Time travel in Japan

Time travel in Japan

Japan has always been on my bucket list! And we keep checking airfares to places on our bucket list on online travel search sites like Skyscanner (www.skyscanner.co.in). You never know when a great airfare to a dream destination can become available. So we struck gold when we found a great fare on ANA (All Nippon Airways) to go from Mumbai to Tokyo. And without a second of thought, we booked right away.

I was certain that it was the rural part of Japan that I wanted to experience more than its much talked about busy city life. This aspect of the Japanese life was far more intriguing, as it seemed that the Japanese had managed to preserve their culture despite being one of the most highly developed nations in the world. So when we were planning our itinerary, we decided to spend a few days in big cities like Tokyo but kept more time for exploring the countryside near Kyoto and Nikko. Japan stunned us with its uniqueness — their traditional dresses, food, high speed trains and so much more. While we tried to take in all that the country had to offer, one thing that stood out was the traditional Japanese inn (Ryokan) experience.

For most part of our journey, we stayed in hostels booked through hostelworld.com but to find most authentic ryokans, we used a site called secret-japan.com. Ryokans have been around in Japan since the Edo Period (1603–1868), when such inns served travellers along Japan’s highways. What is remarkable is that these Ryokans exist even now and are maintained the way they were centuries ago.

The oldest Ryokan is 1,300 years old and has been run by 52 generations of the same family! This Keinunkan Ryokan is older than even the kingdom of England and is the oldest hotel in the whole world with the second oldest being close by too, called Hoshi Ryokan in Komatsu region of Japan.

While there is no dearth of modern hotels and guest houses in Japan, Ryokans have managed to hold on to their niche. Most Japanese still seek out a Ryokan experience to stay connected to their old-world culture.

Almost all Ryokans follow a standard pattern. And the one that we went to stay in was no different. For our stay we chose a remote Ryokan-Onsen near the very popular Kinugawa Onsen area. Kinugawa is very well connected to all major cities through trains. There are many Onsens and Ryokans here along with modern hotels. But if you can venture out just a little more, you can start getting a taste of rustic Japan — just like it has been for hundreds of years.

To reach there, from the Kinugawa Onsen station, we proceeded towards the Okukinu area which is a 90-minute bus journey. This bus brought us all the way to the Meotobuchi Onsen parking lot from where our Ryokan shuttle picked us up for a short journey that took us deeper into the Kanto woods. Haccho-no-yu Ryokan and Onsen offer some of the most rustic outdoor baths in the Kanto Region, a world apart from bustling Tokyo and the built up Kinugawa Onsen. The Okukinu Onsen area is also called the home of secret spas. The entire area is designated as a national treasure and is bustling with wild flora and fauna. It does feel like stepping back in time in the lap of pristine nature.

Our Ryokan – Haccho-no-yu had a small reception area for check in where we were given our room number and the Onsen facilities were explained to us. Ryokans are very particular about serving fresh and warm food, so all guests have to eat together at fixed times.

Even though these
Ryokans are quite expensive (Japan is an expensive nation like Western Europe), there are no attached baths. If you are not used to it, this may be your first experience with communal baths and washrooms. Everything is very clean and hygienic.

A stay in an Onsen-Ryokan can be a sensory experience. Especially when it comes to the food! We walked into a very traditional set-up for dinner too one with low tables, chairs and an elaborate spread. Guests weren’t offered any specific choices, and all items were traditional Japanese dishes. Nearly twenty dishes were served, some familiar like tempura but most were absolutely new and unfamiliar. Pickled wild mushrooms, raw fish, steamed prawns, meats, cabbage, radish and many other vegetables.

There was also a small, live hot-pot (shabu-shabu) to cook our own vegetables and meats in broth. Since no one spoke English, it was difficult for me to identify everything but I am sure I sampled deer meat and some bear meat too. Interestingly, I enjoyed most of the dishes that were served! I would say that the dinner at a Ryokan (called Kaiseki Ryori) is an adventure in itself and another must-try recommendation.

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