This post is about the experience of staying at a real ryokan in Kagoshima, which included an onset bath as well as a kaiseki-style dinner.
Let me start though by describing what kinds of hotels exist in Japan.
The theory of Japanese hotels
There are two main types of hotels in Japan: business hotel and ryokan.
Business hotel is reminiscent of a small and rather impersonal Western hotel. As a rule, the room in such a hotel will be very small, but fitted like a LEGO toy with a whole list of items, which is quite invariable. There are things that you would expect in a hotel: a usual bed, a TV, a small table where you can work on a computer (internet surprisingly tends to be provided by a cable modem, in-room wifi is rare).
Every Japanese business room, no matter how small, will also always have:
– a hair dryer;
– three bottles (soap, shampoo and conditioner);
– a small disposable toothbrush with a minuscule tube of toothpaste;
– a small disposable hairbrush.
As a rule you will also have an en-suite bathroom, very small, which would include a bath tub as well as a technological miracle called “Japanese toilet”, which will often have a heated seat as well as a special tube that comes out to wash and dry your intimate parts.
The other type of the Japanese hotel is called ryokan. This is a completely different style of accommodation. The rooms in a ryokan will be somewhat bigger, but will have virtually no furniture to which we are used to. The floor is covered with tatami mats. The walls are represented by sliding partitions from wood and paper. Oftentimes the bathrooms are shared. The ryokan room will not have a chair, but rather a low seat as well as a low table, you are meant to sit essentially on the floor. Instead of a bed you sleep on a special Japanese mattress (futon), which is put directly on the floor. When it is not used, the futon is kept in a cupboard behind a partition. It is not all that convenient to sleep on a futon, in fact it’s quite hard, so I found it tiring to stay in ryokan all the time – and consequently interchanged ryokans and business hotels, to experience both comfort and tradition.
As Japan is essentially four volcanic islands, she possesses quite a number of hot springs. Ryokan is often built right next to a spring and includes an onsen. An onsen is a Japanese bath. The focus of an onsen is the hot water bath, filled with the water straight from the spring, often very hot indeed.
Ryokan can differ significantly in terms of class. I described above the simple ryokan. High class ryokan will be quite different. It will have large rooms, sometimes with a view to a private garden, which you can admire while meditating in your room. You might have a private bathroom. You don’t have to open and close the futon yourself, the personnel will do it for you. Of course there will be an onsen in such a ryokan. And finally – most pleasantly – a high class ryokan will include an elaborate breakfast and dinner service in the kaiseki style, the high style of Japanese cuisine.
The Japanese consider several days in a high class ryokan the best possible vacation. Already from my last trip I really wanted to stay in such a ryokan if only for a couple of days. However it turned out rather complicated. The minimum price for such a stay is 100 dollars, often it is several times more. But whatever the price, in November and December Japan experiences the peak of the tourist season, and the best ryokan are booked out for many weeks in advance! You also have to take into account the fact that as the ryokan experience involves a whole unwritten etiquette, not every ryokan will agree to accept a foreigner, as the owner might not speak English and might find it stressful to deal with a foreigner. Particularly one travelling solo: the tariffs in ryokan are traditionally per person, rather than per room.
Often you can only get in touch with ryokan by emailing or faxing them – they are not present in the usual reservation systems such as booking.com. You could also call, but bette speak Japanese then. Finally after a number of failed attempts I found a ryokan in Kagoshima which met my specifications and was ready to accept me.
First things first, I went to see the on-site onsen. I am not a big lover of baths, but Japanese onsen are something special. I visited the onsen several times a day when I could. Onsen is divided into two separate parts, for men and for women. As a rule there is a timetable so that in the morning the men use one part and in the evening the other, and vice versa. This is the entrance to the onsen inside the hotel. The blue flag says that this is open for men, the other door has a red flag for women.
You take off your shoes and place them in a special cupboard:
In the dressing room you undress fully and put your things into a big box. Normally you should not have a lot of stuff as you just descended from your hotel room, wearing a Japanese yukata kimono. If you have anything of value, such as a mobile phone, you can lock it in a small box to the right and hang the key on your hand.
Finally, this is how onsen itself looks. You can’t photograph there in principle, to respect the privacy of the visitors, but I broke the rule just this once. In the centre is the big bath where you swim. But before entering you must wash yourself under a small shower, which you can see to the right. The Japanese wash themselves in a sitting position, using small taburets which you can also just make out. After the shower you enter the actual bath. The water is very hot, so at first it may be quite difficult to get in. You are supposed to spend at least five minutes inside. For me I got used to the temperature very quickly and felt like I could easily spend more time inside – but you shouldn’t, as you can get a heat-stroke. The water is running from the openings among the big pile of stones in the back. Anyhow it is quite exotic to share it with all the other visitors.
Already at check in I was asked what time I wish to take dinner (and breakfast). After visiting the onsen I went down to the hotel restaurant, full of curiosity. A hostess awaited me and led me immediately to a partitioned room. At the entrance of the room this plate announced who will have a dinner in there:
This is how the prepared dinner looked:
The thinly cut beef you can see on the previous photos is a part of shabu shabu dish. It is prepared in such a way that various vegetables are placed in boiling water, creating a soup. Then you place the thin slices of beef in the soup for a short time. This is how it looks. Afterwards the sesame seeds and mustard sauce are used to add flavour to the beef and the vegetables.
Frankly I could not identify the majority of ingredients in these little dishes. However the overall idea of kaiseki is that each course is prepared from the freshest ingredients which correspond to the season, and is served on specially selected dishes, which again correspond aesthetically to the food’s appearance and character.
On this one it is easy to see the parallel between the waves of the fish and the watery pattern on the dish:
I order a glass of the Japanese alcoholic drink sochu. I found it much less refined than sake however.
The set of dishes already prepared at my arrival was not all; more dishes were brought in later!
Miso soup with mushrooms:
At the end of the dinner were brought miso soup as well as the rice, which always close a kaiseki dinner in Japan. In this case though at the very end I also received a portion of fruit. All in all it must be said that although each dish looks very small, the overall amount of food is enormous and you barely manage to consume it.
And as you come back to your room, suddenly you realise that the futon has been carefully placed on the floor while you were away.
The next morning I tried also the breakfast in the kaiseki style:
The strangest thing about a Japanese breakfast is that there is practically nothing sweet, most of the dishes are either sour or salty. Very new for a sweet tooth like myself.
The dinner of the second day
I stayed in the ryokan for two days. The second dinner:
In the covered saucer on the previous photo was the so-called black pork, the Kagoshima specialty.
The obvious parallel between the dish and the plate.
And some photos of the Kagoshima city. Kagoshima is located in the Southern extremity of Kyushu island and sort of closes the Japanese landmass. Chains of islands stretch further in the direction of Taiwan. Today they belong to Japan, but historically for many centuries they remained independent in the form of the Ryukyu kingdom. Kagoshima plays an important role in the Japanese national consciousness as it was the base of the Satsuma clan. Satsuma was instrumental in bringing about the fall of the Shogunate in 19th century. Following the Meiji restoration many representatives of Satsuma occupied key positions in the Japanese government, such as the prime minister and the foreign minister. Admiral Togo, the commander of the Japanese fleet victorious over Russia at Tsushima, was from Satsuma too.
Sakurajima volcano is the symbol of Kagoshima. The volcano is really an island separated from Kagoshima by a narrow straight and observable from various vantage points in the city:
I visited the residence and the garden of Satsuma clan.
This pavilion was presented to the Satsuma clan by their vassal, the prince of Ryukyu. The head of the clan meditated in the pavilion enjoying the view of Sakurajima.
As Japan spent several centuries in utter isolation, Satsuma was one of the rare places where the outside world’s news could access it, from the Southern islands and the Ryukyu kingdom. The famous Japanese bamboo groves first appeared in Satsuma, where it arrived from Ryukyu.
Inside the revidence of Satsuma ruler, where he apparently even hosted Nicholas II before he acceded to the throne. I got to drink some green matcha tea as well as eat a very sweet Japanese confectionary.