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A travel back in time to authentic Japanese Ryokan

Tripoto
1st Oct 2014
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Kyoto - Gion district
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Kyoto - Gion district
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Kyoto - Gion district
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Kyoto - Gion district
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Heian Shrine
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Jidai Matsuri Festival
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A travel back in time to authentic Japanese Ryokan and Onsen

South of Japan - Kyushu

By Vincent Sung

The conveniency of traveling by air made us forgot the joy of other means of transportations.

Japan can be easily reached ‘by sea and land’ from Korea. Starting at the Pusan International Ferry terminal, Beetle Jet Foils depart 5 times a day and bring you smoothly and efficiently to the Japanese coastal city of Fukuoka in less than 3 hours.

My first stop was at Yamamoto Ryokan for a quiet night before heading to Kyoto. Strangely most of the ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) have certain 'rules' for check in (after 5 pm) and check out (before 10 or 11 am). Some also impose a curfew, often around 11 pm. Nonetheless those rules are good excuses to let you visit the surrounding areas of such selected ryokan. If you stay longer than one night, then no need to check out early. There is always an option to leave your luggage for the day at the reception.

Day 2

From Fukuoka to Kyoto

From Hakata station, take the very convenient shinkansen (bullet train) armed with a JR Rail Pass which allows (almost) unlimited rides on any JR operated trains, buses. A smooth 3 hours ride to the ancient capital of Kyoto, the great center of aristocratic culture for 1,200 years. Kyoto was not bombed in World War II, so much more of the old city remains as it was since several centuries. Kyoto is home to hundreds of temples and first-time visitors should guard against temple 'burnout' by taking the best in small doses and frequently rest in lovely traditional tea shops. Expect to arrive at the futuristic Kyoto Station, which has the feeling of a set for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The top is reached by ascending its Stairway to Heaven escalators.

The first destination was to check in at Hiiragiya Ryokan.

This exquisite ryokan is situated in the heart of the old Kyoto, it offers the ultimate in Japanese-style living, with a very accommodating staff. Built in 1818 and an inn since 1861 - Ms. Nishimura is the sixth-generation innkeeper - Hiiragiya is a haven of simple design that makes artful use of wood, bamboo, screens, and stones in its spacious, traditionally arranged rooms. Rooms, each one unique, are also outfitted with art and antiques such as gold-painted folding screens or lacquered bathrooms, and most offer garden views and cypress baths. A recent addition added seven new but elegant rooms. Dinners are exquisite multi-courses kaiseki feasts; Western-style breakfasts are available upon request. Noteworthy former guests include princes of the Japanese royal family, Charlie Chaplin, and Pierre Cardin. For those times you feel like indulging on a night to remember, this is one of my top choices.

Next morning, leave your luggage at the reception and start to visit some near-by temples: Heian Jinja and Yasaka Jinja. Being there during one of the most scenic (and busiest) month, you might have the great chance to catch the Jidai Matsuri, a colorful festival held every year on October 22, a panoramic procession of 2000 people wearing the costumes marking the periods of Kyoto's history.

Day 3

Heian Shrine is a big temple near the Kyoto Modern Art Museum and Kyoto National Art Museum. The whole environment at Heian Shrine was very zen; empty spaces all covered with stones. The very nice garden, Shin-en Garden (entrance Fee: 600 Yen) displays two ponds with lilies and plants and a pavilion where you can just sit down and unwind from long walks. Newly weds love to go there for their photo shoots.

Bicycling around is the best way to enjoy every little traditional streets and get to discover hidden treasures that are usually not on tourist maps. Lovely wooden traditional shops, houses and tea shops were a reminiscence of scenes out of the Memoirs of a Geisha novel.

The next stop was at Yasaka Temple, a Shinto shrine in the Gion District of Kyoto.

Situated at the east end of Shijō-dōri (Fourth Avenue), it was built originally in 656. The shrine includes several buildings, including gates, a main hall and a stage.

Today, in addition to hosting the Gion Matsuri, Yasaka Shrine welcomes thousands of people every New Year, for traditional Japanese New Year rituals and celebrations.

After a long day of temple visits, it felt very relaxing to check in at Tazuru Ryokan. Even though located in the middle of the town, you can feel Kyoto tradition and beautiful nature as the ryokan stands quietly between the Kamo River and the Takase River. It only takes about 10 minutes to get to Shijo/Gion area, so it is very conveniently located for eating-out and sightseeing. Tazuru is an ancient and honourable Ryori Ryokan (Restaurant Ryokan). The ryokan owner goes to market every morning and picks up the best ingredients of the time. He emphasizes on the values sense of the season, which is a distinctive characteristic of Kyoto Kaiseki dishes. The ryokan is proud of their baths with a nice view from where you can see Higashiyama Mountains, Mt. Hiei and the Kamo River from the windows. There are two big bathhouses on the 5th floor and the 7th floor – men and ladies take turns using the baths. The smell of wood (the cypress bath on the 5th floor) will make you feel refreshed and relaxed. The ceiling window will be opened on a sunny day in summer, and guests can enjoy the open air bath.

From Kyoto to Hiroshima

After a peaceful night, a hearty breakfast awaits in the main tatami room where authentic Kyoto style delicacies are served in silence and give a healthy start for the day. After 10 am, time for a quick check out and direction to the Kyoto Station to catch the morning train to Hiroshima. In less than two blissful hours, we arrived at Hiroshima JR station where my local guide, Tomoko from Hiroshima Film Commission welcomed us.

Day 4

Hiroshima suffered the first of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II, on August 6, 1945. The Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima preserves the sobering history of the bombing. Now fully rebuilt, Hiroshima is also the closest city to Miyajima, site of that very Japanese icon, the lavish Miyajima shrine. Build on an island, the shrine is usually known as Miyajima "shrine island", although the real name is Itsukushima. The powerful Taira family took over the island in the late twelfth century and constructed the present red pavilions over the sea. Worshippers entered through the big red torii gate in boats. Today, people arrive by ferry through the torii. The shrine's pavilions appear to float on the water when the tide is high. The scene is made even more mysterious on those nights when the lanterns are lit around the pavilions and halls, which now also includes bugaku and Noh stages.

Miyajima is home to the most venerable ryokan in the Hiroshima area; Iwaso. As the earliest inn to be built on Miyajima, the Iwaso ahs the monopoly on the loveliest part of Miyajima's famous Momiji-dani (Maple Leaf Glen), where a sparkling clear stream trips over rocks shaded my maples. After opening the inn in 1893, the original owner of the Iwaso developed the are by building a tea shop and filling the glen with momiji. The inn itself was meticulously constructed in the finest woodworking traditions of the miya-daiku (shrine carpenters), and has been host to royalty since ever. Japan's first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, novelists Soseki Natsume and Ogai Mori, all stayed at the Iwaso.

Members of the imperial family have one set of hanare (detached rooms), the Shifuku-kan, reserved for their use.

Dinners are Kyoto-style kaiseki, starting with appetizers and clear soup and going all the way through the grilled, fried, boiled, and vinegary dishes plus anano (congee eel) sushi, a specialty of the area. Expect lots of oyster dishes in winter, since this is Hiroshima main delicacy.

On the next day, an invitation for lunch at Seki-Tei, a hot spring inn with a lovely garden. Set in a sleepy residential area with a distant view of Miyajima, this hillside inn has a magnificently manicured garden and just ten rooms in individual structures. Seki-Tei has a fine atmosphere and an excellent reputation among Hiroshima locals. Most seems to go there to enjoy an elegant lunch and hot spring baths (onsen). The specialty here is anago bento-rice topped with subtly flavored grilled conger eel from Miyajima Bay, right on the inn's doorstep. The original owner of Seki-Tei created anago bento and it has since become Hiroshima's main food souvenir. The inn has both a rotemburo and an indoor cypress bath. Lunch followed with a bath was a true delight.

Day 5

Time to say 'sayonara' and en route to the last destination; Yufuin, a world class spa resort, nearby Beppu, a kitch resort renowned for its 'hells'. Both are located in Oita prefecture. Yufuin attracts trainloads of monied ladies (especially during summer) who alight from the Yufuin-no-Mori Express, with its wood and brass interior, then disperse into one of the three fine inns of Yufuin. A good choice would be to stay two nights at Hinoharu ryokan. Hinoharu ryokan is an authentic Hot Spring resort. Their extremely large open-air bath called "Senninburo" (bath for one thousand people) has an abundant supply of natural spring water, and the pebbles filling the floor are gently massaging your feet and have a pleasant texture. The 1st floor is barrier-free to add more ease-of-use and comfort. Popular with Japanese locals who have known since ancient times that the most relaxing and therapeutic thing to do in Japan is soak in an onsen, or hot spring, and let the volcanic heat and natural minerals of the spring water ease away stress and tension. The term onsen has come to mean not only the hot spring itself, but the resort area and bathing facilities built around each spring. The weather being mild, it was very pleasant to stroll around the lake to watch the fireflies and visit many craft shops for which Yufuin is famous for. If you are short on time, skip the Mingei Mura folk crafts village (pottery, glass blowing) and go directly to the Kuuso-no-Mori Bijutsu-kan ("Forest of the Imagination" museum). This inspiring collection of galleries shows old textiles, characteristic wooden and clay masks from Kyushu Mountains and other Japanese folk objects. The Yufuin Bijutsu-kan (Yufuin Art Museum) is a complex designed in a circle of breezy wooden structures and is worth considering for its contemporary art collection.

A thirty-minute bus ride up the mountain from Yufuin is Beppu. With its plastic souvenir dens, its bright lights, and nighttime strip joints, Beppu is the antithesis of Yufuin. A tourist dive from way back, what is lacks in class it makes up for in steam. See it coming out of pipes everywhere and feel like you are standing on the edge of creation, between heaven and hell.

The main reason for visiting Beppu is to see the so-called hells -thermal pits and ponds in an amazing range of textures and colors, from spluttering mud pools to mysterious blood-red lakes. There is even a geyser that blows every 25-30 minutes into a 20 meter high concrete hood. Good old kitschy Beppu!

A bus does shuttles around the hells, but the most time-effective way of seeing the choicest spots is by chartered taxi. The local taxi association has a fixed price for a couple of hours visiting the five most interesting hells (there is a small entrance fee to each of them as well). The driver took us to see Myoban Onsen, where hot spring mineral deposits (yu-no-hana) are "cultivated" in straw-roofed huts, then "harvested" and sold in porous bags for throwing into your own bath at home. You can bathe at Myoban onsen in the hot spring baths in little thatched structures, or you can patronize the mud and sand baths on the way there.

After soaking in so many different onsen, my skin was smooth and my body ready to face a harsh but dry winter back home.

Story & Photography by Vincent Sung (www.vincentsung.com)

Produced by www.lefluxasia.com

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