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Rethinking Japan’ <em>Ryokan</em>

Tetsuya Miura The <em>ryokan's</em> new front entrance.

Photo: Tetsuya Miura

It is early evening in Kyoto, and I am alone in my room at Yoshi-ima ryokan, sitting cross-legged on the tatami, sipping sake, my skin still glowing from a hot bath. I am looking out at a jewel of a garden, where the bamboo, stirred by a breeze, shimmers. There’s a knock on my door. A maid enters, bowing, with a beautiful lacquer box, filled with seasonal delicacies like mountain potatoes, carved in the shape of leaves; bundles of mushrooms; and grilled ginkgo nuts. I pick up my chopsticks, but I'm in no rush: I know from experience that this elaborate kaiseki dinner will go on for hours, in a seemingly endless procession of courses.

When I first visited Japan more than 20 years ago, I shunned all things Western and stayed only in ryokan. From Sendai to Nagasaki, I donned yukata robes, contemplated indecipherable calligraphy scrolls, and slept on futons and buckwheat husk–stuffed pillows. I was experiencing the “real” Japan.

Or at least the “traditional” Japan. Ryokan originated during the Nara period (710–784), when monks built free rest houses throughout the country to accommodate travelers. For much of the 20th century, visitors had no choice but to stay in them, given the paucity of Western hotels (in 1965, there were about 260). Ryokan are Japan’s country inns: intimate establishments, typically with breakfast and an extensive dinner included. As recently as a few decades ago, it wasn’t unheard-of—particularly in rural areas—to share rooms with strangers. Privacy wasn’t an option anyway: room dividers were so thin you could hear every snore and sniffle; the baths were communal. During steamy summers, everyone slept with their doors and windows wide open to the breeze.

Recently, however, ryokan owners have been tinkering with time-honored tradition—lest they end up out of business. Lifestyle changes among the Japanese and competition from international hotels have led to a drop in the number of ryokan, declining from 80,000 in 1988 to fewer than 60,000 in 2005. So, to make rates more competitive, some give guests a meals-free option. Others go out of their way to accommodate foreigners who, in the old days, were at best a nuisance: they didn’t speak the language; walked on the tatami in their shoes; and used soap inside the communal bath. A group of 30 ryokan have formed “The ryokan Collection” to market themselves as boutique inns, with designer flourishes, architectural details, and, of course, cultural authenticity.

The ryokan of Kyoto, a former imperial city and a popular tourist destination, are among the first to have instituted modernizing touches—and with much flair and frills. English-speaking staff and Western-style breakfasts are now available even at the city’s legendary Hiiragiya and Tawaraya ryokan—both centuries old and famed for their refined aesthetics, attention to detail, and guest lists that have included royalty and Hollywood stars.

At Yoshi-ima, a lovely wooden 19th-century building in the Gion district, all rooms have locking doors, private toilets, and tiny private baths (folding myself into mine required a yogi’s flexibility). The moment I slid open the front door, I was gathered up by a bevy of kimono-clad women and led down a narrow hallway to a spacious room. I was handed an illustrated pamphlet in English that covered every aspect of inn life, from bathing to footwear etiquette. There’s even a “foreigner specialist” on call, an amusingly earnest Mr. Kanda, who introduced himself with “it rhymes with 'panda,'” and who was eager to act as my guide, interpreter, and problem-solver.

Foreigners now make up more than a third of the guests. In the hallway that evening, I bumped into three Seattle women who were returning from sightseeing, toting Starbucks takeout bags. They couldn’t have been happier with their ryokan experience, they said, sipping their lattes, but they’d “tired of the endless cups of green tea.” I eyed their lattes, amused at how globalization had made its way into this old-world sanctum.

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