Japanese Culture Defined: The Meigetsu Ryokan Inn

By: leelefever on May 12, 2006 - 9:27pm

A Ryokan Inn, or Japanese style hotel, is really a must-do while visiting Japan as it offers a traditional Japanese traveler experience that, for foreigners like me, is highly unusual and surpisingly luxurious.

A few days ago, we visited the small mountain town of Tsuwano, population 5,500.  Having had our eye on staying in a ryokan, we figured this would be the place. Unsurprisingly, a train conductor ended up leading us through the town to two different inns.  The last of which we chose to spend the night, as the other was full. It was called the Meigetsu Ryokan- and we recommend it.

A night at a ryokan usually involves a single room for the night, dinner and breakfast, a private bath, an ofuro or group bath (more on that later) and the love and care of the host. Most ryokans are in scenic locations and are often costly.  Ours was about $175 for the night- but well worth it.

In no other place have I been immersed in so much traditional Japanese culture - from the environment to the food to the people. Our room had the traditional tatami mat floors- 8 mats on the main room, 6 mats in the entry way (traditional rooms in Japan are measured by the number of tatami mats that fit on the floor).  The sliding doors, or shoji doors, were made of light weight wood and paper. In the middle of the room was a single table holding on it a tea set.  In a closet in the entry way were the mats and comforters used for making a bed on the floor, as is the tradition.  Simple and elegant, the room had everything we needed.

Before dinner, I went to the bath, for another traditional Japanese experience.  In Japan, people bathe often in onsen or ofuro baths, which are steaming hot group baths with men and women separate. It’s like Japanese people soup and is another must-do in Japan.

 I had hoped for an empty bath where I could be my foreigner-self.  As my luck would have it, I found three aging Japanese men, all naked and in various stages of the bath.  And then there was me - six foot three inches of pure self-consciousness, a true bath rookie holding nothing but a small white towel and a nervous smile.  

According to standard bath behavior, you are supposed to rinse off before entering the actual bath, which amounts to a large wooden bathtub.  Two of the men were currently in the rinse cycle and I had no where to go, so I stood there wishing I knew more Japanese or had done this sort of thing before.  Luckily one of the men left and I was able to use the handheld shower nozzle for a cursory rinse.  Of course, I had showered before ever arriving at the bath, but felt the need to send the message that I knew what was going on and respect the tradition of entering the bath clean.  So I rinsed and climbed into the bath with one of the men who knew much more English than I did Japanese, thankfully.  He was from Sapporo, in the north of Japan and I couldn’t help but tell him that I knew about Sapporo from the beer.  He laughed.  Then, as is the case with every male in Japan who learns I’m from Seattle, we discuss baseball and mainly Ichiro, Seattle’s star outfielder from Japan.  I’ve found that Japanese men know much more than me about American baseball on the whole.  He promptly left and I finally found myself alone in the bath, relieved and wondering about my chances of getting out without any more weird, bath-based interactions.  I made it out, dried off with what seemed like a large facial tissue, put on my robe and went back to the room to relax before dinner.  Sachi met the Ichiro fan’s wife in her bath and surely had more productive conversation than me.

Part of the cost of the ryokan is justified by the excellent Japanese food and this ryokan was no exception.  Dinner was served in our little room and included about 17 dishes of various sizes per person. The meal was a spectacularly elegant and delicious affair, all laid out before us in a particular and precise manner by our host, a sweet little lady in a kimono.  She took a liking to Sachi, who could talk to her in Japanese.  At one point, they even had a playful argument about who was going to make the bed.  I couldn’t understand a word, but knew exactly what was happening.


I’m finding that Japanese food is more delicate in flavor than I would have thought.  Much of the traditional food- sushi, tempura, noodles, rice, etc. has a light taste, nice texture and a sensual kind of aftertaste that hangs in your mouth, begging for more. This meal was similar. It was not rich and savory.  It was delicate, unique, exotic, healthy, impeccably presented and genuinely tasty.  As there wasn’t a main course, we laughed at our dilemma in choosing what to eat from the many plates of small things that included a soup, sashimi, fruit, various pickled vegetables, sake and soup with egg that we cooked at the table.  My favorite was the sashimi.

We both like escargot covered in butter and garlic, but had never eaten a snail right out of the shell like this one.  It was good, but had a bitter aftertaste that I do not wish to taste again.


After the meal, we drank a little more sake and moved the table out of the way to make room for the bed, which is made by piling beach towels-sized mats one on top of the other.  We used all the mats, maybe 10 of them, to create a soft bed on the floor that was then covered with big comforters; all quite luxurious, even for a bed on the floor. 

The next morning we had a traditional Japanese breakfast, much in the same style as the dinner before, ending our experience at the ryokan.

I personally feel somewhat lucky that I made it out without punching a hole in the paper doors while putting a shirt over my head or something- that would totally be my luck.

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Lee Decodes a Japanese Sign

By: sachilefever on May 12, 2006 - 3:18am

Today we went on a little hike to the ruins of Tsuwano castle. On the way, Lee saw this sign and interpreted as follows:


 1. Scrape the bottom of your shoe

2. Place scraped matter in your hand

3. And smoke it? 



 He only glanced at it, but it really was his first impression.

It's actually about cigarettes.

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