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Rethinking Japan’ <em>Ryokan</em>

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

Photo: Tetsuya Miura

Even out in the countryside, changes are under way. Tucked into the deep mountainous Kiso River valley outside Tsumago, Hanaya began life as an umayado, accommodating both people and horses—under the same roof! Isomura Isamu, Hanaya’s 72-year-old current owner, is the ninth generation of his family running the inn. In the 60’s, when Tsumago’s ancient buildings were meticulously restored and the town was revived as an “Old Japan” attraction, Hanaya reopened after a decades-long hiatus. It got so busy that travelers often doubled up, Isomura recalled. "People liked sharing rooms. They got to meet strangers and have interesting conversations."

Everything changed with the opening—despite local efforts to stop it—of a 300-room modern hotel and spa in 1995, which siphoned guests away. So a few years ago, Isomura rebuilt Hanaya to accommodate changing tastes. The new building lacks the charm of the old, but it has walls instead of sliding fusuma panels between the rooms, and real doors. "People expect locks nowadays,” Isomura told me. "We put in air conditioners, because guests aren’t comfortable sleeping with doors and windows open.” They’ve also put coin-operated TV’s in the rooms and enlarged the bath. “If you have ten guests, they have ten different needs.”

Not every ryokan, though, has modernized, as I happily discovered when I reached Nagano, the next stop in my journey. The town, located in the relatively isolated foothills of the Japanese Alps, most recently came to international attention when it hosted the 1998 winter Olympics. There, I checked into Oyado Kinenkan, a centuries-old, three-story structure on a quiet backstreet lined with mom-and-pop stores a few minutes’ walk from stately Zenkoji Temple.

Proprietor Toru Watanabe, his wife, Harue, and their son and daughter-in-law all live and work on the premises. It’s backbreaking work when the inn is full, which is rare now. Before the games, this sleepy city was a three-hour train trip from Tokyo—far enough that visitors spent the night. For the Olympics, though, the government built a bullet-train line, reducing travel time to 90 minutes.

"There used to be about forty inns. Now, there are only about eight,” Mrs. Watanabe told me, appearing with a plate of sweet-bean pastry. The perfect okami, or mistress of the inn, she perched at the edge of her seat, expectant, until I took a bite and smiled my approval. Only then would she continue: “These days, foreigners are the only ones interested in Old Japan.”

Even here, off the tour-bus circuit, concessions, however slight, have to be made. Today, the Watanabes (who have a son living in the United States) are brushing up on their English. Rates have been the same for some time ($31 without meals; $67 with dinner and breakfast), allowing guests a meal-free option. Oyado Kinenkan’s fiberglass tubs and vending machines—typical of modest inns all over Japan—can’t match the pampering service of a Kyoto inn. But its ancient wood floors, polished to a sheen, and heavy wood beams that crisscross the ceilings, are evocative of a Japan that is rapidly disappearing. It'll survive simply because it offers a glimpse of a life you won’t see in hyperactive Tokyo or tourist-jammed Kyoto.

Not that more “updated” ryokan don’t have their place: Japan has long been a tantalizing jumble of tradition and innovation. Sumo and baseball, Sony and Kabuki. No country seems more adept at absorbing multicultural influences while holding to its identity. Personally, I hope they won’t adapt too much. I can get a latte almost anywhere in the world, so I'm secretly grateful to ryokan owners for holding to a “No Internet” policy. Even after decades of traveling here, I still love leaving my shoes at the door and having the kimono-clad maids fuss over me. And nothing is as therapeutic as an evening soak in a hot bath, followed by good sake and a leisurely kaiseki meal. E-mail access, be damned.

Alan Brown is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.

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