Kurashiki, The Venice of Japan

Staying in Style at a Ryokan

Somewhere along the line, in one of those bursts of promotional zeal that periodically wash over the tourism industry, the modest city of Kurashiki picked up the nickname, “the Venice of Japan.”

The moniker owes its slim claim to credibility to a short dog-leg of an old canal in what used to be a warehouse district, in the days when the city was connected to the Inland Sea by a network of these narrow waterways. Today, this block or two of modern Kurashiki is one of those tiny pockets in which, with a touch of imagination and a squint of the eye, you can imagine yourself in “old Japan.”

But if the tourist tag line is a gargantuan overstatement, that is not to suggest that Kurashiki is not worth a visit. In fact, you could do a lot worse than make the town a base of operations for excursions into the surrounding area. Okayama, with its gardens, and Himeji, with its smashing castle are a short ride to the east, Hiroshima is just a bit farther to the west, and Takahashi, with its “hidden fortress” and Zen garden is a short trip to the north. Armed with a Japan Rail Pass you can spend an enjoyable week visiting the many worthwile sights within striking distance of Kurashiki.

What drew us to Kurashiki, however, was the eponymous Ryokan Kurashiki, an old, traditional-style inn that sits just at the crook in the dog-leg of the old canal. Here, for a mere 20,000 yen per person per night, we could, so we hoped, live like lords. It was most deifinitely a splurge but one, we hoped, that would be worth it.

Although the ryokan is listed in big-league guidebooks like Fodor’s and accepts American Express (many traditional inns operate on a cash only basis, despite their astronomical prices), staying there presents some challenges for the linguistically-challenged gaijin. Very little English is spoken. In fact, it would be fair to say that no English is spoken. Fortunately, the reservation had been made by our son, whose Japanese is fluent. When we arrived our room was not yet ready so we decided to leave our bags and take a walk. It took the better part of ten minutes to understand that the inn staff was suggesting we take any valuables with us.

Returning at around tea time, we were ushered along wooden-floored corridors worn smooth with age into a cozy lounge area overlooking a garden. There we were served green tea and a bean-paste goodie by two traditionally garbed women in their middle years who were to be our waitresses and chambermaids during our stay. I couldn’t help but wonder, while guesstimating the median age of the staff, if the younger generation was turning up its nose at more traditional lines of work. We were asked when we wanted dinner. We suggested eight. They gently suggested that seven would be a better idea. Later we learned why.

Gazing at the garden I was reminded of a point that Alex Kerr makes in Lost Japan when he cites the Japanese ability to totally ignore jarring intrusions in an otherwise beautiful scene. The garden was being trimmed and pruned. The workers had left for the day, but rather then remove the protective blue tarpaulins and aluminum stepladders of their trade (a job that would take about ten minutes, max, I figured) so that the guests could enjoy the quiet beauty of the evening garden, it had all been left there, like a glob of paint hurled at a canvas. Perhaps the Japanese guests were content to focus there attention on the unmarred corner of the garden; I was annoyed.

I was also mildly irked by our room, tucked away as it was at the back. In a ryokan each room has a “garden,” which is often quite small, but nonetheless an aesthtic statement. Ours was little more than a ledge. That carp aside, the room was spacious. There was a small anteroom with a wooden floor, a large wardrobe for hanging clothes, and western style seating around a small table. The main room was tatami-covered and austere. Beyond the shoji screens at the far end of the room was a narrow bathroom suite with a w.c. at one end and a one-person ofuro at the other. When we arrived, the main room was dominated by the table at which our meals would be served. It was flanked by two legless “chairs” that provide back support while eating. After dinner, all this is whisked away and luxuriously padded futons, starched sheets, and thick comforters are spread on the floor.

One thing, perhaps the major thing, that distinguishes a ryokan from the less expensive minshukus is the food. Elaborate meals are a given, with the evening meal a veritable banquet and breakfast a substantial meal in its own right. Another thing I discovered is that most ryokans adopt a culinary theme of sorts and become known for specializing in a certain style of dining or a certain cuisine. The Ryokan Kurashiki specializes in presenting the bounty of the nearby Inland Sea.

Another thing that draws people to ryokans is the ofuro, or traditional hot baths. Whereas at a minshuku you may find a small hot tub for one down the hall, at a ryokan you will find stone tubs large enough for two and even larger rooms that will accommodate an entire family. These are communal rooms and must be scheduled in advance. And so we bathed, soaked, luxuriated and returned to our rooms wrapped in our yukatas, which are sort of like bathrobes although far less likely to gape open in embarrassing ways.

At seven dinner arrived. And arrived. And arrived. I began to see why our gracious attendants thought eight might be a tad late to start. In fact, as course piled in upon course, I began to wonder if we were being rushed through dinner so the staff could get home early. Later, I was assured that this is the Japanese way, the rapid succession of courses apparently underlining the sumptuousness and sheer bounty of the repast. Besides, my informant assured me, Japanese tend to eat more quickly than Westerners.

Although seafood in vast quantities is not my idea of the perfect meal, the food was terrific. It was all beautifully presented, although I could identify very little of it. Platters showcasing small tidbits of a variety of marine oddities, were followed by more substantial portions of fish or shellfish. Best of all, to my palate, was the tempura, whose rich taste and sweet sauce seemed such a contrast to the sharp and austere tastes of so much Japanese formal cooking. The beautiful and mysterious woman I travel with was enthralled by a green melon served for dessert, the sweetest either of us have ever tasted.

The next day, I noticed a much larger bathhouse in the main garden and asked if we could take our evening bath there. I was assured that, yes, this would be possible. The evening staff felt otherwise, however, and our attempts to use the facilities were rebuffed. My protestations were ignored and glancing down a corridor toward the kitchen I saw a little old lady glaring at me with fire in her eyes. In that moment, I realized that behind the scenes this operation was run with military precision and a hand of steel. I stopped making untoward requests.

All in all, our stay at the Ryokan Kurashiki was less than I’d hoped. But perhaps that was inevitable. I look forward to the day when I will have the luxury of sampling a number of Japan’s finer ryokans and picking my favorite. I will certainly make an attempt to learn in advance each inn’s culinary specialty and choose accordingly. Surprisingly (or perhaps not) this information is not provided in the mainstream guidebooks.

One memory of our stay, however, will remain very special and, if you visit a traditional Japanese inn, I urge you do something similar. After bathing, we shuffled in our yukatas and stocking feet to the entrance foyer of the inn. There we slipped into the wooden gaeta, raised wooden clogs that are provided for guests’ use, and stepped out into the night.

The tourists that swarm this charming old district had long since left. The street was virtually deserted. We strolled out under the cherry blossoms onto the gracefully arched bridge across the canal and paused. The night air was cool but the residual heat from our long soak in the ofuro was held nicely by our yukatas and we were perfectly comfortable. The surrounding buildings with their traditional architecture, tiled roofs, and graceful lines bespoke an earlier era. The street lamps were muted, not a trace of neon to mar the illusion. For a moment I indulged a fantasy that we were a samurai and his concubine out for a moonlight stroll.

The mood was broken when I noticed a man in a nearby phone booth. He was laughing and talking animatedly. I imagined he was saying, “You won’t believe what I just saw!”