Yudanaka – Ryokans & Onsens
I’m in love…with the ryokan & onsen experience!! It’s like stepping back in time to old Japan.
A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn that usually features tatami-matted rooms, communal baths that are separate for men and women, with onsen (or hot springs), if you’re lucky.
When you walk into Yudanaka Seifuso, the first thing you do is take off your shoes and don a pair of their generic one-size-fits-all blue slippers, which are lined up on the inner doorstep. (Note there are very specific rules about what foot attire to wear where – no shoes allowed, only slippers in the building, except for on the tatami mats in the rooms – there you go stocking-footed – while in the bathrooms, you wear special toilet slippers).
The very kind owners only spoke Japanese, which made for some interesting but fun communication challenges. They showed me to my charming room, with it’s low table and chairs and futon bed on the floor.
There’s a hot pot on the table so you can drink fragrant green tea at any time, and a yukata, a lightweight kimono, hanging in the closet, with sash and jacket so you can dress the part.
The doors slide silently from side to side, the inner doors painted with Japanese scenes, the outer with opaque panes divided by wooden slats.
The bathroom is shared with other guests, (separated by male or female), with 2 stalls – in one, a Japanese style floor toilet (whose icon reminds me of a slipper)…
…and in the other, a modern Western-style toilet, whose lid lifts automatically when you open the stall door. There are detailed instructions for all of the buttons – the best part is the heated seat! (If I could import the heated seats to Michigan, I’d make a fortune!) Surprisingly, these fancy toilets are not rare – you find them in airports, budget hotels, malls and restaurants, as well as in many homes, and for sale in the duty free shops in airports.
There’s a Japanese feast for dinner, each dish a work of art. I hadn’t known that many ryokan include breakfast and dinner. With my booking through a discount site, they were not included, however on this day of the week the restaurants were all closed, so my plan to go get a cheap bowl of noodles was foiled. Tough as it was, I ate at the ryokan instead.
After dinner, time for the onsen (hot springs pools)! There is a small indoor pool and a bigger outdoor pool. They switch times between the men and the women, so you have a chance to try both.
I’d thankfully read about onsen etiquette on line, or I would’ve been clueless – first you put your kimono into a wicker basket, then you wrap your towel around your head, turban style, to keep it dry. You shower off with the outdoor nozzle while sitting naked for all to see (women anyway) on a small plastic stool, then you slip into the heavenly hot pool.
Steam swirls up, and if you’re in the outdoor pool at night, you can see the moon up above with its twin reflected on the inky-black surface, while listening to water stream from a long bamboo pipe. When you get out, you don’t shower again, as the minerals in the onsen water are good for your skin. This pool is abt 14ft x 14ft square, made of stones, and surrounded on 2 sides by stone wall. The ryokan provides the other 2 walls for a fully enclosed courtyard. You sit on cement or stone benches submerged around the perimeter and soak your cares away.
I watched shadows dance across the stone walls, between the green of trees and plants, and once again thought of how lucky I am. I may currently lack a home (wherever I lay my head is home), a partner (I’m learning to be my own best friend), a job (unless you count this blog and research for the book I’ll write) or much money (that part is for real), but I’m happy.
The next morning, a ryokan breakfast…
The breakfast cost – $10, a splurge for me, as I usually just have a glass of juice and toast, but it was a deal when you consider it was enough for lunch as well.
Yudanaka is not a very big city. The main tourist street has a few restaurants, and a handful of shops, all a little worn and shabby, but charming. I was surprised to see that the spring blossoms were mostly the same flowers I grew up with in Michigan – yellow daffodils, forsythia & dandelions, red and pink tulips, purple hyacinths, and a rainbow of pansies.
And then there are the cherry blossoms…
I’d been told that cherry blossom season was over, and in Tokyo and Kyoto this was true. However, Yudanaka is up in the mountains where it’s cooler, and cherry blossom season was at its peak…
…huge billowing masses of white-pink blossoms everywhere, floating down from the trees like sweet-smelling snow.
Springtime in Yudanaka is magical, especially at a ryokan and onsen.
*Note: Book on weeknights rather than weekends as the price is much lower. This experience was a big splurge for me on my shoe-string budget, however the $87 I spent per night for 2 nights was well worth it, when you consider that it included the hot springs and transportation to the Monkey Park, and that standard western-style Japanese hotels in the big cities often run $200-600 a night and up. By using the booking sites and shopping for deals, I’ve managed to keep my accommodation expenses really low overall. Using Air B&B, which I did for 7 out of 14 nights in Japan, you can find rooms for around $50 if you’re willing to stay in more out-of-the-way places. Keep in mind that Japan is one of the most expensive countries to travel in, compared to the $12 a night rooms available in Thailand, but worth it! I don’t post much about accommodations, as most of the places I stay are pretty unremarkable and spartan, but I love to share the periodic unique experiences.