When travelers think of Japan, images of geishas, kabuki, sumo and samurai might come to mind. The reality, especially for those entering the island nation via the main international airports of Narita for Tokyo and Kansai for Osaka, is that they will be greeted with ultramodern "megatropolises."
To experience the Japan of clients' dreams, a stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese-style inn, is a must. In addition, since ryokans are typically inclusive of accommodations plus breakfast and dinner, a realistic travel budget can be worked out in advance for clients. With the current strength of the yen vs. the dollar, this is more important than ever.
When guests enter a ryokan, they exchange their shoes for a pair of slippers, then are escorted to their rooms by a kimono-clad attendant. There, behind closed shoji screens, patrons shed their street clothes and don a yukata (a light cotton kimono) for the duration of their stay. The idea is, upon entering a ryokan, to leave the hustle and bustle of the outside world at the front door.
A quintessential ryokan experience can be found at Asaba, a member of the Relais & Chateaux hotel and restaurant group in Shizuoka Prefecture south of Tokyo on the island of Honshu. Relais & Chateaux counts five ryokans among its 10 hotel and restaurant members in Japan.
Founded in 1675, Asaba has 23 rooms, a large pond, a bamboo forest and a Japanese Noh stage for occasional theatrical presentations. Among the musts of any ryokan stay are the traditional, multicourse kaiseki dinner and a dip in an onsen, or hot spring. Asaba has an outdoor communal bath with alternating time slots for men and women as well as in-room private baths.
Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata called the Hiiragiya ryokan his home away from home. "On a drizzly afternoon in Kyoto, sitting by the window, I watch the falling rain, listen to its calming sound. It is here, at Hiiragiya, that I wistfully recall that sense of tranquility that belonged to old Japan," he wrote. He's not alone in his sentiments, though few can articulate it as well as he did.
Since its founding in 1818, the Hiiragiya ryokan, located in the center of Japan's ancient capital, has hosted luminaries from members of Japan's royal family to Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor and Pierre Cardin. The property has 21 rooms in its original wing and seven rooms in its new wing, with nightly rates ranging from about $365 to $1,200. The kaiseki dinner is served on elegant lacquerware and the city's famous ceramics.
An otherworldly onsen
Myojinkan ryokan, meanwhile, is located in the mountains above Matsumoto Castle, one of the great landmarks of medieval Japan, in Nagano Prefecture.
Established in 1931, Myojinkan has a hot spring bath that, while great any time of year, is otherworldly in winter. A bather can enter from the warmth and comfort of the ryokan directly into a fourth-floor bath that opens to the forest. To bathe in hot spring bliss at 3,500 feet above sea level with a view of a snow-covered forest is magical.
Near Mount Fuji in Hakone National Park is Gora Kadan. East meets West for the best of both worlds at this ryokan combining European and Japanese spa treatments. This former holiday retreat for the imperial family now attracts celebrities from both sides of the Pacific seeking pampered refuge.
Why do so many travelers to Japan love the ryokan experience? Perhaps the answer lies within the pages of a book in the library at Gora Kadan. "Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo," a compilation of 19th century Japanese woodblock prints by one of the medium's great masters, portrays scenes that are distant dreams from the Tokyo of the Edo period but are still the reality at the many ryokans that still dot the Japanese landscape.
Unlike Commodore Perry, I arrived in Japan in luxury, aboard All Nippon Airways' new business-class service between New York and Narita featuring ultramodern flat-bed suites.
The new seats and layout is called ANA Business Staggered. This configuration adds 50% more personal space compared with the conventional layout and allows for aisle access from every business-class seat, according to the airlines. A 17-inch-wide LCD screen with a wide array of programming and world-class food and beverage service add to the experience.
For more about Relais & Chateaux ryokans, visit www.relaischateaux.com. For more on Japan, visit the Japan National Tourism Organization site at www.japantravelinfo.com.