Onsen Ryokan, Arima Onsen:
Staying in an onsen ryokan was a surreal and amazing combination of clothing, lifestyle and dining. I've found this post quite difficult to write, how can I fit in and justify all the character and history of the experience? The best I can do is to describe what we did and highly recommend that, if you go to Japan, you stay in a ryokan as the epitome of traditional Japanese culture and aesthetics.
We were shown to our room by a hostess in full kimono dress with immaculate and intricate make up and hair - I felt so clumsy in my comfy travelling clothes, dirty trainers and bulging rucksack! After taking off our shoes to step onto the tatami mat flooring and sliding away the inner paper window door, we entered our single, spacious, wood-framed room.
It was spacious, not because of it's size, but because there were no beds and absolutely no clutter - the only furniture and decoration was a shallow table with two floor seats and the traditional Tokonama alcove (a display of artwork and ikibana flower arrangement, designed for reflection). The whole effect was of purity and repose.
The ryokan we stayed in was in Arima Onsen, an area nestled under Mount Rokko that is famous for the thermal springs from the surrounding mountains. The Japanese are a bathing nation and a visit to an onsen is the perfect way to relax and regenerate, soaking in pools of skin tingling hot water.
There were two kinds of hot spring, a yellow/brown kinsen (gold spring) that is coloured from rich iron and salt. The second ginsen (silver spring), a colourless water that's full of radium and carbonate.
The combination of the beautiful mountains, expertly sculpted Japanese gardens and hot, mineral packed baths, makes you feel like you are in an extension of nature. Once you get over the awareness of being a slightly clumsy, etiquette rookie westerner, the atmosphere completely wins you over. It definitely trumped the few spa visits I've had back at home because of the level of sophistication, detail and harmony with the surrounding environment.
Images : Greeted with Japanese tea, Tokonama alcove, being lead to our room
One highlight of the stay was the traditional cuisine that was brought to our private room with expert service. Each room is assigned a personal maid (shamefully I couldn't pronounce, let alone now spell the name of ours), she was a tiny, 60+ year old local with a smokers cackle and forceful yet attentive manner. She was great.
Every evening dinner would be served in stages, presented like a work of art in a variety of beautiful ceramics and glassware. It arrived in stages, the maid always knowing when we would finish, arriving with the next wave of delicious (mostly unknown) treats just as we finished the last bite. Once full of sushi, sashimi, Kobe beef, pickles, miso soup and Japanese tea, the maid would clear the table, rearrange our room and lay out our futons that were neatly hidden behind a sliding paper door cupboard (a slightly awkward experience for us, to watch someone wait on you, but I think it would have been more offensive to try and help).
Images : Tea box, Elaborate starter, Sashimi, Kobe beef Shabu Shabu, chop chop! , Breakfast.
In the morning, this would be repeated in reverse, our futons were tidied away so we could be served a traditional Japanese breakfast with the same grace and aesthetic flourish.
The whole visit was ultra precise yet no fuss, elegant yet unpretentious. If you are excited by nature aware design, aesthetic balance and skilful presentation, put a ryokan stay on your bucket list.