For many years, I’d wanted to stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. I hadn’t had the chance on my one previous visit to Japan, so a ryokan was high on my list for this trip. A typical ryokan offers a classic Japanese room: straw tatami mats on the floor, sliding paper doors, futons laid out at sleeping time, multi-course kaiseki meals, onsen communal (and sometimes private) baths, kimonos to be worn by the guests, often a lovely courtyard or garden. My parents spent a month in Japan for my father’s business when I was very young, leaving my brother and me with my grandmother and great-grandmother. Mom and Dad returned with foreign toys and books, and a full kimono and obi for Mom. Stories of Japan, strange meals, their hostess Keiko-san, tatami mats and futons seemed magical and exotic to my child-self and the idea of a traditional Japanese inn stuck in my mind.
When I started researching ryokan options, I was stunned at the prices: Top ryokans can break $1000/night–not something I was willing to do for the chance to sleep on the floor! (Besides, this wasn’t a short splurge trip, this was a 2 ½ month wander.) Kyoto is famed for its ryokans, but they tended to be very much on the high end and, besides, I’d already found an apartment I wanted. Our remaining cities in Japan were Hiroshima (because I really wanted to see the Peace Park and Museum) and Fukuoka, where we had to catch a ferry to South Korea. Neither of these cities offered much in the way of the ryokans I’d imagined. Also, I discovered that the term “ryokan” seemed to be applied on occasion to something more like a cheap hotel than the traditional lodging I had in mind. Caution was in order.
When I read about the island of Miyajima near Hiroshima, I thought I might be on to something. Miyajima is famed as the site of the sprawling Itsukushima shrine, raised on stilts to allow the tides to flow under it and its famous Great Torii Gate standing in the sea between the island and the nearby mainland. Miyajima is only about an hour from Hiroshima and is a popular day trip. Several online commentators recommended staying a night, though, to enjoy the island once the day crowds thinned. Researching affordable ryokans on Miyajima, I came across Ryokan Jukeiso. At 33,480 yen (around $330) for 2 persons, including dinner and breakfast and access to both the communal and private onsen, Jukeiso looked like a deal and just what I had in mind.
We arrived on Miyajima via the World Heritage Route boat, the more expensive of our alternatives, but a fun and direct trip from the Peace Park in Hiroshima down the river and across the bay, past picturesque islands. Although Jukeiso offers complimentary shuttle service, it doesn’t begin until 3pm and we arrived before that. Taxis were available, but since the day was sunny, we decided to do the 20-minute walk along the waterside and past the Itsukushima shrine instead. The boat dropped us off a short ways from the ferry port.
Other than one flight of stairs, the walk wasn’t difficult, even with our rolling luggage…except for the fact that the day turned surprisingly warm. We opted to stop for lunch en route just to get out of the sun. Continuing our journey, we arrived at Jukeiso perched on a hillside overlooking the Itsukishima shrine and the Great Torii Gate.
Unfortunately, our first impression was the darkened steaming-hot lobby, apparently devoid of any air conditioning. When an older man appeared from the back, he checked us in without hassle and informed us we could leave our luggage since check-in wasn’t for another hour (3pm). Leaving our suitcases, we escaped the sweltering room as fast as possible. I quickly scanned my phone to confirm our room was air conditioned. Please, oh, please let this just be some problem with the lobby! Sleeping on the floor in an un-air-conditioned room was not my idea of fun!
Fortunately, when we returned after exploring the island the lobby air condition was on and beginning to drive back the heat and humidity. Maybe they just turned it off during “off” times to save electricity?
Our kindly hostess led us up an elevator and down a hall decorated with bamboo to our room. We left our shoes in an entry vestibule before stepping onto the cool tatami mats of an antechamber with doors to sink and shower room and a separated toilet. A small refrigerator offered for-pay snacks. Sliding paper doors opened onto our main room, happily cool and devoid of furniture save for a low table flanked by two legless chairs and a smaller table with two “regular” chairs. A low ledge held a small flat-screen tv which we never turned on and a musical instrument of some sort. The opposite wall offered a large window. Our hostess showed us a closet with summer kimonos, holding them up to be sure we had proper sizes. She then gestured us to sit at the low table while she served us cold tea and cookies–a delightful break after our ramble in the hot outdoors–before leaving us on our own.
A laminated page on the ledge described in words and pictures the procedure for using the onsen baths in the basement floor of the hotel. I’d already watched a helpful video on youtube.com, and this instruction page confirmed that. Having reserved the private bath for that evening, we hadn’t planned to use the communal baths, but now that we were here (and hot and sticky from the day’s activities), we changed our minds. So, grabbing our kimonos, we headed for the baths.
As it turned out, I had the ladies’ bath to myself, but David did share his bath with a Japanese man and his 20-ish son. The procedure was the same for both of us, but I’ll just recount my own: I undressed in the dressing room outside the bath and left my clothes in a space provided. Neither clothes nor bathing suits are allowed in onsen baths.
Taking a small towel from a stack provided, I entered the main bath area, took a stool from a stack and a plastic bowl and seated myself at one of 6 flexible shower handles to thoroughly wash my hair and body before entering the hot onsen bath. Then, it was time to just luxuriate in the hot water. Fish swam in a nearby aquarium and windows overlooked the hillside. I stepped out awhile to cool off in the shower head before reentering to steep some more. Thoroughly relaxed, I went back to the dressing room dried off with more of the tiny towels and put on my kimono to meet a similarly-dressed David back outside. Delightful!
Although dinner is customarily served in the guests’ room in a ryokan, this ryokan no longer did that, but rather served dinner in a dining room. Not being a big fan of food and food smell where I’m going to sleep, I didn’t mind this modification at all. The dining room had a view over the Itsukushima shrine, the Great Torii Gate and the 5-story pagoda. Dinner was a set kaiseki-style menu of many courses. While we enjoyed it, we didn’t feel it rose to the level of the kaiseki we’d had in Kyoto. Still, dinner was enjoyable, interesting and filling.
Back in our room, we found our low table had been moved to just below the window and two futons laid out in the middle of the room. The bedding looked thick and reasonably comfortable, but time would soon tell. First, though, we had our appointment with the private onsen. Donning our kimonos, we headed out again.
The private onsen turned out to be a lovely L-shaped bath with a big open view overlooking the shrine, gate, pagoda and bay. We had a wonderful time soaking in the moonlit bath. What a great end to the day!
When we finally nestled into our futons, I found myself happily tired, but relaxed. The futon and fluffy duvet, both wrapped in cool, soft cotton, made a snug cocoon. The room smelled sweetly of the straw tatami mats on the floor and the barley husks that filled our small pillows. We drifted off to sleep in no time, sleeping soundly until morning.
Breakfast was a final, pleasant surprise. Wanting to have as authentic an experience as possible, we’d chosen the Japanese rather than the Western breakfast option. What we got was a veritable feast of many dishes that left us feeling like culinary explorers. More like dinner than breakfast to Western eyes, the meal was delicious and filling. The gentleman owner of the ryokan came by at breakfast to sign us up for the free shuttle to the ferry. [I’ll write about transportation options for getting between Miyojima and Hiroshima in a separate post.]
All-in-all, we really enjoyed Ryokan Jukeiso and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an affordable ryokan. Various room types are available, including western-style beds. Learn more at: http://miyajima-jukeiso.com/english.html (In Google Chrome, right click and select “Translate to English.”)