Alice Yamada follows her bliss in Kyoto
Excerpted from To Japan With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
When I was a child growing up in Japan, my family frequently vacationed at onsen ryokan, traditional inns with natural hot springs where the adults spent endless hours bathing and soaking, while the kids played in the arcades or at the ping-pong tables. As I grew up, I cared less for the arcades, and more for the quiet baths and terrific cuisine.
During a recent trip, my mama arranged for us to stay at a beautiful onsen ryokan, known for its sophisticated Kyoto kaiseki, traditional pre-tea-ceremony cuisine which also includes elegant seasonal meals. Arashiyama Benkei is located in Arashiyama, a district within the greater Kyoto region. Arashiyama is the spot where nobles living in Kyoto during the Heian period went to vacation, which sounds funny now, since today it is within the city limits.
The resort is famous for its cherry blossoms, and also has a hot spring source, with mildly alkaline water believed to clarify skin, soothe muscle aches, and relieve fatigue. This was high-end onsen vacationing, far removed from the holidays of my childhood. Benkei catered to my grown-up appreciation for quiet and calm, and I appreciated my mama's thoughtfulness for selecting a place that fit my state of mind so perfectly.
With only fifteen rooms, and five scenic bathing options, (two per sex and one "for rent" by couples/families/individuals), Benkei is relatively small. I prefer more intimate ryokan for many reasons. First, I don't really like to bathe with other people, and the spas at small ryokan during off hours are empty. Both times I went for a long soak, I was the only one in the ladies' outdoor bath. A giant tub all to myself is luxury at its best. I even practiced yoga between my soaks. Outside! Completely naked!! It was so liberating. These baths are very well protected, and no one can peek, much less sneak in, although I have seen footage of monkeys coming down from the mountains in the northern onsen for a dip alongside their human friends.
The other highlight was dinner. Meals at ryokan are served in your room, so you get to lounge around in your yukata, your hair wet from the onsen soak, and lie down in between courses. My mama also chose Benkei because the food was recommended as some of the best traditional kaiseki meals at any ryokan. I have to agree.
Our sashimi selection was plated on a bamboo mat resting on a bed of ice. The amaebi (sweet raw shrimp) was surprisingly good. And although the tai shabu was delicious, my favorite dish was the unagi, sakuramochi-style. Inside the fragrant cherry leaf was a ball of mochigome, the super-sticky rice known as "sweet rice." This was a warm, savory dish with a nourishing quality beyond description. There was a slice of unagi between the cherry leaf and the rice, with a thick, fish-based sauce that added a pleasant richness. The saltiness of the cherry leaf worked well with the warm, comforting broth. The final dish of the evening was a Japanese beef steak, cooked and kept warm by the same individual heaters that once held our tai shabu clay pot.
After we finished the meal with soup and rice, I think we had dessert, but I was so sleepy, I don't remember it. I rolled over and relaxed in the second room, while the ryokan ladies came and set up our futons in the other room. Within minutes of my epicurean debauchery, I was blissfully falling asleep, wondering how I managed to be so fortunate-resting so peacefully with a tummy full of fabulous food, surrounded by the wonderful scents of tatami and wood in a quiet ryokan with my mama taking care of me.
Susukinobaba-cho Tenryuji, Saga
Train: Sagano Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station.
Staying at an onsen ryokan
The following website offers a good selection of ryokan around the country.
To read more essays from To Japan With Love, click here.
Published on 12/21/09