On first impression, it looks like something straight out of a manga - a relaxed, peaceful country home. Just off the bustling central street, the narrow passage is discreet, burrowed amid the sumptuous lily of the valley. A brief but precise path brings me to the main entrance, one splattered with water and decorated in stone.
There it was, a time-honored sign of welcome. I take off my sneakers and enter the main hallway. The exquisite scroll of ink painting of a herd of deer on the plains brings about a sense of calmness. Male deer are the source of organic musk, and are considered messengers of gods, hence sacred in Japanese culture. I feel miles away from the world outside and thrown centuries back to the past. That’s the plan, of course.
Not many cultures in the world value traditions as gracefully as the Japanese. Yet there are not many hotels in modern day Japan that allow one to discover and experience the heart of what they once were. Not unless you chance upon a Japanese ryokan. These traditional family-owned traveler-inns where guest rest and dine stayed the way they were as the world went by.
A heady smell of talcum powder fills the room as the mistress of the inn guides me in. Talcum powder is a key ingredient of Oshiroi, a makeup foundation traditionally used by Japanese women in the entertainment industry. I explore my small apartment, which consists of a living room and a dressing room separated by somewhat torn shoji.
Barefoot, I savor the tingling coarseness of the tatami. A large window overlooks an old crape amber tree covered in vibrant pink blooms. Delicate petals slowly drop into the Hayakawa River's turbulent, foaming waves. On the Yusaka mountain across the river, the maple leaves are about to lose their vibrant green coverings in favor of unkempt tufts of bright red and yellow. The air is alive with autumnal hues.
In the ryokan, one wears a plain linen yukata as clothing. I sit on the floor beside the window. My nakai arrives with a cup of amber tea and a piece of the red bean confection known as daifuku, then gracefully exits by inching backward on her knees.
Customarily, guests have to take a bath before meals. In the onsen, hot spring water is pumped from 100 meters below earth and blended with cooler water. I follow the chuckling sound across the ryokan garden. This evening, the bath's thick wooden top keeps the water warm. Just as it is a taboo to wear shoes inside a Japanese home, you should always cleanse your body thoroughly before entering an onsen. Water cascades decadently over the lip of the deep cedar tub's polished wooden brim as I cautiously enter. Freshly picked lavender gently rests on the water surface, creating an ever relaxing feeling. I let go of my inhibitions and sink in.
Dinner was a full course of sansai, tataki salmon, tempura, and ohmi-gyu beef steak. I am greeted at the table by the okami in the middle of the dinner. She wears a gorgeous silk kimono and exudes grace and charm. Picking out a sandalwood shamisen from the storage box outside, she and her geishas proceeded to entertain us with several sets of traditional Japanese folklore performances.
After the scrumptious culinary experience, I head back to my room. The nakai has placed plush futons on the floor in my room. I prepare to snooze with a book and wrap myself in. A knock is heard on the door. The okami enters with a smile and a little serving dish, which she lays by my side. Ice cream made with matcha. Is this also a component of kaiseki? I ask. Of course not, she replies. She notes that the majority of international visitors to traditional ryokans are not necessarily accustomed to its strange cuisine and ceremonies. "They are not used to it, "she claims. Unlike her mother, she worries that being "too traditional" will turn off her foreign visitors like me.
She is oblivious of how mistaken she is.