My Personal Ryokan in Japan

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.

Painted screen doors in the traditional home I stayed in, in Shinrin-koen, Japan

Painted screen doors in the traditional home I stayed in, in Shinrin-koen, Japan

Giantess in the ryokan

Giantess in the ryokan

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.

Blossoms in the garden

Blossoms in the garden

I quickly learned to wear slippers as soon as I walked in the door

I quickly learned to wear slippers as soon as I walked in the door

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.

Kuni and Kumiko, my gracious and generous hosts

Kuni and Kimi, my gracious and generous hosts

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:

Traditional table and tatami mats

Traditional table and tatami mats

And a futon rolled out on the floor:

A comfortable floor futon

Super comfortable. I had some of the best sleep of my trip here.

My room looked out on a small, lovely garden:

Peaceful work station

Peaceful work station (and yes, they had wifi, which was handy for blogging)

And I ate very, very well:

shinrin-koen ryokan

Handmade soba noodles

shinrin-koen ryokan

Beautiful presentation, every time

Delicious food

Delicious

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.

Springtime in Shinrin-koen

I had no winter this year, but I still gloried in spring. It’s amazing the psychological effect a fresh breeze and budding flowers can have, even when you aren’t thawing from a long, cold winter. I’d been melting in the tropics, and as gorgeous as the flora and fauna of Southeast Asia were, it was a relief for this Midwesterner to be back in temperate climes just as everything was starting to warm.

Amongst the flowers at the national park in Shinrin-koen

Amongst the flowers at the national park in Shinrin-koen

shinrin-koen park

I went to the national park at Shinrin-koen in the Saitama region, one fine Saturday afternoon. It’s a sprawling park, and every inch of it is carefully manicured. There was no wildness at all there, so it felt more like a garden than what I think of when I think “national park.” It was a garden of wonders, one of the best-planned parks I’ve ever been to.

Hi kiddos!

Hi kiddos!

A walk near the castle ruins

A walk near the castle ruins

shinrin-koen park

Straight off, giant plush mascots greeted families as they entered the park, and posed for photos with children. This set the stage for the rest of the park, which was packed with frolicking kids and relaxed parents. This was a sunny weekend at the beginning of Golden Week, the biggest holiday week in the country, so it was no wonder it was full of families. Still, it was a big enough park that I was able to find my own patch of grass in a quiet corner and read a book for an hour.

Giant trampoline

Giant trampoline

Playing catch with artwork

Playing catch with artwork

I walked on broad, paved paths, while cyclists zipped by on separate paths (brilliant move). You can rent bicycles at several of the entrances to the park, or of course, bring your own. There was a motorized train you could pay to get from one end of the park to the other, since it was so large. Signs were placed throughout the park reminding visitors not to remove plants or animals. Most signs were in both Japanese and English, and I got an English map at the park entrance, which was very helpful. 

A memorial of some sort

I can’t remember what this is a memorial to

The park was made up of lots of different areas–sculpture garden, performance pavilion, cherry tree grove, barbecue grills, giant trampoline, tulip garden, pony rides, lake dotted with water fowl, snack shack, play structure, and a lot of other places I didn’t get to in the three hours I was there. I walked over what a sign said were the ruins of a castle, although by this point they were just indentations in the earth.

shinrin-koen park

The giant trampoline was more like a white dome of soft, bouncy material, and kids from toddler age on up to about ten were having great fun jumping around and sliding down to the ground, then clambering up again. I had my first Japanese soft-serve ice cream, which I found out later was a majorly popular treat throughout the country. Vanilla and rose flavor, delicious.

shinrin-koen park

I posed for photos in front of various trees and flowers, and smiled at all the kids throwing up peace signs in their photos. It was a lovely day for a walk in the park, and if I’m ever in the area again, I’ll go back.

Tiptoeing through the tulips

Tiptoeing through the tulips