“Gora Kadan”:https://www.gorakadan.com/?lang=en in Hakone, was our first experience of a ryokan – a traditional Japanese Inn with tatami-matted rooms, futons and communal baths (known as onsen).
This was a five-star Relais and Chateaux establishment and we’d booked “Susukake”:https://www.gorakadan.com/rooms/?lang=en rooms with private onsen (the Japanese bathe nude from age nil and we’re all modest).
The check-in and induction process was formal and involved lots of bowing. We assumed the only difference between our allocated rooms 310 and 210, was a floor and Roy and I settled for the latter.
Our room was laid with low table and chairs which we were told would be replaced with futons whilst at dinner. The room had TV (with DVDs), mini bar, safe and tea and coffee making facilities. The ryokan was equally well equipped with swimming pool, gym, spa (with expensive treatments), karaoke room and of course, the public onsen (men and women are separated).
In the bar (a sterile, bleak room with no character) we discussed our rooms over expensive beers. Debbie and Nigel appeared to have a separate bedroom and much bigger onsen and on checking it out, discovered 310 was superior to ours – I explained to reception they should have pointed this out, particularly as I was the party lead.
There’s lot of etiquette associated with a ryokan – shoes have to be taken off and replaced with slippers before stepping onto the tatami mat. These have to be replaced with ‘toilet slippers’ in the bathroom which was well equipped with double sink, shower, excellent range of toiletries and hairdryer. The loo had all the buttons we’d come to expect and a seat and lid which lifted automatically on approach.
Dinner, at 6.30pm, was served in a private dining room as there were four of us and we were grateful for the well beneath the low table which meant we didn’t have to sit cross legged on the floor. We wore yukatas (casual cotton kimonos), a padded waistcoat, irritating socks which separates the big toe and thonged, uncomfortable slippers.
Th meal was a nine course affair starting with an appetiser, before going on to hors d’oevres, miso soup, sashimi (raw fish), grilled dish (Spanish mackerel), simmer dish (tile fish), small dish (Wagyu beef), rice dish (with miso soup and tofu) and dessert. Basically if you didn’t like fish and miso soup, you’d had it. Each dish was exquisitely presented and photographed and elaborately described. For example: ‘white miso soup with steam snow crab dumplings, young, greens and plum blossom shaped carrot, touched with Japanese mustard’. We started by trying to eat everything, but soon realised we’d be stuffed if we did.
The service, by two traditionally attired staff, involved them kneeling at the door, and then again to serve us. This is not a good job for those with arthric knees. The cheapest bottle of wine on offer was an extortionate ¥8000 (£53).
By 9.15pm, we were full, couldn’t afford more wine and returned to our room where our futon had been made up and a table laid with a flask of water, sweets, clock and torch. We finished our evening by relaxing in our onsen which had a hot running tap constantly on. Again, there is etiquette surrounding the bathing process which requires showers before getting into the onsen particularly when they’re public.
We slept well on the futons, but getting up off the floor in the night wasn’t easy or dignified.
We chose to have a western breakfast at 8.30am and found our low table laden with cornflakes, grapefruit, yoghurt, grilled tomato, omelette, sausage and strangely what was described as a corn flour soup.
Whilst there is no doubt that this was an amazing experience, it was a little too formal (and expensive at £400 a night) for our taste and with hindsight, it’s part of our trip we’d omit.