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Japanese inns take you back in time

Tourists immerse themselves in country's traditional lifestyle

By Marnie Hunter

Fukuzumiro ryokan in Hakone-machi offers 19 traditional rooms in a three-story wood building.
  • Slippers are worn in the ryokan's public areas. Be sure to take them off before stepping on the tatami mats in the guest rooms.

  • Wooden sandals are provided for walking outside the inn. Toilet slippers are used in the restroom. Don't forget to remove them as you leave.

  • Wrap the left side over the right side of the yukata before tying. Wrapping right over left is only used to prepare a corpse for burial.

  • Do not use soap or shampoo in a traditional bathtub. Wash and rinse thoroughly before soaking.

  • Avoid placing luggage or other items in the room's alcove. This is a place of honor.
    Tourism and Leisure
    Hotels and accommodation

    (CNN) -- Heading back to the room for dinner and a hot soak may sound like the act of a defeated tourist, but in a traditional Japanese inn -- or ryokan -- those activities can be as intriguing as anything along the sightseeing trail.

    "People going looking for a sort of nostalgic, old-fashioned, traditional view of Japanese life will find it most easily in a ryokan," said Peter Grilli, president of Japan Society of Boston, Massachusetts.

    Many ryokan sprang up in the 17th century to accommodate feudal lords traveling along the Tokaido highway to Edo (now Tokyo). Today tourists looking for a taste of the country's historic lifestyle find varying levels of understated elegance in ryokan throughout the country.

    A typical stay starts with a greeting from the inn's staff and a change from street shoes into slippers. An attendant, or nakai, escorts guests to their rooms, where slippers are removed before walking on the rice straw flooring, called tatami.

    Shuffling along behind a kimono-clad attendant on the creaky wood floors of Fukuzumiro ryokan's hallways is like stepping back in time. The inn was established in 1890 by a former samurai and has occupied its current building in the popular hot springs resort town of Hakone-machi since 1910.

    Tim Paterson, 33, a banker living in Tokyo, has stayed at several ryokan. The New Zealand native leaves feeling relaxed and culturally enriched.

    "I think it's quite good mixing culture with history and not just going to see it, but living in it, staying in it," he said after a recent stay at Fukuzumiro.

    Sliding glass doors line the inn's rustic hallways, bringing in the sound of trickling water and the serenity of the stone and tree-filled courtyards outside.

    In the room, the attendant serves green tea and a gelatin candy to arriving guests at a low table. Paper-paneled shoji doors separate the room's main sleeping and eating area from a glassed-in porch with views of the Hayakawa River. A calligraphy scroll occupies the room's place of honor, a raised alcove called a tokonoma.

    A hot soak

    It's a good idea to arrive at the inn in mid-to-late afternoon to enjoy a steaming hot bath before dinner. The Japanese appreciation for bathing is an integral part of a ryokan stay, particularly when the inn has onsen, or volcanic hot spring baths.

    Communal bathing has been a tradition for centuries in Japan, and gawking (even at naked tourists) is practically non-existent. At Fukuzumiro most of the rooms have been maintained in the traditional style, without private bathrooms.

    Several shared indoor hot spring baths, with separate bathing times for men and women, are grouped downstairs. Some ryokan have indoor and outdoor baths.

    Guests change into casual robes called yukata before going to the bathrooms. Yukata are worn throughout the ryokan stay and may be worn for a walk in the surrounding gardens or into town at the many hot spring resorts. The ryokan also provides a jacket to wear over the yukata, which comes in handy in the chilly hallways and restrooms.

    The robes are standard attire for karaoke performances at Fukuzumiro's bar, which gives it a unique pajama-party atmosphere. Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" and "Yesterday" by the Beatles are among a handful of English selections.

    In the baths, the main thing to remember is that soap and shampoo are not used in the tub or pool. Stools and basins are provided where bathers sit down and scrub and rinse thoroughly before getting in the bath. Guests use the same bath water, so they should be as clean as possible before each soak.

    Cleanliness is evident in many aspects of Japanese life -- a trip to the restroom requires special toilet slippers.

    Dining in style

    Miso soup warms over an open flame before breakfast at Fukuzumiro.

    When guests are scrubbed and relaxed, the nakai begins serving a traditional multi-course meal called kaiseki. A recent meal at Kyoto's famous Hiiragiya ryokan, which was established in 1818, consisted of 10 mostly seafood-oriented courses artfully arranged in exquisite ceramic and lacquer ware dishes.

    There is a strong emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, with courses including sliced raw fish and grilled cod with bamboo shoots. Hiiragiya provides an English menu at dinner, but some of the items, such as fat greenling and Biwa gudgeon, may require a Google search. (They're both fish, the latter from Japan's Lake Biwa).

    First-time visitors to Japan will probably find some dishes delicious, while others may be greeted with wide eyes and raised eyebrows. Jumping in is part of the fun, said Hiiragiya guest Emily Slavin, an interior designer from Chicago, Illinois.

    "The food tasted very good. It's just going with the flow and accepting the culture that you're in and eating things that you wouldn't normally necessarily eat," she said.

    Cold beer and sake are excellent complements. Sleep is inviting after a day of touring, a hot soak, a 10-course meal and a few beverages. Many guests add one more layer of relaxation with an after-dinner bath. Hiiragiya ryokan has private cedar tubs in every room as well as larger communal baths.

    The baths at Fukuzumiro are very hot. Guests may want to add cool spring water to bring the temperature down a little.

    When the meal is finished, the table is moved aside to make way for the futon. The thick mats and plump duvets are certainly a big step up from sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag.

    Breakfast is served early in a ryokan and centers around rice, dried fish and miso soup. It is served with the same attention to detail and presentation as the dinner feast. The early meal leaves time for a bath before checkout around 10 a.m.

    Whether returning to work or to the tourism trail, a ryokan stay should leave guests feeling refreshed.

    "Sometimes when you go away you feel a bit tired when you get back," Fukuzumiro guest Paterson said. "But I find that staying in a ryokan is always -- you're always very relaxed when you get back home."

    Paterson's friend Go Mizusawa, 25, of Tokyo, agreed.

    "It's always good to take a break and experience this type of old, sort of nice traditional Japanese culture."

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