Local producers enhance the ryokan experience in Yamanaka, Japan.
Small, exclusive ryokans dot the Japanese landscape, offering respite and tranquil arboreal settings, rooms, and meals meant to induce a calm and meditative state. These unique inns, attached to hot springs, are closely tied to Japanese culture in many ways. Aesthetically, the minimalist interiors encourage the visitor to bring his or her own consciousness to their stay. Spiritually, the idea is to create a Zen-like experience in which nothingness is embraced; you’re there to let go of the outside world by spending your days taking hot baths, leisurely naps, and strolls in the forest. And gastronomically, meals are served kaiseki style: multiple courses of local, highly seasonal, and mostly vegetable dishes served in a succession of small plates.
The high-end ryokans are very similar. Each offers a small number of rooms, delicious food served either in the guest’s room or a private dining area, and first-rate, new baths. To attract foreign guests, some ryokans have started to introduce a variety of activities—yoga classes, massages, cooking classes on site. But the Kayotei, a 10-room ryokan in the remote hot springs village of Yamanaka in the prefecture of Ishikawa (west of Tokyo and then slightly north), offers something entirely different. Guided by the understanding that guests want to feel a sense of place when they leave home, general manager Jiro Takeuchi has established a remarkable program to introduce local artisans and organic food producers to those visiting his ryokan.
Takeuchi, whose background includes a stint working at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, has recruited about 26 artisans from the region—makers of washi (traditional paper), sake, soy, lacquerware, tatami mats, furniture, eggs, tofu, soba, and more. With a little advance planning, the ryokan’s guests can spend hours meeting artisans and farmers at work (and sometimes even join in).
Another feature of the program is its emphasis on organic food, which also appears in the cuisine offered at the inn. It’s a highly unusual move in Japan: only about 2% of the products in the country are organic compared to about 12% in the EU and 8% in the U.S. Japan uses the largest amount of pesticides per population in the world. (And you thought the perfect-looking fruit and vegetables were natural?) So the organic component here is noteworthy.
T+L talked to several artisans and farmers, who gave us a peek at what ryokan guests can experience:
Mika Horie is a vivacious artist in her early thirties. Living by herself in an isolated and somewhat ramshackle farmhouse beside a brook, she spends her days making paper from the bark of trees in the region. The results are usually abstract designs consistent with nature. When guests stop by, she patiently shows them how she makes paper, serves cups of delicious tea, and answers questions about her modern take on this ancient art.
Munetsugu Tanaka looks a little bit like an archetypal wise, old man who sits beneath a tree and answers questions about life. Wearing a huge straw hat with brims that hide his face in order to block out the sun, he moves with the speed of a person in his twenties. Maybe it’s all the organic rice he’s growing. And his quirky method of growing it.
Each spring, in late May, he introduces about two dozen baby ducks and their mothers into the paddies. (The ducks don’t fly as they’re a flightless crossbreed.) Throughout the growing season, the ducks eat the bugs that would otherwise destroy his crop of koshihikari rice. By eliminating pesticides completely, Tanaka-san has created a product unique in Japan.
Chef Yasuo Okamoto and his wife work diligently in a hole-in-the-wall soba restaurant deep in the countryside. The chef takes guests from the ryokan—no more than a couple at a time—into a tiny, glassed-in room next to his tiny kitchen, both of which face the small dining area with its simple wooden tables. Patiently, Yasuo-san shows you how to sift the buckwheat flour, add a little water, knead the dough, and then, after it’s been flattened out into a single square, how to fold it again and again until it’s ready to be sliced into thin strips of noodles. This is the hard part. Although he’s only been making soba professionally for about three years, Yasuo-san’s knife skills are amazing. A guest can try to slice noodles into angel-hair thickness, but too often what comes out looks like pappardelle. Once the guest has completed the training, the soba is cooked and served either hot or cold.
In the village of Yamanaka, there is a long and narrow street of fancy little stores, a new bakery, a great jazz club, a public hot spring, a few cafes and restaurants, and a small sake brewery and shop. It’s here that guests of the Kayotei can meet the 14th generation of the Matsuura family. The shop has been there about 50 or 60 years; the brewery is about 250 years old and produces sake with a clarity and simple richness that make it very food-friendly.
Fumiaki Matsuura, the current owner, answers questions—come prepared—and enjoys the chance to speak about his work. He’s particularly proud of the changes he has introduced in the sake-making process, including making both unfiltered sake and sake with greater acidity that can be enjoyed with Italian food, which is very popular in Japan.
Yasuhiro Satake allows only guests from the Kayotei to visit him in his workshop and home-based studio, where he makes museum-quality lacquerware with prices to match. As a third-generation “wood turner,” Sataka-san works long hours with his son and two apprentices in an 80-year-old workshop. His practical nature is reflected in his use of handmade tools and in the precise detail he gives the cups, plates, boxes, and bowls he makes. His creations truly are works of art; some of his work shows up in high-end department stores, but the best of it has been displayed in galleries and museums.
On a long street of two-story homes and business, in an industrial-looking part of Yamanaka, is a small tatami mat factory run by Yoshimasa Yamaya. Made of harvested jute that has been dried and woven together, tatami mats line the floors in traditional Japanese homes and were originally used to describe space. (An eight–tatami mat room. A six–tatami mat room.) In the hallways and bedrooms of ryokans, the natural aroma and softness of tatami mats beneath one’s feet have a calming effect.
Yamaya is a fourth-generation owner; his factory is 120 years old. As he describes his mats, a worker who has been making tatami mats for 40 years crouches on the floor, sewing. Sometimes visitors decide they’d like to have a tatami room in their own home, which is possible if they want to fly the tatami maker over. He has to measure by hand.