Traditional inns of JAPAN

Our group had spent the previous day on the tour bus. The Inland Sea had unrolled to our right; houses of dark wood, roofed with plum-blue tile, and short, golden cliffs had distinguished the left; we cocooned with our guidebooks , notebooks, cameras. "The Americans says, when it's misty, this landscape looks just like a Japanese painting," our guide had said.

I thought of this as I sat in my room in the Gemyoan ryokan, waiting for dawn , watching this celebrated mist slowly releasing the hills, and looking down at an inlet of the Inland Sea turning pink and blue in the odd morning light.

Ryokan means inn. This one, the Gemyoan, sits on a hill that has long been a popular viewing spot; the daimyo Ashikaga (14th century) is known to have visited here at least six times. Aristocrats were usually borne in sedan chairs -- needless to say, a tedious journey from Kyoto in those days.At that time, the Japanese believed that the gods had stood on a long, excessively narrow projection of land in this body of water that looks so like a lake, to create the islands of Japan. That's why the area is known as Amanohashidate, the Bridge of Heaven.

The hills on the other side of the inlet are typical. The mountains of Japan are young, as geological time is reckoned; this is why they are so abrupt, so perfect for waterfalls. Usually, they are thickly wooded; each tree, clinging to a virtually vertical slope, can be seen almost from top to bottom. These hills are too far away to see the trees; a series of blue and hummocky domes, they are a study in atmospheric perspective as they fade into the distance.

Sixty-five percent of all foreign visitors to Japan never see more than Tokyo and nearby Niko and 10 percent only get as far afield as Kyoto. These cities are certainly fascinating -- especially Kyoto, one of the world's treasure cities, like Paris (and like Paris, deliberately spared by its enemies during World War 2.) But getting out into the countryside, into a landscape dominated by lakes, long skinny valleys, mountains in miniature, and staying in a ryokan, can get you closer to a different aspect of the country -- an aspect much treasured by the Japanese themselves.

Ryokans are usually very small -- 11.5 rooms is the national average -- and not inexpensive; my beautiful little room with the delightful view cost $60 a night per person, including dinner and breakfast. The equivalent in the US would be the sort of old inn New England is famous for -- the kind of place you go to take a break from the 20th century. The rooms are furnished -- perhaps unfurnished would be a better term! -- in the traditional Japanese style. Tatami mats are set into the floor, like inlay, with six inches of matting underneath. As a result, when you pad about in your stockinged feet they are a bit springy -- walking barefoot over moss is the only sensation I can compare it to. (Tatamis, by the way, are always the same size; to give an idea of a room's dimensions -- in an ad for an apartment, for instance -- you would describe it as a three-tatami room, a six-tatami room, or whatever. Top mats have to be replaced every two- three years; that's one reason for the no-shoes rule; another is the need for cleanliness in a country where it was long the custom to eat, sleep, and in general live on the floor.) When new, the tatamis are faintly green and have a rustic, friendly smell; much like hay, in fact: to a Westerner, this contrasts subtly with the sophistication of the setting.

My room at the Gemyoan ryokan was typical: There was a cedar ceiling, and beautiful little cabinets lined one wall; on another side was a small raised platform with a vase and flower arrangement. This is a special area just for viewing and is considered the most sacred portion of the house; our guide had said that Americans often think it's a place to put your shoes.There was, of course, a small color TV; sumo wrestling, if you're interested, is on just about every night. In the center, there was a square wooden table of coffeetable height, set on a small rug, and several brocade cushions to sit on.And that's all. When guests return to their rooms after dinner -- dressed in the yukata (light indoor kimono) always to be found in the closet -- a futon, or bed, will be laid out on the floor. I always thought this would be a somewhat spartan affair, but it's like being swaddled in down, extremely luxurious.

If $60 sounds like too much for your travel budget (and in fact, ryokans can cost as little as $25 per person and as much as $200) there is another, much cheaper way to experience the same sort of lifestyle. That's by staying in a minshuku. A minshuku is the Japanese equ ivalent of a pension, and has many of the same advantages and disadvantages -- the former almost invariably far outweighing the latter in this traveler's opinion. The minshuku lacks the private bathrooms and more luxurious lobby and hotel-like amenities of the ryokan. On the other hand, you are staying in somebody's house, and therefore get an inkling of how people in another culture live.

Two friends and I left the group to spend the night at the Yogetsu minshuku in Kanazawa. Of course, the problem with leaving your tour is that you run smack up against the traveler's biggest obstacle: language.

The simple appearance of myself, my two companions, and our bags at the door would have self-explanatory. Instead, I found myself calling into the telephone receiver, "WE . . . COME . . . TONIGHT," in the sort of tone Paul Revere must have used while addressing every Middlesex village and farm."THREE . . . LADIES. AFTER . . . DINNER."

A muffled stream of Japanese on the other end of the line; my correspondent was talking to other people in the room. Loud shrieks of laughter followed.

I tried again. "We come tonight."

Hai," said the woman. And then, suprisingly, "you come tonight." Further attempts at three ladies and after dinner proving fruitless, we were thankful at least that the main point was understood. It was settled.

When we arrived, three giggling girls in jeans let us in, bowing; in a back room the whole family was tightly gathered around a low table, watching TV. When we got to our room, we discovered the reason for the tightness: the only furniture was a small table with a heating unitm underneath and a quilt over it. The room was cool, though not unpleasantly so; still nothing could be cozier than tucking your legs under the kotatsu, as this item of furniture is called, and pulling the quilt well around the hips. Our room had two olive walls, cedar ceilings, and two walls of shoji, sliding screens of glass backed with rice paper; again there was a small area raised about four inches off the floor with a handsome brass lion-dog, an urn, and a scroll of cranes. At night, the light shone through the shoji screens like moonlight.

The room was almost empty, but very attractive -- there was no need for anything else.New possessions, one of my companions pointed out, would have to be chosen rarely, and with care. "This is not the sort of place where you can go to the county fair and bring home a panda," she said.

Price was pretty typical of minshuku -- $18 per person included the room and two meals. Since we had missed dinner we were charged somewhat less. The three of us shared the room -- this is not uncommon in minshuku, where accommodations are often dorm style.

Breakfast was much the same as a dinner -- sour pickles, stewed fish, rice, hot tofu -- with the addition of a hard boiled egg, which we tried with soy sauce in lieu of salt; really quite good.Tofu, if you've only had the rather spongey gray variety you get in the States, is delicious here: creamy and delicate. It's nice in the morning, cooking on a brazier in a bowl of simmering water, rather like a very refined cream of wheat. (A Korean friend said that they press too much water out of it in the States.)

There are a number of tours of Japan that take in ryokans and minshukus; if you're the rare traveler who forgoes the tour groups you can easily get listings of International Minshuku Organization and the Japan Ryokan Association from the Japan National Tourist Organization (630 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10020). Both Pan Am and Japan Air Lines have tours that are just minshuku -- these are for the young and the young at heart. And there are also tours that take in ryokans; a travel agent or the Japan Travel Bureau (also at 630 5th Avenue) can describe these to you. The trip I took, which was called "Pacific Affordables: 15 days in Imperial Japan," involved just a bit more time on the bus than is ideal, but the scenery was marvelously beautiful and exotic, the choice of sights visited unusual and excellent, and there is no section of the trip I would willingly have forgone. I would recommend to anyone who goes on this trip to take advantage of the fact that you can stay on after the group has left without paying a penalty.

If you will only be in Japan for a short while -- on a business trip, for instance -- there are ryokans (also minshuku, which would however be less appropriate for this purpose) in the major cities. Also many of the large hotels have a special wing of rooms furnished in the traditional style; these are often somewhat more expensive than the regular rooms.

Knowing what I know now, if I were planning a trip to Japan I would first take a quickie course in Japanese, so that I could at least pronounce the names of cities properly. (By the way, though not many Japanese speak English well, many of them can read and write it -- remember your struggles with high school French! Also people are very kind about trying to understand you -- I was surprised by how well I managed.) I would also read "The Tale of Genji," "The Japanese" by Edwin Reischauer, and "A Thousand Cranes," by Yasunari Kawabata, before going instead of after.

As for the trip, I would try to include a substantial length of time -- at least a week -- in Kyoto, staying in a minshuku outside the city and bicycling in.Then I would go to the Gemyoan ryokan and lounge for several days reading the Tale of Genji again (this inn, by the way, is quite popular; twowas told).

Last of all, I would go to a tiny remote town in the mountains called Shirakawa village and stay in the Ohta-ya minshuku there. This village was just a day stop on our tour. We went there to see the unusual houses of a style called gassho-zukuri; this means "joined hands" and refers to the heavy thatched roofs, looking like hands in prayer, of this old-fashioned style of building. Noticing a minshuku, my friends and I wanted to see the interior; Mrs. Ohta, kneeling and bowing gracefully at the threshold, invited us in. Though the decor was Oriental, the warm family in the mountain setting reminded me of "Heidi." We sat around the small wood stove, eating little chestnuts which the grandfather had gathered in the mountains, and small filled spice cookies, like a very gingery Fig Newton, and listening to two little girls recite the alphabet in English -- the only English any of them could speak. And, except for one of us who spoke Japanese, all we knew how to say was thank you.

It seems to me that I said thank you (arigato) more often in a day in Japan than during a good week back home. Partly, I think, it's because the Japanese are a very polite people and it's catching; partly because, as it was one of the three words I knew, I tried to get the most possible mileage out of it. And partly because so many people went out of their way to be helpful.

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