I bought the Fodor’s Japan e-book while I was in Vietnam, to get ready for the next country on my trip. The author of the guidebook spent many pages rhapsodizing about the ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Ryokan are a simpler form of accommodation than modern hotels, with no amenities like mini-bars, TVs in the rooms, or wifi. Instead, the emphasis is on a peaceful, introspective stay. The tatami (rice straw) floors, futon beds, sliding doors, private garden views, and expertly cooked food are consistent features from place to place, and you can expect to pay at least $100 per night. But I stayed at a top-notch ryokan in Shinrin-koen, and I didn’t pay a cent.
The secret is to know incredibly generous people, so I cannot flog this as a general travel tip. Too bad, because I want everyone to meet the Shirotas, who put me up and fed me for five days. The assistant rector of my parents’ church is from Shinrin-koen, a small town in the Saitama province, about forty minutes northwest of Tokyo. When he heard I was going to Japan, he put me in touch with his parents and assured me they’d be happy to host.
Kuni and Kimi run a restaurant that’s attached to their house, so it was no surprise that everything I ate was delicious. They spoke very little English, and I spoke no Japanese, so we used Google Translate to bridge the gap. That is a very imperfect tool, I am here to tell you. We had some delightful misunderstandings, all taken in stride by the three of us, and everything smoothed over with the smiles permanently on our faces. I was grateful to be taken care of after months of looking out for number one, and touched by their generosity. They were pleased to host and chuckle with a young person who couldn’t ever seem to remember how to say “good night,” no matter how many times they pronounced it. They were the sweetest hosts, so my permanent smile wasn’t just a tool for cross-cultural communication. It was the real thing.
And although their home isn’t really an inn (except for once a year, when they host several international travelers who come to town for a famous multi-day walk), it was the real thing, too.
The room had tatami mats and a low table:
And a futon rolled out on the floor:
My room looked out on a small, lovely garden:
And I ate very, very well:
I knew as soon as I met Kuni and Kimi that they were going to be wonderful hosts, and that I’d love staying at their home. Thanks to my guidebook, I also knew how lucky I was to have a ryokan experience without the expense.