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Japanese Hot Spring Inn (Onsen-Ryokan)

Author: rogue.wave.traveler
Date of Trip: February 2014

In early 2014, I had the incredible opportunity to travel around Japan by cruise. It was a 14 night sailing on Azamara Journey, a smaller ship hosting only 694 guests with a focus on the destinations as well as fantastic customer service. The itinerary began in Hong Kong and included stops in China, Taiwan and four stops in Japan with overnights in both Tokyo and Osaka, ending in Shanghai.

Because it had been my lifelong-dream to stay at a traditional Japanese Inn featuring a hot-spring, I booked my overnight in Tokyo at the Gora Tensui Ryokan outside the city in the Hakone-Machi area. In University, more than twenty years before this trip I had studied Japanese language…it was rusty but it thrilled me to finally be able to make some use of it.

Getting to the hotel is truly part of the fun. There are lots of ways but I chose to take the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Odawara (35 mins), transferred to the Hakone-Tozan train (around a 15 minute walk platform to platform in Odawara.) From Odawara to Hakone-Yumato takes around 15 minutes with a quick one-minute walk to transfer one track over at Hakone-Yumato. Then another 40 minutes or so to Gora on a second train.

The little red train from Odawara to Hakone-Yumato is…in a word…adorable! It is the Hello Kitty of rail transportation. Three cars, each with purple velour benches and plenty of standing room shuttle passengers on a 5 stop journey. A uniformed driver at each end manually pilots the train back and forth along this route.

At Hakone-Yumato, you easily transfer to an even cuter mountain train! Because the path is so steep, several methods are used to make the journey easier.

Firstly, there are tunnels cut right into the mountain. Secondly, the train makes a few switchback stops where we head down in elevation only to head back up in a zigzag pattern. Thirdly, we coil around the hill like a boa constrictor.

I know that this is Japan. Every visual cue within the Hakone-Tozan train belies it but to look at the little station of Gora, a log and stucco structure surrounded by snowy mountains…you think… Switzerland? The cable cars connecting the railway to even higher elevations eventually linking to the Mount Fuji ropeway gondolas simply reinforces the idea.

Although it was sunny and mild, the remains of the previous week’s blizzard clogged the village. People were still busily shovelling the pavement clear. There were little shops selling souvenirs and snacks leading up a hill to the local park where the main attraction is…wait for it…Craft House, a Venetian glass blowing atelier and museum!

Have a look on the internet. They have some incredibly beautiful things that are at once out of place and right at home in this picturesque town. A station or two before Gora has the open-air museum with original sculpture by Picasso, Rodin and others. The Hakone-machi area is loaded with culture from Japan and abroad.

It was such a pleasure to wend the long way around the village to the Gora Tensui ryokan for my one-night stay. The manager was outside shovelling snow upon my arrival. In Japanese, he asked me my name, I answered with the Japanese proximation because my last name cannot really be pronounced correctly in their language.

He found my name on the paper pulled from his pocket, took my bag and guided me into the lobby.

To put this event in context, keep in mind two things.

Firstly, I have been looking forward to the onsen (hot spring) ryokan experience for most of my life so expectations were high, emotions were high and my excitement was off the charts.

Secondly, in my mind the only thing that could wreck the experience was my own unintentional rudeness, western clumsiness or ignorance of ryokan etiquette.

It was like containing a charging water buffalo within a china tea cup.

The staff came into the lobby to bow and welcome me. It was beautifully overwhelming but at the same time, I kept worrying that my shoes were still on as I stood on the tile floor.

Trying my best to observe the gestures of those around me, I handed over my coat and sat down on the wooden steps leading to the foot bath bar. Aha! Socks and shoes off now! The shoes were whisked away with my coat and bag and were replaced with a pair of geta slippers neatly positioned so that it would be easy to get into them after my soak.

Up two steps and over to the bar where an incomprehensibly exotic selection of liquor stood before me.  Here is where the first clumsy mistake happened. The low chair-backs with woven mat seats at the bar are not affixed to the floor. Leaning on one as I stepped into the hot water, it flipped over with a loud bang.

Oops!

No harm done. The proper technique (for women) is to kneel in front of the bar directly on the wood floor, shift weight onto your hip, swing legs into the bath, stand up, pull the chair into position, then sit gently. A note to those visiting a ryokan for the first time, you need a certain amount of physical dexterity and a not so large frame.

However, even though I am a fairly large lady by Japanese standards, my enthusiasm counts for a lot!

The bar man insisted on speaking to me in English and offered me a welcome drink. I chose his suggestion of a non-alcoholic, frozen apple mint margarita-ish thingie. It was the perfect bit of refreshment while the hot mineral water relaxed the travel-weary feet.

While enjoying the drink, we processed the check in information and settled on a time for dinner and breakfast the next morning.

Information was provided about the onsen facilities, how to access the free WiFi and how to wear the traditional cotton robe (yukata) and jacket around the ryokan.

A towel was provided to dry off and I was shown a selection of yukata to choose from. The large size came right to my ankle and wrapped around me nicely. Yukata cotton robes are very forgiving and comfy!

Into the tiny elevator up to the 4th floor!

The elevator had a chair for those who might need to sit on the ride from the basement to the fourth floor.

The doors opened into a little lobby with a low table and two chairs. Nearby was a dispenser with hot and cold “ionized” water, whatever that is …for drinking. Around the corner were two private open-air mineral water baths for guests staying in rooms without an en suite bath.

The attendant showing me to my room led me down a dimly lit corridor with a white pebble garden lining the floor on one side. When we arrived at room 406 called suisho according to the address plate, she slid back the wooden gate and opened the door.

Once inside the little vestibule, I was directed to remove the geta before stepping onto the wooden floor. The attendant showed me a small cupboard where my shoes had been placed.

To the left down a short hall way was the washroom. A towel warmer, fancy Japanese Toto toilet, scented pink bathroom tissue and a take-home amenity kit were part of the features. The amenity kit and products were extremely high quality. The shampoo and soap smelled so good.

The shower was huge!

Sliding doors from the hall led to the bedroom and sitting area. The 12 tatami mats were soft and luxurious. The futon was on a low base, not directly on the floor. I had been hoping to have more traditional bedding but it was fine. Extra futons were in a closet.

A room safe, overcoats and obi belts for the yukata and tabi socks were in another closet along with baskets for personal items.

The sitting room, separated by a sliding shoji screen had a mini fridge, television, tea kettle and tea necessaries. The view of the mountain and village was beautiful.

Everything was comfortable and clean and the staff could not have been more helpful and welcoming.

I got changed into the robe and went into one of the rotenburo baths on my floor.

The idea here is that you can bathe with just your party if you wish. The public baths were in the basement.

I latched the sliding door for privacy, removed my geta and stepped up onto the carpeted platform. I got undressed and put my things into a basket and noticed a vanity with shower caps, hair ties, all sorts of lotion and face cream and a few hair dryers for après bath.

The shower area was a tiled floor separated from the changing room by a glass wall with a door. There were two shower stations each with a low wooden bench, a bucket and containers of body wash, shampoo and conditioner.

I had a shower and rinsed away the soap.

Beyond the shower room was a door leading outside to a balcony. With just my teeny towel to cover me, I stepped out. There was a tall wall for privacy but I could still enjoy the view. It was a little chilly so I sat on the edge of the wooden two-person tub and slipped in slowly.

It was pretty hot so there was an awkward period where my legs were boiling but my top was shivering! I used the little wooden ladle to gradually pour the warm water over my shoulders, acclimatizing my skin to the temperature. Eventually, I was in up to my neck and the steam swirled around my face.

It was silent except for the water flowing into the tub to replace that which had spilled out as I got in. Occasionally, a crow would caw from a nearby tree. Once the water level reaches the lip of the tub, the flow stops automatically.

Perfect silence…relaxation…joy, fulfillment.

Twenty minutes or so later, I got dressed in the yukata and geta, tucked my room key into the convenient sleeve-pocket and sipped some of the cool “ionized” water before visiting the ladies’ public bath.

There were two sets of lockers, the first for shoes, the second for clothes. I guess some people use the facility just for the day without staying at the hotel.

There was a change room, shower, sauna, an indoor hot spring pool and then an outdoor hot spring pool. Each of the pools could accommodate at least 10 people.

No one was in the indoor section and there were six ladies outside plus two new arrivals in the changing room. Still red in the face from my first soak, I stepped into the onsen lobby area between the men’s and ladies’ change rooms. Here, they played typical spa music complete with birdsong and ocean wave mash-up.

They had an extensive library of books and magazines to read while you zen out. I looked at a poetic photo essay about the life of snow-monkeys in Hokkaido by season. Of course, the winter monkeys were the cutest!

Onsite was a spa treatment centre offering facials, body massages and some kind of pomegranate wrap for “female hormone balance”…if my Japanese didn’t steer me wrong. Um, no thank you!

I took the stairs to the main lobby where my dedicated bar tender awaited. He explained the view to me. A giant kanji for the word big had been burned into the mountain during last August’s summer festival.

He gave me cool sake to drink while I enjoyed the inspiring view and once again used the foot bath.

My bar tender poured with a heavy hand and I was terrified that I might get a bit tipsy. Luckily, the hotel manager ushered me to dinner!

It was a bit of a surprise that dinner was not served in my room but it soon became abundantly clear why.

My western style dining area with table and four chairs was very private and surrounded by a half wall separating the space from the adjacent tables.

My bartender was my waiter and he placed a blanket over my knees to keep the chill off. There was really no need but it was a comfort to have a giant fluffy napkin to protect the yukata.

Epic meal time begins with a warm towel to cleanse the hands and the presentation of a calligraphed menu on beautiful rice paper.

Houjicha (Roasted Tea) is served and hold onto your hats…like individual rain drops adding up to a torrential downpour these tiny, impeccably presented dishes just kept on coming from the kitchen. Here is my limited memory of what was served, apologies if there are errors or omissions.

Crab. (I wish I had been paying more attention to the waiter who explained each plate to me using a Japanese- English dictionary but I was too overwhelmed early in the meal.)

Black sesame tofu with sea urchin.

Leeks & herring served with quail egg and vinegar.

Sea cod with nappa and yuzu (local citrus) zest in broth which tastes deliciously of smoke.

Sashimi tuna and sea bream with mejiso (little red shiso sprouts)… tastes like pepper. Also garnished with blue shiso flower buds.

Fiddleheads with king crab and daikon & rice porridge.

Ribbon eel (amazing texture…pretty in the water and pretty in my mouth) and scallop with seaweed, fish eggs and carrot with miso paste, sudachi (tiny lime) and black soy beans. This might have been my favourite dish.

Chawanmushi (egg custard texture) ginger and soramame (fava bean) soup served hot.

Chilled green bean, cream and black pepper soup…tasted a bit like blue cheese.

Duck with foie gras and kabocha (pumpkin), balsamic vinegar sauce and burdock root.

Tsukemono (pickles), miso soup with tiny clams, gohan (rice)

Dessert served at the bar:

Green Tea, yogurt with apple and kiwi sauce. Yuzu sorbet. Fresh fruit plate of grapefruit and strawberry with crème fraîche.

Burp! Didja catch all that? There is no way that they could have managed the logistics of dragging all that to my room! No complaints here. The manager got a wheelbarrow and trundled me off to bed. (Kidding, I made it on my own but just barely.)

The bed in my room was extremely comfortable and I even did another late-night soak in the 4th floor rotenburo. In the morning, I made green tea in my room and read about the local attractions while sitting in front of the huge picture window and beautiful winter scenery.

At five minutes to eight, I went to the dining room for breakfast. At check-in, I had asked the staff to please make sure that I got a traditional Japanese breakfast rather than a western-style breakfast.

Boy! Did they ever deliver! They had even honoured my request for natto!

What is natto? Well, to start, it is a popular morning meal in Japan. Nothing that you would normally order in a fancy restaurant but something you get at the grocery store to eat at home or grab at the corner deli on your way to work. Sort of like the way westerners eat Raisin Bran or an Egg Mcmuffin.

Imagine fermented soy beans but not mashed up into miso paste yet. When you stir the natto, it releases a  coating…something like gooey melted cheese but very fine in texture.

As you lift the beans out of the bowl, the strands of goo stretch and stretch and never seem to break. It’s like trying to eat spider webs!

You get all kinds of toppings to mix into your natto. The waitress demonstrated and used the onomatopoetic expression “guru-guru” to show me how to stir them in “round-round.”

Most foreigners describe the taste of natto as “inedible” or “disgusting” so obviously, I needed to get some in my belly!

For my first bite, I tried it plain. It was strong-tasting, similar to miso paste right from the container. For me, that is something that I am familiar with and rather enjoy! It wasn’t yucky or sour like I feared.

However, the texture was definitely difficult to adjust to. As I mentioned, the consistency of the beans changes as you stir. The natto residue (I don’t want to call it slime but that might best describe it) pulls like taffy.

It makes long strands that end up trailing from your chin, your chopsticks, your bowl and makes you wish that it was considered polite to use your oshibori to wipe your face.

I managed and delighted myself by gradually mixing in the toppings: chopped green onion, miso paste, chopped pickles, mustard, some kind of sauce and bonito flakes which just made it more delicious.

I couldn’t stop thanking my waiter for the special effort that he made. Ordering natto in this hotel was like asking for a bag of chips to be served on a silver platter in the dining room. They understood that it was important to me, though. Everyone was so kind and wanting to go out of their way to please.

Don’t forget…there was more breakfast:

Miso soup

Shirasu (dried anchovy minnows) with grated daikon radish.

Baby prawns with hijiki seaweed served in an egg cup.

Sashimi white fish with wasabi and those red peppery shiso sprouts plus a dipping sauce.

Black tofu curd in a bowl.

Nori in a wood box warmed by heated pumice stones served with dipping sauce.

Pickles including umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum.) Which tasted deliciously of cedar. It must be pickled in wood! Confirmed! It was pickled with salt and the red shiso leaf. Yum!

Tofu cakes with spinach in an egg drop soup.

Salmon with grilled mozzarella cheese and jalapeño mayonnaise?? Wow! I must be dreaming.

Veggies: broccoli, spinach, carrot, red and yellow flesh potatoes.

Finally, an outrageous and bizarre combination… English bacon with a poached egg.

Of course there were two kinds of tea served with the meal and I was invited to take coffee served in unique pottery mugs and a mango/raspberry mint palate cleanser at the bar.

Please see the attached photo of the post-meal crockery and understand why I have gained eleventy-seven pounds this trip!

Checkout was sad but quick and easy. All staff were as sweet as if I had been staying in their home. I will never, ever forget this incredible experience staying at the Gora Tensui Ryokan.

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