Ryokan ruxury...

Trip Start Jan 31, 2006
Trip End Dec 11, 2006

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Having packed up and checked out we headed out on the metro to Tokyo station where we would be catching the train to our next stop, Ito. Ito is on the peninsula below Tokyo and is well known as one of the main hot spring or onsen areas in Japan. We would be staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Staying at the ryokan was also part of Fiona's birthday present so we had decided to stay in one of the best rooms with its own outside onsen in the garden. Before we got there though we needed to negotiate getting on the train to Ito. We'd already bought rail passes which would give us unlimited travel on all but the fastest shinkansen (bullet trains) so all we had to do was swap our vouchers and get tickets for the right train. We swapped our vouchers for the passes very easily and were soon clutching our tickets as well. It won't surprise you to know that the trains in Japan run like clockwork, literally. Our train was due to leave at midday and as the station clocked bonged for midday we pulled away. The really spooky thing is that the tubes are the same, there's no "the next train is in 2 minutes" like you get on the London Underground, each tube train runs on a timetable and when the station clock flicks round to the right time in comes the train!

Although we negotaited the bullet trains quite easily, were a bit apprehensive about going to the ryokan as we had read that they are very traditional with many rules of etiquette. On our arrival at Ito station we were met by one of the ryokan's representatives and taken the short journey through to Ito Yamatokan where we were greeted by the inn's reservation manager, Fujiko Horie. All of our fears were soon dispelled as our welcome could not have been warmer. We were shown our room and Fujiko explained everything we needed to know about how to use the onsen and the rules in the ryokan. Our room was gorgeous with 5 rooms divided up by the traditional shoji screens and tatami mats on the floor. We also had our own private garden with a little waterfall and an outside onsen. Having been travelling for the last few hours we thought it only appropriate that we sample our onsen, so after showering (the onsen is for soaking in not washing so you must always wash before getting in) we climbed in. I say climbed, edged would be more appropriate! The water comes out at about 40c which is really quite hot so you gradually inch your way into the water, and because the water is so hot you don't stay in for too long either. Another hint is not to get out too quicklk, needless to say I did and almost fell over as all the blood rushed to my head!

After trying the onsen we put on the traditional yakuta (light cotton kimono, tabi socks (these have the toes so you can wear your setta, Japanese slippers) and jinbaori (outer vest). If we had been at home I think I would have felt a bit silly wearing the kimono but it seemed perfectly natural given the setting. For the rest of the afternoon we just rested, reading our books and listening to the water trickling down the waterfall in the garden - I can't remember when I have stayed somewhere quite so relaxing.

In the evening we had dinner at the ryokan (our stay included breakfast and dinner every day). The ryokan had its own kaiskei restaurant and when we arrived we were shown to our dining room which was like our own private version of the Ikayama restaurant we'd been to in Tokyo. We sat opposite each other with the charcoal grill between us. We were offered an aperitif of orange wine (delicious) and then tried the little starters. Some of things we tried included tiny whole squid (no more than 2-3cm long) with pickled onions, sashimi with several different types of fish, snails and various other things which tasted good but I have no idea what they were! After the starters we had huge scallops (about twice the size of the ones I've had back at home), crayfish and various fish all cooked on the grill. To help us cook and explain what it was we were eating we had our lovely server, Saori, who fortunately spoke very good English as our Japanese is virtually non-existent. Saori explained that she had studied in London for 7 months and had really loved it, although she admitted that while she had technically been studying, it would be more accurate to describe what she had been doing as partying! Needless to say we got on very well with Saori and had a really lovely meal.

When we got back to our room the housekeeper had been in and put out the futons we would be sleeping on. These were very comfortable, although given the choice I would forego the bean-filled pillows which take some getting used to! Before we went to bed we decided to take another dip on our onsen. Because it was now much colder outside the water was not quite as hot (it took some time to fill the bath) which meant we could sit and chat for more than 5 minutes. It was a lovely way to end the day, sitting in our little Japanese garden with just a few lights on chatting and relaxing.

For our second day in the ryokan we started the day with a Japanese breakfast. A traditional Japanese breakfast will usually include steamed rice, miso (soy bean paste) soup, and side dishes. For our breakfast we had crab miso soup - now in the UK if you had crab miso it would probably taste crabby but just look like normal soup, not in Japan. Crab miso here means you get half a crab in your bowl and you drink your soup around it! We also had a fish wafer made of Niboshi, Japanese dried baby sardines as well as marinated fish and pieces of bacon which we cooked on the charcoal grill. All in all it was delicious and very different from a western breakfast.

After breakfast we decided to take a walk around Ito. The town is known as one of the main holiday destinations from Tokyo, particualrly for those on their honeymoon. Ito is on the Pacific coast and the train from Tokyo winds its way along the coast stopping at one small town after another - this being Japan they even have special sightseeing trains along the route with extra large windows and seats that face sideways in the carriage so you are looking directly out of the window. One of the things people don't come to Ito for though is the rain... It rained solidly while we were out and you can see from the pictures that we got a bit wet! It was good to get out and about though and see the town which is very picturesque, despite the gloom.

Back at the ryokan we decided to revive oursleves with another dip in the onsen (it would be rude not to...). After that we lazed around for the rest of the afternoon until it was time for dinner. For our second dinner we switched from using the charcoal grill to shabu-shabu which means "swish-swish", referring to the swishing action when you cook a very thin slice of beef in hot water. As with the previous evening we started with sashimi (including lobster sashimi which was very tasty) as well as more things which tasted nice but I have no idea what was in them! We also switched servers and had Suzuki who was also very kind and helpful, particuarly in helping us navigate our shabu-shabu pots. After dinner we had another soak in the onsen before retreating to our futons.

Our last morning started with another fabulous Japanese breakfast which included lobster miso (cue half a small lobster in each of our dishes!), rice, Japanese rolled omelette (called tamagoyaki) and grilled marinated fish. As with all of the meals we'd had at the ryokan it was a delicious meal. Before coming to Japan my only real exposure to Japanese food was sushi, sashimi, tempura and ramen. Eating at the ryokan certainly opened my eyes though to the more intricate and delicate side of Japanese cooking where presentation is just as important as taste and each dish is beautifuly prepared to give you a taste of the ingredients making it up - despite the large number of dishes we ate (more than a dozen for dinner alone) one of the things we never felt was over full.

Unfortunately, after breakfast it was time to change back into our normal clothes and head back to the train station. For me, staying at the ryokan was one of the best things we'd done on the trip so far. It was one of the most restful places I have ever stayed and the service we received was fantastic. If anyone is planning a trip to Japan I cannot recommend highly enough staying at a ryokan and experiencing proper Japanese hospitality.
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