attractive blond wood slatted door. In one corner is a white porcelain vase with real blossoms and some greenery arranged, as only the Japanese know how.
The bedroom has a large bed covered with a feather comforter. There are two pillows: the one on the bottom is pebbly and the one on top is down. Never will you sleep so well, so soundly without the help of any sleeping pill or warm milk or soft music. The room of the toilet has the heated toilet seat (oh happiness) as well as a built-in bidet and you can vary both the temperature and the force of the water. In the room there is also a small white porcelain sink whose basin is filled with black polished stones, and beneath is a small straw basket for two rolled up towels.
There is another room with a large sink with large-sized amenities, but you have no idea what they are as everything is written in Japanese -- good thing you brought your own moisturizer, or you'd end up putting conditioner on your face and washing your body with shampoo. And now comes another surprise: outside the sink area, which also includes fluffy towels, is a sliding door leading to an outside hot tub, an outside shower, and more products with their names written in Japanese. There is a low wooden stool and wooden bucket, a square tub with hot water like a Jacuzzi. This is your Japanese bath. But you don't want to be in a square tub the size of a stove. You want to see what the communal bath looks like before choosing this tub.
Outside your living room is a deck and forest of greenery, a deck and two comfortable lounge chairs overlooking a green forest. The wind whispers. Somewhere not too far away, the crows seem to be laughing at you. They are going hahahahahah, but actually it is cawcaawwcaw. You look down and can see steam coming from the communal hot tub. You must try it. But first, you go downstairs with your laptop - oh you desperate workaholic you -- check your email, then are led back upstairs for a private tea ceremony.
Kinta has told you that it is best to remove your rings before the tea ceremony so that you don't scratch the fragile porcelain teacups. And in this region, there are many beautiful porcelain teacups made by master artists, including the one from which you are presently drinking. Along with the frothy green liquid, bitter to the taste, is a green confection shaped like a little mountain, which taste delicious.
After, you are shown the communal baths - well, not exactly shown them, but shown the signs. Red is for girls and blue for boys (you wouldn't know which is which otherwise because the signs are in Japanese characters). You are told that the signs switch each day so that both men and women can try the two baths, which are different from each other. You go into the room with the red sign. There is a room with large baskets to put your yukata and socks; there are more products whose names you cannot read. You open a sliding door to a room full of steam. There is a pool the size of a small swimming pool, but whose sides are all rocks. You think this is the communal bath. But then you see another sliding door and you wade through the steamy water and open the door. This is the outside, with more rocks and more steamy water, so even though it's only around 55 degrees, you can sit outside naked in the hot water and listen to the sound of the crows and the sound and sight of the trickling hot water coming from the natural springs, through a pipe, and filling the pool. The steam wafts through the air creating a magical haze.
Sit there, do nothing. Think of nothing. Just be. You never want to get out of the hot tub, but eventually you do. One last time, you sit on the little wooden stool by the sink --do your ablutions - wash your body with a small towel, wash your hair by smelling the liquid and hoping that one is shampoo. You are clean, re-born.
You come back to your room and the smiling woman serves you dinner, course after course. Graciously she comes in, kneels, opens the door, kneels again, displays each bowl like artwork (and believe me, it is), pours sake, kneels, closes the door, goes out, waits for you to finish that course, returns to take away your bowl, bring another course. Each course is different and delicate and served in exquisite bowls and plates.
Margie in yukata In the morning, you repeat the communal bath ritual -except the signs have been changed so there is a new bathing area. The difference is that the outdoor garden area and shape of pools are a little different. You go back to your room, and the smiling woman comes to serve you breakfast. There are about six different courses, each fresher and more delicious than the last. You eat, and very sadly, you place your yukata jacket on the bed, then the yukata sash, and the yukata, You take off your toe socks, put on your western clothes, slide open the rice door to your living room one last time, and return to being a westerner in this gracious Eastern world. And one last time, you sit on your thrown -- the heated toilet seat.
Smiling hostess And then, as Kinta returns with the car to pick you up, you get into your shoes which you left at the front entrance, get into your car to leave, and see that both your hostess and the lovely smiling woman who has dressed you and served you your meals, are standing at the entrance, bowing to you. You wave goodbye and Kinta drives a block down the road. "Turn around," he says. You turn and see them still bowing. You watch as the car drives away another block, but the two little figures in the distance are still bowing, and as the car turns onto a side street, you can still feel their warmth and their humility. And even though they are now out of sight, the vision of the two gracious kimona-clad women will always be with you.
Ryokan owner on cellphone Margie Goldsmith