The inns that serve visitors a savory slice of old Japan

THE foyer is called genkan, meaning ``gateway to the esoteric path.'' Rocks, bonsai, and utter silence are the first of a thousand details informing visitors that this is no ordinary hotel. A welcoming mistress in kimono greets you with no words but with a deep, respectful bow. Male banto-sans remain mute, as they help you out of your street shoes and into special slippers. Stepping up to fragrant tatami mats, you are led to a room with a name, not a number.

Is this a place to stay or a house of prayer?

The Japanese ryokan -- or traditional-style inn -- is more than an exceptional place to witness the best of everything from old Japan -- architecture, food, gardening, and lifestyle. The network of government-licensed inns represents the ongoing preservation of refined, ancient ways -- participatory quality-of-life museums, if you like -- reaching back to their genesis in the 8th century. The preoccupation with quality and service here goes far beyond the Western notions of Michelin hotel rankings and starred rating systems for restaurants.

Inside your room, two new sets of slippers are waiting, one for room, one for bath. A personal attendant-cook-waitress-chambermaid helps you into special yukata (cotton) kimonos and gives you a hot towel so you can freshen up. She serves fragrant tea. For your entire stay, she will appear and disappear as if by some clairvoyant cue, stealthily taking care of every detail from food to cleanup to preparing your bed.

Everything about the ryokan suggests veneration, respect, awe. These are evoked by understated elegance -- not ostentation. In the irreverent, tourist-against-the-odds world of travel, all this quiet grace stands out dramatically at every turn. If there is a drawback for the Westerner who doesn't speak Japanese, it is the frustration of not being able to communicate beyond nods -- making choices with cursory explanations from menus, and such. But the myriad new forms of communication that emerge can also be part of the ryokan's otherworldly charm.

Once inside the room, guests sit on cushions. Surroundings of natural wood, stone, and bamboo open onto vistas of grass and trees. A pool of carp is likely to be close by, lit by a Japanese lantern and set amid manicured greenery.

Dinner in the room will follow -- a ritualistic, gastronomic, and aesthetic experience in itself. Since traditional Japanese hospitality places great importance upon the cleanliness, freshness, and appearance of the food -- and every technique is applied to retain the essential shape of the raw ingredients -- the evening becomes an appreciation of artful presentation designed to appeal to all the senses.

As you stroll in the garden afterward, the table and dishes disappear, and a futon, ready to sleep on, is put in its place. The ritual begins again the following morning with breakfast in the room. A wood-paneled bathroom, usually with hot tub and all manner of toiletries, is a far cry from the tile-and-porcelain rooms in most Western-style hotels. A word of admonishment: The Japanese have long considered the bath not only a cleaning process but a pleasant ritual. First rule, never soap in the tub. ``Sluice your body with hot water before entering, then step in and relax,'' says one ryokan guidebook. ``When warm, leave the tub and wash with soap at the faucets. Rinse well, and if you wish, return to the tub for further warmth and relaxation.''

Such a fuss is made over every aspect of your stay that ``the service in the Japanese inn is of a degree not to be experienced anywhere else,'' writes author Donald Richie in a recent opus on the ryokan network. ``It is such that you become a grateful guest and begin behaving as one.''

Placement of gardens and their rocks, trees, and lanterns as well as of eaves, verandas, corridors, and stairs is designed to achieve an aesthetic union between guest and surroundings. As in the traditional Japanese architectural principle of form following function -- all structural supports visible, not hidden -- the overriding concern is harmony. Unlike Western architecture that seeks to assert itself, the Japanese inn seeks to subordinate itself to nature.

Sliding doors of reeds, paper, or bamboo separate the main room from the tokonama, an alcove-like space where an ikebana floral arrangement presides and where a scroll is hung. The asymmetry of the room is something also decidedly non-Western.

There are a number of kinds of Japanese inns. Types include those overlooking scenic beauty, those utilizing a hot spring, those with a large Japanese-style garden, those that once were private villas, and those noted for their food, the so-called ryori-ryokan.

All owe their legacy to the first Japanese inn, said to have been built in the 8th century by a monk named Gyoki. Originally places where traveling priests stayed, the inns began offering space to lay people in the 18th century. It was only then that trade within Japan had increased to the point where inns were necessary. After major roads were built, more inns began to appear along them, and customers from the ranks of merchants, pilgrims, and the military were more frequent.

The greatest legacy of all, by most accounts, is the Tawara-ya in Kyoto, a 300-year-old inn run by the same family for 11 generations. It's very expensive (two nights, double occupancy, costs $550, not including two dinners and two breakfasts totaling $350), but if you stay you'll join the ranks of Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustav, Pierre Trudeau, Linus Pauling, Leonard Bernstein, and Marlon Brando -- all of whom have left their effusive commendations.

Saul Bellow wrote in the guestbook: ``I found here what I had hoped to find in Japan -- the human scale, tranquility, and beauty.'' In a booklet published in 1904, the Tawara-ya was singled out as the best and most distinguished ryokan in Japan. Since then it has been frequented by prime ministers and imperial family members. Parts of the original building were destroyed in two fires; the earliest part of the present structure dates back only 175 years.

In every way, I found a recent two-day stay at Tawara-ya lived up to the words of Mr. Richie: ``The Japanese inn also has that natural regard for nature which includes human nature as well. The way in which the jochu-san [attendants] react to your every wish, indicated or not, . . . and seek to make your stay not only pleasant but perfect -- these ways are those of old Japan, where a guest was to be honored.'' Practical information

To make reservations at a ryokan, contact the Japanese National Tourism Association, 630 Fifth Ave., New York, NY, 10111, or call (212) 757-5640.

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