ryokan onishisuishooen

A traditional Japanese Inn

One of my goals for this trip was to stay at a traditional Japanese inn. My friends James and Kimi consulted 'the ryokan book' and came up with a promising-sounding inn in a small town named Kinosaki on the Japan Sea. After my day of mouseying through Himeji castle, I caught JR across Japan and was met at the station by the inn's restored London taxicab (!). It brought me five minutes from the station, and I checked into o-nishishishooen.
Ryoka2.jpg The ryokan was the most amazing architectural experience I've ever had (rivalled only by visiting Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Chicago). The inn is arranged around a Japanese garden, with each room opening out onto an outdoor path that leads to the garden. The rooms are all Tatami and shoji, with lots of natural wood. Ryoka6.jpg

Of course, you leave your shoes at the front desk when you check in. But better yet, you leave the rest of your clothes behind immediately upon getting to your room, and change into a fresh cotton yukata provided by the inn.For the rest of your stay, it will be your primary clothing (along with the Japanese split-toe socks also provided). There are geta (Japanese wooden sandals) at all of the door leading out into the gardens or the town for your use as well.

And then comes dinner. Your dinner is served to you in your room by a kimono-clad young woman who takes care of no more than a few rooms of the inn. It consisted of about twenty-four dishes that came in three waves -- I think it might come in four or five if I had arrived earlier -- served in your room. The food was amazing, definitely the finest meal I had in Japan on this trip. Every kind of Japanese cuisine was represented -- sashimi, tempura, a hot stew dish -- all arranged to the utmost aesthetic and culinary standards.

In fact, at the ryokan I underwent a religious tempura experience! I had never liked tempura, since my exposure to it in America had made me conclude it was a form of batter-fried southern food with shrimp instead of chicken inside. The tempura at o-nishisuishooen changed my attitude! Unbelievably light and with no lingering greasiness at all, it showed me why tempura became famous in the first place! Later in my trip, my friend Scott took us to his favorite tempura restaurant near Mitaka, and proved that the experience here was no fluke -- well-made Japanese tempura is indeed a delight. I have yet to find anywhere in America that reaches that level of tempura.

However, the one caveat about staying at a ryokan -- at least at one in Kinosaki -- is this: they don't speak English. My room attendant spoke almost no English, and the desk personnel spoke only a little more. Kinosaki was the first place I had been to where my terrible Japanese was actually much better than my conversation partners' English. However, my Japanese wasn't up to the task of answering questions phrased in the extremely polite (PL4, for you Mangajin readers out there) Japanese that was used at the ryokan. It's really necessary to speak Japanese -- or be in the company of someone who does -- to come here! I just barely made it out without (I think) embarrassing myself!


After you've finished dinner, the dishes will be cleared away and you're free to relax. You'll want to head out to the outdoor hot bath, which was an outdoor pool of rocks with steaming water for soaking (as with all Japanese baths, you first cleanse yourself at the row of gleaming showerheads inside). There was also a 'late-night lounge' where a few of the inn's clientele were partaking of local sakes -- I passed on that experience this particular night and read for awhile in the room instead.Behind the main area of the room is a small reading room that looks out onto the outdoor path.

The other photos on this page are flash photos. Here's a shot made with the actual light in the ryokan, to give you more of a sense of what it was like to actually be in the space. Not only was the space incredibly beautiful, a small section of one of the walls was a bamboo screen instead of a solid wall, so that you could hear the cicadas chirping at all times. The inn is a monument to the harmonious integration of travel and nature.

Ryoka1.jpg While you're off at the baths, your room attendant will change your main living area from an eating room to a sleeping room. Here's what you'll see when you get back - a futon spread out on the floor of this amazing space. Note the traditional alcove with hanging scroll and ikebana flower arrangement behind the futon. Photography geeks should also note how the semicircular mirror next to the lamp reflected the flash onto the wall! Ryoka4.jpg
Even the bathroom entrance at the ryokan is gorgeous.
TInst.jpg. I couldn't resist capturing these oh-so-Japanese iconic toilet seat cover instructions. The title says "public sheet paper" in Katakana. Or at least I assume it's "sheet".   Ryoka5.jpg
And so, off to sleep you go in this beautiful environment. In the morning, your room attendant will be back with a 12-or-so-course breakfast. The breakfast included the traditional raw egg -- yup, just a raw egg in a bowl. I ate it, but now that I've done that I don't ever need to do it again. Then it was off to see the rest of Kinosaki before heading for Hattoji.

One thing you always hear about ryokans is that they're expensive -- and they are, but not if you're used to business travel in the U.S.'s major cities. The ryokan in Kinosaki was about the price of a hotel room in downtown San Francisco -- and the ryokan price includes the incredible dinner and breakfast, which a night at the Marriott SF certainly doesn't! So while I wouldn't recommend planning your whole trip to Japan around ryokans, take the tales of extreme expense with a grain of salt.
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  © 1998 Leo Hourvitz