Japanese Hot Spring Inn (Onsen-Ryokan)Author: rogue.wave.traveler
Date of Trip: February 2014
In early 2014, I had the incredible opportunity to travel around Japan by cruise. It was a 14 night sailing on Azamara Journey, a smaller ship hosting only 694 guests with a focus on the destinations as well as fantastic customer service. The itinerary began in Hong Kong and included stops in China, Taiwan and four stops in Japan with overnights in both Tokyo and Osaka, ending in Shanghai.
Because it had been my lifelong-dream to stay at a traditional Japanese Inn featuring a hot-spring, I booked my overnight in Tokyo at the Gora Tensui Ryokan outside the city in the Hakone-Machi area. In University, more than twenty years before this trip I had studied Japanese language…it was rusty but it thrilled me to finally be able to make some use of it.
Getting to the hotel is truly part of the fun. There are lots of ways but I chose to take the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Odawara (35 mins), transferred to the Hakone-Tozan train (around a 15 minute walk platform to platform in Odawara.) From Odawara to Hakone-Yumato takes around 15 minutes with a quick one-minute walk to transfer one track over at Hakone-Yumato. Then another 40 minutes or so to Gora on a second train.
The little red train from Odawara to Hakone-Yumato is...in a word...adorable! It is the Hello Kitty of rail transportation. Three cars, each with purple velour benches and plenty of standing room shuttle passengers on a 5 stop journey. A uniformed driver at each end manually pilots the train back and forth along this route.
At Hakone-Yumato, you easily transfer to an even cuter mountain train! Because the path is so steep, several methods are used to make the journey easier.
Firstly, there are tunnels cut right into the mountain. Secondly, the train makes a few switchback stops where we head down in elevation only to head back up in a zigzag pattern. Thirdly, we coil around the hill like a boa constrictor.
I know that this is Japan. Every visual cue within the Hakone-Tozan train belies it but to look at the little station of Gora, a log and stucco structure surrounded by snowy mountains...you think... Switzerland? The cable cars connecting the railway to even higher elevations eventually linking to the Mount Fuji ropeway gondolas simply reinforces the idea.
Although it was sunny and mild, the remains of the previous week's blizzard clogged the village. People were still busily shovelling the pavement clear. There were little shops selling souvenirs and snacks leading up a hill to the local park where the main attraction is...wait for it...Craft House, a Venetian glass blowing atelier and museum!
Have a look on the internet. They have some incredibly beautiful things that are at once out of place and right at home in this picturesque town. A station or two before Gora has the open-air museum with original sculpture by Picasso, Rodin and others. The Hakone-machi area is loaded with culture from Japan and abroad.
It was such a pleasure to wend the long way around the village to the Gora Tensui ryokan for my one-night stay. The manager was outside shovelling snow upon my arrival. In Japanese, he asked me my name, I answered with the Japanese proximation because my last name cannot really be pronounced correctly in their language.
He found my name on the paper pulled from his pocket, took my bag and guided me into the lobby.
To put this event in context, keep in mind two things.
Firstly, I have been looking forward to the onsen (hot spring) ryokan experience for most of my life so expectations were high, emotions were high and my excitement was off the charts.
Secondly, in my mind the only thing that could wreck the experience was my own unintentional rudeness, western clumsiness or ignorance of ryokan etiquette.
It was like containing a charging water buffalo within a china tea cup.
The staff came into the lobby to bow and welcome me. It was beautifully overwhelming but at the same time, I kept worrying that my shoes were still on as I stood on the tile floor.
Trying my best to observe the gestures of those around me, I handed over my coat and sat down on the wooden steps leading to the foot bath bar. Aha! Socks and shoes off now! The shoes were whisked away with my coat and bag and were replaced with a pair of geta slippers neatly positioned so that it would be easy to get into them after my soak.
Up two steps and over to the bar where an incomprehensibly exotic selection of liquor stood before me. Here is where the first clumsy mistake happened. The low chair-backs with woven mat seats at the bar are not affixed to the floor. Leaning on one as I stepped into the hot water, it flipped over with a loud bang.
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