“I had my best sleep ever.” My husband made that pronouncement after spending four nights sleeping on the floor on a futon in the one hundred and thirty year old Matsubaya Ryokan in Kyoto, Japan. Rooms in a ryokan are like those in a traditional Japanese house. Doors are made of rice paper and the polished wood floors are covered with tatami mats woven from rice straw. The main room of a ryokan suite effectively serves as the living room, bedroom, dining room and study. Our room had a little alcove called a tokonoma. The floor was slightly raised and there was a scroll with some Japanese calligraphy hanging on the wall. A simple flower arrangement was set in a vase on the floor of the alcove. The alcove was supposed to be an area for quiet meditation but it was as a perfect place to put our luggage.
In the centre of the room was a low table with cushions for sitting. We had tea or wine there in the evenings with our friends who had the room next to ours in the ryokan. On a tray in the centre of the table were a teapot, teacups, a box of tea and a metal container called a koboshi where we could put our used tea leaves.
Another tray on the floor held our towels, a copy of the Buddhist scriptures and our kimonos. Each day after the maids cleaned our room, freshly laundered, neatly folded kimonos and kimono sashes, were laid out on our tray. We could wear our kimonos around the ryokan, including down to the compact dining room for breakfast. The eating area looked out onto a beautifully kept Japanese garden that featured ferns, bamboo and palm trees and a pool with gold fish.
The door to our room was very low and the ceiling wasn’t high either. Although my husband had no problem because of his shorter stature, our friend, who is considerably taller, had to watch his head.
You couldn’t wear shoes in our ryokan. These had to be left at the front door along with those of all the other guests. We went to our rooms in stocking feet. Special blue rubber slippers labeled Toilet and sporting pictures of little white ducks were carefully placed at our washroom entrance. The floor in the bathroom could be cold and wet so the rubber shoes came in handy. I was a little disappointed in the toilet in our ryokan. I discovered during my time in Japan that most toilets in public places had warmed seats, buttons to press for music to cover up inappropriate noises, built in bidets offering hot, warm and cold water and even powerful deodorizers that could be released at the press of a button. Our ryokan toilet was ordinary by comparison.
Hundreds of years ago a powerful Japanese shogun named Tokugawa created peace by forcing each of his lords to come to Edo (modern day Tokyo) the country’s capital twice every year. The lords were so busy traveling back and forth to Tokyo they had no time to fight with each other. These lords needed nice places to stay as they traveled. That’s why ryokans were begun.
Ryokans are great. My husband had been having some ‘sleep issues’ and he claims he slept like a baby on the floor of our ryokan.
Published on 9/5/09