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5 Ryokans Revealed


Scattered across Japan, ryokans offer meditative sanctuary and delectable cuisine. Scott Haas gives his picks of the best sensory retreats for the mind, body and palate.

Published on Apr 3, 2013

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Japan has a reputation for conformity in dress, social etiquette and even thinking, but, in many ways, these assimilative leanings are confined to the surface; beneath it can be found deep and unique expressions of individuality. Foremost among these are ryokans, Japanese inns so personal to their owner’s style that no two are alike.

Yes, ryokans have several things in common: Onsen or hot springs, indoors and out, where guests, usually segregated by gender, bathe multiple times each day; peaceful rooms with bare walls and tatami mats; replacing your civvies with a yukata (summer kimono) and your shoes with slippers; settings in which you are a part of nature, but not the dominant force; and finally, long, long, long stretches of time when you do nothing but take in the serenity of the place. It is the Japanese way of retreating into oneself. It is rejuvenation through embracing silence. The inactivity allows guests to accept their own lives through observation and listening. Hundreds of ryokans can be found throughout the Japanese archipelago.

From ultra-luxurious to borderline-B&B, where you stay will depend on your budget, how closely your personal preferences match those of the owner and what you are in the mood to eat. When you stay in a ryokan, you’ll be served—often in your room—beautifully arranged, delicious, long breakfasts and dinners, made up of fresh seasonal food that is mostly vegetarian or from the sea. Each ryokan draws upon the best products of its region and the season. Here, a few stand outs.

The Kayotei (Ho-20-1 Higashi-machi, Yamanaka Enuma, Ishikawa 922-0114; +81 76 178 1410), with only 10 rooms, is one of the most elegant properties in the world. In the middle of a dense forest above a gorge lined with a walking path, where the 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho composed his verses, sit the sparsely furnished tatami rooms. The sleeping quarters are connected by long corridors as evocative as Venetian alleyways, down which you shuffle silently back and forth to the decidedly modern baths. Attendants hover like the doting Japanese grandmother you never had. And the food? Truly among the best in Japan. Dinners are served kaiseke style, which means many small courses of exquisitely plated, rare and colorful ingredients to savor. The cuisine is so good that The Kayotei has its own cookbook. What’s served varies from season to season, even day to day, but depending on when you visit, you might be lucky enough to enjoy bamboo shoots and plantain blossom tempura and canapés topped with yuba (bean curd skin) and red garlic.

With its magnificent gardens designed nearly a century ago by architect Togo Murano, Sanyo-so (270 Mamanoue, Izunokuni-shi, Shizuoka 410-2204; +81 55 947 1111) is much larger than The Kayotei, with 40 annexes and a palatial entrance hall. The structures imply opulence; what the ryokan offers instead are paths to peace, alongside ponds, trees and gardens. Agitation is just not possible. Nature is groomed here, and the message is refinement. Shizuoka is Japan’s production center for green tea—a stress-reducing libation fit for this atmosphere of induced calm.

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