. There is a low table in the centre of the room, with legless cushion chairs, and no other furniture - not even a bed. On one side, there is usually a low shelf with, in modern ryokans, a telephone and a TV. On the far side, there is usually another pair of sliding screen doors, and outside these, often a balcony with a small table and two western chairs. I knew that dinner was a fixed menu, and I wanted to let the staff know that I do not eat lobster, as I am fairly sure that I am allergic to it. I had been warned that none of the staff speak English, so I grabbed a pen and piece of paper and drew a lobster. I’ll admit that I am a hopeless artist and my lobster looked more like a monkey; clearly the lady hadn’t a clue what I was getting at, so I had to then draw the sea, with a pretty sailboat on it, and put the monkey/lobster on the sea floor under the boat. The penny dropped, and I then pointed at the monkey/lobster, then at my stomach, and vigorously shook my head. She got it.
The Japanese are fond of communal bathing, especially in onsen (hot spring) areas where most ryokan are located. Kurogawa is a tiny village but has more than 20 ryokans and it’s customary to wander the village in your yakata (bath robe), even in winter, to sample the baths at different ryokans. I didn’t do that, but I did manage to sneak down to the baths in my ryokan while nobody else was around, fortunately
! The baths are segregated obviously, and you strip everything off in the entry room and then go into the steamy bathroom itself. There is a large communal bath and a row of wash stations where you sit on a stool and thoroughly wash yourself before entering the bath, where you can soak for as long as you can stand the water, which is somewhat hotter than comfortable. I also used the rotenboro, or outdoor bath, sitting under the moon as clouds of steam rose to engulf the trees beside the pool.
Dinner is served in your room, on the low table, while you sit on the cushion chair (it’s a cushion on a flat base with backrest attached) supposedly with legs crossed in a sort of yoga position. It’s a long time since I sat like that, so I just stuck my legs out straight under the table. Dinner consisted of eleven beautifully presented dishes, including: - miso soup - steam rice - three chunks of beef with some veggies, with a miniature grill to cook them - a whole dried fish impaled on a skewer - a warm bowl of something looking like custard - fish sashimi: the whole fish with head, flesh delicately sliced - a gelatinous pink and green thing - a tray of mixed appetiser morsels, mostly unidentifiable - another bowl of something unidentifiable, but could be seaweed? - three different sauces - and the only one that the server could identify in English: horsemeat sashimi! (far right in the picture)
Most of it was quite delicious, though I cheated and cooked the horsemeat on the grill after the first raw slice, and I didn’t eat all of the pink & green gelatinous thing
. After I finished dinner, the server came back to clear the table and then produced a futon from a large wardrobe in the entryway, and proceeded to make up the bed on the floor with deft casting and tucking of sheets and cover.
In the morning, breakfast was served in the dining room, and was another collection of nine different dishes, including a miniature grill to cook a slice of bacon and an egg.
Altogether, quite an unusual experience!
I came to Kurogawa Onsen, a small village famous for its hot springs and many ryokans, by train and bus from Kumamoto. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, which has some features not usually found in Western “inns”. To start with, the guest room is a “tatami” room. In the entry way to each room there are two levels: the first level is where your outdoor shoes will reside - they never go up to the next level which is for bare feet or socks only! On that level, there is an alcove with a washbasin, and a separate cubicle for the loo, with it’s own pair of slippers. As with all Japanese hotel loos, the seat is heated and there is a control pad beside it with 4 or 5 buttons or knobs; I’ve never dared to touch any of them for fear of damaging vital parts, but I believe they control various sluicing and blow-drying functions. There is no shower or bath; the Japanese have a fondness for communal washing - more later. Open the sliding screen door and you enter the main room. “Tatami” refers to the tightly woven straw mats which cover the floor