Japanese Inns

There are many comfortable and pleasant hotels of the Western style in Japan. In fact, the Imperial in Tokyo and the Fujiya in Miyanoshita are on my selected list of hotels which I count the most delightful that I have known for atmosphere, comfort, and courtesy. But it is a pity for people who go to Japan not to slay in some of the enchanting Japanese inns, such as the Tawaraya in Kyoto, which remains my home whenever I am in that ancient and fascinating city.

All Japanese inns are run by a certain pattern. Visitors are the guests of the house in a much more personal and less perfunctory way than they are in Western hostelries. If the innkeeper knows when I am coming, someone will meet me at the station with a car. At the entrance to the inn there is a gateway into a little courtyard with bamboo fence, steppingstones and gravel, low green shrubs, and a wide, open door. Shoes are removed at the door, and a boy puts them away in a cupboard. There is no need to worry about them. Whenever I go out, the news will have preceded me through the house, and by the time I get to the door my shoes will be waiting on the front step, ready to step into, with a long shoehorn at hand.

Stepping out of my shoes on arrival. I put on a pair of scuffs and shuffle down the polished wooden corridor after the hostess or the maid. She opens a sliding paper door and invites me in. Abandoning the scuffs on the threshold, I step in stocking feet onto the tatami, the thick, clean, Springy matting that covers the floor.

The first room is a dressing room. Here is a cupboard that contains bed quilts and shelves and trays for clothes. On one of the trays is a freshly laundered cotton kimono, printed in blue and white, to relax in, or in cold weather a thick padded kimono of some neutral shade. In the room, too, there is a little dressing table without legs. Probably of red lacquer, it has two or three drawers and a tall, thin mirror.

Beyond the dressing room is a larger room, which is living room, dining room, and bedroom. Like all Japanese rooms, it has a tokonoma, or alcove, with a hanging scroll containing a painting suitable to the season and a flower arrangement below it. In a corner of the room is a low table with writing materials, and in the center a larger table of polished wood or lacquer, about a foot high, where I have meals, spread out guidebooks and maps, and write post cards and letters. If the weather is cool, a few sticks of charcoal glow on a bed of fine white ash in a brazier beside the table.

The sliding paper doors open onto the roka, a narrow balcony with a tiled or wooden floor, where there are a wicker table and two wicker chairs. Scuffs are conveniently placed for use on the roka. Here I sit at the table and look out through glass doors which open onto the garden or the view. Even in the most crowded cities there is something refreshing to look at. The tiniest garden is skillfully made. Bamboo, flowering shrubs, ferns, rocks, and pebbles are used to suggest a cool woodland scene with hidden spaces. Or you may look out at a wide view of the sea between pine trees or a soaring mountain.

Reports about communal bathing have frightened many a Western tourist away from Japanese inns, and quite unnecessarily. The saying “In Western hotels you dine in public and bathe in private; in Japanese inns you dine in private and bathe in public” is only a half-truth.

Friends of mine traveling in Hokkaido did, it is true, stay in an oldfashioned inn where the bath was a large one intended for general use. The young wife decided against it, but her husband made the plunge. The next day on the street she saw him greet a very pretty young Japanese girl and asked him, “Where did you meet her?” “In the bathtub last night,” he answered airily.

The splendid bath at Shojiin, the temple on Koya San, the “sacred mountain,” where I once stayed overnight, did, I admit, give me a surprise. Tané, my Japanese “little sister,” and I were the only guests in the temple that Sunday evening, so even though there was no lock on the door of the famous bath, we felt safe from intrusion. There was the usual anteroom for undressing and then the bath itself, tiled in white and blue, with a beautifully shaped pool big enough for ten to twenty bathers. The water was fresh and hot, and Tané and I were simmering peacefully when we heard the outer door open and then saw the black bulk of a monk filling the clouded glass panel of the inner door. The door began to slide open.

I freeze into speeehlessness in moments of crisis, but Tané was vocal. “Haite imasu!” she screeched, which meant “We’re in here!” The panic in her voice slopped him; there was a brief exchange of Japanese courtesies, and after he had retreated we resumed our simmering with reminiscent giggles.

Ordinarily, however, by requesting it, one can have the bath to oneself. Many inns have different-sized baths, and sometimes a family will go in together.

Beyond the first sliding door is the room for dressing and undressing, and beyond the second, the bath itself, where one soaps and rinses thoroughly first and then steeps up to the neck in a tub of steaming hot water. Sometimes the tub is square, of satiny wood; sometimes it is a round iron caldron with a wooden raft on which to sit; sometimes it is beautifully tiled, like a miniature swimming pool.

I find it very pleasant to take my bath late in the afternoon, when I am tired and dusty from a day’s sightseeing, to put on the kimono provided by the inn, and then, refreshed and relaxed, to sit at the low table in my room and eat the dinner which the kimonoed maids bring to me.

The food that they bring is delicious and pretty to look at as well, with combinations of color, texture, and flavor carefully planned; and it is set forth on exquisite china and lacquer. There is no need to be afraid of raw fish. It is not put on a plate whole, just as it comes from the market. Three or four small, chilled squares of boneless fish with a delicate flavor — sea bream or tuna are the kinds I have most frequently had — are served with a tangy sauce.

Most Westerners know and like tempura, the batter-dipped delicacies fried in deep fat which the Portuguese taught the Japanese to cook in the sixteenth century, or sukiyaki (pronounced skee-yahki), meat and vegetables cooked over charcoal at the table; but there are many other dishes that should be discovered and enjoyed. Two or three kinds of soup are served at each meal, and all are good. Sometimes in the clear soup there are tiny clams in the open shell, a little tricky to disengage with chopsticks, but worth the effort.

Chawan-mushi, which means “steamed teacup,” is an egg custard made with broth instead of milk and filled with bits of chicken, tiny shrimp, chestnuts, or, in season, ginkgo nuts or mushrooms. In the fall, when the matsudake, or pine mushrooms, are ripe, there are dozens of mushroom dishes — sometimes more than one in the same meal. I especially like a kind of broth which comes in a little gray pottery teapot with its matching cup on its head, but there are many other delicious ways to cook and serve this favorite delicacy.

Spinach usually comes bright green and tender and ice-cold in little bunches of leaves all the same size, dressed with soya sauce and sesame seed. Three or four edible pod peas, fresh and young, garnish some other dish: bamboo sprouts and lotus root slices, like little wheels, provide a wonderfully crisp texture and subtle flavor. Tiny flakes of fresh ginger, dipped in some red sauce, appear in unexpected places. With a tempura meal, for contrast with the batter and oil, I have had breast of chicken and tart apple grated together.

Rice comes at the end of the meal, followed by green tea. Dessert is not a regular part of Japanese meals, but in deference to Western custom fruit is usually provided. The Japanese fruit was a revelation to me. No one had ever told me it was so large and beautiful and full of flavor. One reason for its excellence is that it is not sprayed with chemicals. The farmers and their families patiently make by hand little paper bags to cover each peach or pear or apple and protect it from insects. During the years after the war when paper was very scarce, a shipment of Bibles sent by the American Bible Society to convert the rural areas was a great boon to the pear and apple growers of Nagano Prefecture. The thin paper pages were exactly the right size and weight.

Fruit in Japan is seasonal, as it no longer is in the United States, where we can get strawberries from California all year round and where apples and oranges and grapefruit have no season at all. Each fruit in turn is enjoyed for the short period of its ripening, and then it is not seen again for a year. Rosy-cheeked peaches, each one of a size to include a Momotaro (the Peach Boy of the old fairy tale) and full of flavor, are followed by pale and juicy pears round as oranges and crisp as cucumbers; figs come in September, and then the apples and persimmons of the autumn and enormous thin-skinned green grapes. There are mandarin oranges for the winter, and for the earliest spring, strawberries grown on stone terraces warmed by the sun and so big that three are a generous serving. Biwa, or laquats, a mild, yellow, fleshy fruit, tide one over till the summer oranges, sour and rather like grapefruit, usher the peaches in again.

Feeling replete after dinner and comfortably weary, I usually go to bed early. The maids pull from their cases the “rain doors.” heavy wooden doors that make a loud rumbling noise as they roll into place outside the glass doors of the roka. Plenty of air in the daytime is the rule here, but at night the mists and breezes are shut out. It is not necessary to feel suffocated, for air does drift in through cracks.

The table is removed from the center of the room, and the sleeping quilts are brought out of the cupboard. Two thick pads covered with bright brocade go down first, then a cotton sheet. Over them is spread the covering quilt, with a sheet buttoned onto it. If it is cold, the maids bring more quilts. The pillows are small and hard and stuffed, I think, with bran. Square lamps with frames made of bamboo or lacquer are set at the heads of the beds. In hot weather, in places where mosquitoes are bad, a mosquito net like a great cage is hung from hooks in the four corners of the room.

The first time I slept on tatami I realized, after an interval, that the thick springy matting was harder than I thought and that my own bones were nearer the surface. I even felt a little bruised when I got up. But the second night was better, and by the third I realized that not only had I slept well but that I had not really been in Japan until I had lived for at least a few days on tatami.

I get up when I wake up. It is still dark in the room, but somehow the maid — and there appears to be one who has nothing else to do but wait upon me — knows when I begin to stir, and she appears at once to open the rain doors and the glass doors and the paper doors, air the room, and put away the beds while I am dressing in the outer room. When I am ready for breakfast, it appears.

Here is another source of fear and dread to Westerners. They have heard that the Japanese eat bean soup for breakfast, and they want none of it. They are not strong enough for bean soup so early in the morning; they want their coffee.

During the years right after the war I used to take a jar of instant coffee with me to the inns, as well as my own bread (to make toast over the charcoal brazier) and tinned butter, but now you can get good coffee in any inn. There is plenty of fruit, the Japanese are now making a variety of excellent breads, and they will cook your eggs in any way you want.

The only time I have ever had a real Japanese breakfast was in the temple on Koya San, and by that time I was thoroughly at home with Japanese food. The breakfast which the young monk brought consisted of rice, hot and filling; bean soup, which is not the thick polage we know but a thin, cloudy, rather acid liquid made of bean paste and boiling water; dried seaweed; pickles; cold broiled mushrooms; and green tea. It was all very good.

Of all the charming Japanese inns I have known besides the Tawaraya,

I think of three that stand out in my memory.

One is Hassho-kan, accessible by taxi from Nagoya, which is set in a large and beautiful grove of pine trees and which is famous for its combination of the traditional and the modern. Pictures of its new part, which won an architectural prize in 1951 and of the tiny garden which the bathhouse overlooks, have appeared in American magazines and books on architecture. Air conditioning is concealed under the tokonomas, and the bed quilts on which you sleep are filled with foam rubber. It is fairly expensive, but not unduly so when you take into consideration the beauty and peace of the setting and the perfection of food and service.

Among the tall trees there is a thatch-roofed farmhouse (like all such farmhouses it is “three hundred years old”) open for guests to see. The Japanese acquaintance who first showed it to me struggled to express in limited English the feelings which the age and quiet of the little building awoke in him. “I like to sit here, in kimono, and write a Japanese poem,” he said.

In Matsuye, on the Sea of Japan, where Lafcadio Hearn lived for a number of years, I spent a night at the Minami-kan. From the window I looked out on the Shinji Lagoon to mountains beyond. It was a lovely scene in the late afternoon: the blue lake, an old bridge, a point of land with some small black-andwhite houses, a few fishing boats, and the opalescent lights repeating and reflecting each other through the mist as clouds veiled the sunset. At last rain fell and the little boats went home. I hated to leave in the morning, and I had to hurry at the last to catch the train. People of southern Honshu make much of the tea ceremony and have it not only in teahouses with the leisurely formality I had known elsewhere but also in ordinary rooms to dignify any occasion. The hostess at Minami-kan was disconcerted to find us dashing for the train just as she prepared a farewell ceremonial tea for us. Undaunted, she pursued us down the hall, and I gulped the thick, powdered tea from a bowl held in one hand while I wielded the shoehorn with the other.

The Nabeya in Hitoyoshi is another inn that I remember fondly. I slept in the Kirinoma, the Misty Room, from which I could see the river rushing below, a long, arched bridge, and the low hill called the Sleeping Buddha. There was the fresh green odor of new tatami in the room and a classical arrangement of pine branches and daisy chrysanthemums in an old bronze vase in the tokonoma. After a hot spring bath that did away completely with the chills and sneezes which had been bothering me all day, I fell deeply asleep to the music of the river.

The next day I took a luncheon with me which the inn had prepared. Most hotel box lunches of my experience have been substantial and nourishing but scarcely imaginative. This one was a little work of art. When the lid of the oblong wooden box came off, there was revealed an arrangement of food as pretty as a flower arrangement, and decorated with a bit of palm leaf. There were little white rice balls wrapped in shiny black seaweed, pink shrimps, bits of fish dipped in soya sauce and browned over charcoal, broiled mushrooms, pickles, and chestnuts boiled and sweetened.

It is difficult to confine myself to mentioning only three inns out of the many that I have enjoyed. How can I leave out the Hinako in Beppu or the Koraku in Okayama or the one on Enoshima whose name I have forgotten, where Tané, my little Japanese friend, and I stopped one afternoon for tea?

We had had a picnic lunch on the beach opposite the island near Kamakura and then had walked across the long bridge and up the steep hill to the shrine. The day was warm, and the ham sandwiches had made us thirsty. Coming down the steep stone passageway between an unbroken row of souvenir shops on one side and inns on the other, I saw through the gateway of one inn a glimpse of sea and mountains, and I suggested that we go in and engage a room for a time and have tea — which we did.

An old man in a gardener’s blue happi coat was sweeping the ground with a twig broom that came straight out of a fairy tale.

“Honorable Grandfather,” said Tané politely in Japanese, “may we come in and look at the honorable view?”

Honorable Grandfather, to whom American tourists were evidently no novelty, continued his sweeping. “O.K.,” he said wearily without looking up. “W.C.”