Friday, July 06, 2007

Ryokan rules ...

For the Zen temple capital of Japan, Kyoto looked suprisingly like any other high-rise city upon arrival at it's super-modern train station.

It was only as our taxi ferried us into a nearby district of traditional 2/3 storey houses that we started to appreciate Kyoto's unique charms.

We'd chosen a Ryokan (traditional guesthouse) for this part of our stay in Japan - and they have some unusual differences to western hotels, most notably;

  • Room size is chosen based a quantity of tatami mats. Like the base of the futon beds you can buy in the UK, these are a standard size and define the size of the raised floor of your room.

    • You always take your shoes off at the door, where you call out to the owner who swaps them for a charming pair of Ryokan slippers. I never found a pair that fitted my western size 10's.

    • Slippers are just for getting from reception to your room. You're not allowed to wear them past the room entrance, just bare or stocking feet on the mats.

    • When you go to the toilets (usually shared) you swap to Bathroom slippers in order not to cross contaminate different floor areas. Have I mentioned the Japanese are sticklers for order yet?

    • Probably the biggest difference though is that there's no bed in your room. Come bedtime, you move the table & get a mattress, sheets and quilt from a cupboard to make your own bed on the floor.

    • It's good manners to have at least 1 meal a day in your Ryokan. Evening meal in your room, breakfasts in a big tatami mat room. You always sit on the floor to eat (on top of your legs), and every meal consists almost solely of fish and soy delicacies.

    • Bathing is in large communal rooms (sex separated) as consists of a shower, followed by a few minutes reclining in the sento - what we'd know of as a hot tub. Absolute bliss after a day pounding the pavements in 30 degree heat.

    • Apparently there's loads more to a Ryokan stay if you're Japanese - this is just the minimum to get by as a Westerner without causing offence!

    The Ryokan's we stayed in were all scrupulously clean, welcoming & just as stylish as everything else over here. They are also fantastic value and a great way to appreciate Japanese culture - a highly recommended part of any stay.

    Our second suprise on arriving in Kyoto was unexpectedly running into Ed in our guesthouse foyer as we checked in. Although we were slightly disabled from the previous evenings "bear baiting" we still managed to join him in a local Karaoke bar, where the owner fairly insisted we must sample his Japanese whisky and smoked Octopus well into the night as we celebrated our return from Mount Fuji ...

    We awoke the next morning to discover our legs in consdierably worse state, in fact hardly working at all. No stranger to the effects of half marathons, 3 peaks challenges etc - I was quite unprepared for just what 1.5km of continuous descent can do to your legs ... 400 yards to the local laundrette and internet cafe ws as far as we made it that day. We looked like bloody idiots hobbling around.

    Thankfully in Japan even the humble laundrette can throw up a few suprises ... why bother putting detergent in the machine? Hell it's supposed to be automatic, it'll take care of that itself. And it won't keep you waiting around either - just 30 minutes for a 7kg load, was suprisingly quick. And it went by the name of Jabu Jabu Land.

    As with most other things, the Japanese just seem to find novel but straightforward ways of doing it better. Like taxi doors that open at the flick of a switch from the driver. And don't get me started on the toilets again.

    With just a week in Kyoto and tens of UNESCO World Heritage listed sights to see, we picked our sightseeing carefully to avoid getting templed-out. The notable highlights were the magnificent Golden Pavillion (above), Toji Temples 5-storey pagoda & the Philosophers Walk - perfect for a spot of contemplation.

    We finished our week in Kyoto with a visit to our local Yakitori bar - these local eateries are easily spotted by the red lanterns hanging outside, and serve up BBQ skewers of everything from chicken to pig intestine. This one also served up the somewhat ironically named "light alcohol" - a potent homemade alco-pop, and ice-cold bottles of my favourite Yebisu.

    We may have barely scratched the surface of Kyoto's temple circuit - but that even acheived our very own state of Zen ... and all for less than 2 quid a pint ...

    I was a bit more organised on the Kyoto photos, so they should all be available to view now. In the event this isn't a nice snap of a golden looking pavillion - can someone email me - cheers. Mel's finally finished our official trip map too - you can get at it here, or as a link on the sidebar.

    No comments: