Sunday, October 26, 2008

Japan '08: Lodging

During the planning phases for our Japan trip, expedition members Sujith, Ray, and I quickly came to the conclusion that while staying in western-style hotels near major train stations would be convenient, it would also be relatively expensive and boring. So, we decided to reserve rooms at ryokans, or traditional Japanese inns.

Our first and longest stay was at Homeikan Morikawa Annex [Homeikan main site], in the Hongou area of Tokyo. It's about a 10 minute walk from the Hongou San-choume subway station, which is a little off of the beaten path, but convenient to Akihabara (two stops away, with a short walk to a JR station at Ochanomizu). Actually, you can just walk to Akihabara from Hongou; it took me half an hour, at a moderately brisk pace.

Hongou is an interesting place in its own right; the residential area where the various Homeikan branches are located is just across the street from what is possibly Japan's most respected institute of higher learning, Tokyo Daigaku (The University of Tokyo, or "Todai"). That's me in front of the famous clock tower, which actually seems to be the entryway to the cafeteria. Eat your heart out, Keitarou Urashima. The campus is a nice place to take a stroll, and I didn't have any difficulties entering, just marching by the security guards. The locals apparently take advantage of the open space for dog walking.

This is the alley in back of Homeikan Morikawa Annex. I thought the wall with spikes was interesting; I would vaguely imagine that it's a legacy of leaner, meaner times in Japan when the building was constructed, and can't imagine they serve any pressing security needs today.

Upon entering a ryokan, you take off your shoes and stow them in a cubby, and put on the provided indoor slippers. Homeikan Morikawa provides a computer for guest use is in an alcove at the right. The Morikawa Annex has a really pretty little garden at the entryway. That's Ray in picture, by the way.

Rooms at a ryokan have tatami mat floors and a table with cushions around it for lounging (hot water and tea making materials are provided, as well as a few snacks). Futons are put out at night, and rolled up during the day. At most places you can get breakfast and possibly dinner (no dinners at Homeikan) served in your room by exceedingly polite hotel staff, which is a good experience, though probably not very cost effective. This photo was taken the first day, before we unpacked and started shopping, which kind of wrecked the spare aesthetics of the place.

Facilities at a ryokan are all public; it's sort of like being in a college dorm. In the hallways there are sinks for washing up and brushing teeth, Maison Ikkoku style. All the places we stayed had western toilets, as well as the dreaded Japanese no-seat variety. As in private homes in Japan, there are special slippers to wear inside of the toilet room: you take off your normal indoor slippers as you enter, and put on the bathroom-only slippers.

Baths (ofuro) at ryokans are often communal, too, which is a bit awkward for us New Englanders. Actually, all the places we stayed had foreigner-friendly private bath options, with lockable doors. Whether you brave the public area or not, the general idea at a Japanese bath is to rinse off outside the tub, briefly enter the tub, scrub thoroughly while sitting at the faucets outside of the tub, and only when clean and rinsed enter the tub for a good soak.

At the end of our trip, we stayed for a couple of days at the Homeikan Daimachi Annex, which is a couple of blocks from Morikawa (which sort of felt like our home in Nippon). Daimachi was a larger, busier place, with perhaps a bit more room to spread out. We had the balcony pictured here off of our tatami area, for instance.

Homeikan Daimachi also had a lovely courtyard garden. The octagonal building sticking out into the garden is the private bath. Naturally, you take off your indoor slippers and put on a pair of garden sandals if you want to go out and contemplate the Podocarpus.

While we spent most of our vacation in Tokyo, we also made it out southwest to the Kansai area, where we had a ryokan in the old capital, Kyoto. Hanakiya Ryokan [official site] is located in the hills on the eastern edge of the city, very close to Kiyomizu-dera (Kiyomizu Temple). It was an amazing place to stay, right in the middle of one of the city's major tourist destinations, though not exactly convenient to Kyoto Station. We used taxis to get back and forth between Hanakiya and downtown; there's a major taxi and bus stop for Kiyomizu just up the street from the ryokan. The neighborhood got really quiet at night; everything but the vending machines closed down by dinnertime. It was quite a change from Tokyo!

We stayed in the Hanakiya annex building, which only has a couple of rooms, and had more of a bed & breakfast feel about it than Homeikan. There was a small common area, with a fridge and computer, where we hung out a bit with some guests from Poland and Austria.

Here's the neighborhood around the Hanakiya Annex building. Behind a retaining wall in back of the house there's a sprawling cemetery called Nishi Otani, and Kiyomizu-dera is maybe half a kilometer uphill. On the larger streets, there are a lot of gift shops and ceramics stores. Kiyomizu is famous for ceramics, and I bought some tea cups. The proprietress tried to tell me something about the form of the lip of the cups that is distinctive to Kiyomizu, but the adjective she kept using was beyond me.

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