x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Ryokans lovely as long as you get the slippers right

The protocol To sample a microcosm of traditional Japanese culture crystallised into a single experience, there is only one place to stay: a ryokan, or old style inn.

Founded in 1872, Arai Ryokan in Shuzenji town offers guests a traditional Japanese experience.
Founded in 1872, Arai Ryokan in Shuzenji town offers guests a traditional Japanese experience.

To sample a microcosm of traditional Japanese culture crystallised into a single experience, there is only one place to stay: a ryokan, or old style inn. Japan is peppered with more than 70,000 ryokan, most of which consist of only a handful of rooms, have been operated by the same family for generations and offer a memorable alternative to conventional hotels. From the welcoming green tea ceremony to futons unrolled nightly, a stay at a ryokan offers an insight into the quintessential aspects of traditional Japanese culture. But along with the words memorable, atmospheric and almost always beautiful, there is another adjective to add to the list for visitors from outside Japan: confusing. Baffling rules and regulations relating to everything from eating to washing define any ryokan stay. While the Japanese are endowed with an instinctive understanding of what is and is not deemed acceptable within the four walls of an inn, those born without the ryokan gene may find it trickier to navigate. Rule number one involves footwear: one of the charms of a ryokan stay is the feeling that it is more a family's home than just a hotel - which more often than not is in fact the case. So shoes from the outdoor world are slipped off at the genkan (entrance) upon arrival and swapped with slippers. And here footwear confusion begins. Slippers must be taken off in any room that has tatami mat flooring. Indoors, slippers are swapped for bathroom slippers when visiting the toilet. And slippers are not worn outside: wooden geisha-style sandals, known as geta, will be sitting by the door for explorations in gardens and nearby streets. To avoid an elaborate game of cat and mouse - as I re-enacted once among the labyrinthine corridors of one of the oldest ryokan in Kyoto - try to keep track of your footwear. Upon arrival, kimono-clad staff will guide guests to their rooms: here, there are tatami floors (yes, slip your shoes off), sliding paper screens, an alcove containing a calligraphy scroll on the wall and a seasonal flower arrangement. Kneeling at a low table, staff will prepare macha, or welcoming tea - bitter, green and frothy - served in pretty ceramic cups along with traditional sweets. To get into the spirit of a ryokan stay, it is worth looking the part. So don't be scared of the neatly folded yukata - cotton kimonos. If in doubt about how to wear the yukata, ask staff, as I did during my first ryokan visit and ended up with three ladies spending a good 10 minutes strapping me into an origami-folded yukata with a rib-snappingly tight series of obi bands holding it together.

Guests can wear yukata while walking around the ryokan and the brave will do so also during short walks near the ryokan (accessorised outdoors not with slippers, remember, but with the geta sandals). Bath time is a highlight of any ryokan, particularly as many are located around natural volcanic hot springs known as onsen, which are believed to be as beneficial to health as they are relaxing. Baths are often communal in a -ryokan, divided into men and women's sections. The first rules to note are that baths are taken completely naked and tattoos are banned (a rule sometimes "overlooked" with small discreet tattoos as opposed to yakuza-style dragons covering entire torsos). And so visitors shed their clothes in the changing room before entering the bathing area. Before diving enthusiastically into the bath, however, there is another golden rule: always wash thoroughly sitting on a low stool at the taps before getting into the water. A small towel is often provided to protect the modesty of the shy while walking around. For reasons that fall into the category of "I Will Never Understand Why", bathers bizarrely put the towels on their heads while sitting in the baths, but it is considered impolite to put the towel in the water. Bathing mission accomplished, the next highlight is eating. Dinner time is taken exceptionally -seriously at ryokan, with owners often doubling up as chefs to rival the Michelin-starred as they proudly source the best seasonal and regional produce. The Japanese Zen aesthetic of balance and beauty is apparent in the cuisine. Served on a low table in the guest's room, it typically consists of a kaiseki - Japan's traditional haute cuisine multi-course feast. About a dozen dishes, each as pretty as a painting, are served on a selection of exquisite ceramics with the time of year reflected in details, such as a sprig of cherry blossom or an autumnal red pointed maple leaf for decoration. It is highly recommended that anyone averse or allergic to any particular kind of food should inform the owner when booking. As the plates are cleared away after you have been fed to within an inch of your life, staff will bring the day to an end by closing the paper screens and unrolling a futon on the tatami floor. Sleeping on the floor might not sound like the most enjoyable way to spend the night but a Japanese-style futon can be surprisingly comfortable, with plenty of soft duvets and blankets making up for the sometimes hard floor. Your yukata doubles as pyjamas and a buckwheat pillow is traditionally used - which creates a slightly crunchy sensation beneath the head - though modern pillows can be provided upon request. Thankfully, after having had a long hot soak and an epic culinary feast, getting a good night's sleep in a ryokan is a blissfully rules-free experience.