An inn apart The Japanese ryokan is so much more than a place to stay the night: A haven of exquisite serenity and service that rejuvenates weary travelers.

Posted: March 03, 2002

KYOTO, Japan — I was looking forward to a great night in. This is almost unheard of among travelers, who are always looking for a great night out, even aboard cruises. When you're away, staying in your room (or stateroom) all evening might mean that you are ill, afraid, jaded or dull. But not in Japan, when you're staying in a ryokan.

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, which is as far from an American inn as you can get. Staying inside your room once the afternoon begins to fade is precisely the point. In fact, it is probably bad form to leave after dinner, because the entire experience of a ryokan - tatami-matted floors, sliding paper walls, and all - sets you up for contemplation, relaxation and enjoying the surroundings of your room, which comes almost always with a private, walled-in Japanese garden. Think about the Japanese sensibility for design and natural order, and you're homing in on a ryokan night.

Ryokan (pronounced ree-O-khan, and the singular is also the plural) are found all over Japan, and many of them are centuries old. They are sensual throwbacks to that time when a samurai warrior needed a meal, a hot bath, the opportunity to ease his mind, and a good night's sleep.

For a modern Westerner, a night in a ryokan is a leap into Japanese tradition, ritual and culture. Once you put on a fukata - the crisply starched, white Japanese robe that is your entire ensemble for your stay - you submit to an evening unlike any you could begin to duplicate at home, unless you are normally in a position to indulge yourself in yourself.

Ryokan are not for kids or most Western teenagers, who would find the serenity they provide and pensive quality they instill to be maddening. They are for adults who need a break from the bustle that may be within a foot of the ryokan's door. Just as they served as a respite for weary travelers way back when, they provide a similar disconnect for worldwide travelers today.

An evening at a ryokan may be pretty much the same as it was 200 years ago, but ryokan remain very much a part of everyday modern Japan. These are not hotels just for tourists, although plenty of tourists flock to them. These are the hotels many Japanese still choose when they travel through their country. And because the dollar is doing well in Japan, they are affordable; my ryokan, one of the more famous ones, cost me $245 for the night, and included a dinner I will never forget and a lovely breakfast the next morning. It would be hard to match that price in most large American cities, and you could never match the experience.

Kyoto - a city full of notable temples, arcade-roofed shopping streets that run for blocks on end, and little lanes of stores, restaurants and homes that fan out from the town center - is probably the largest Japanese city that harks back to old Japan. Its modern alter ego is Tokyo, about two hours away by super-speed bullet train, where the high-tech 21st century rules. In Kyoto, things progress at a more reasonable pace, and reminders of Japanese history are everywhere, along with some of the nation's oldest and most respected ryokan.

I came to Kyoto in summer, by coincidence during that city's largest festival, the Gion Matsuri, which has been celebrated since 869. The evening I arrived, thousands of women took to the streets in full-dress kimonos, a swarm of magnificent wearable art and attending joy. I walked the downtown streets with about 200,000 other people, and we sampled cooked fish, sausages, steamed vegetables and freshly cut fruit from some of the hundred or so sidewalk stalls set up for the occasion. I stayed in a comfortable, welcoming guest house, which had many touches of a ryokan without the impeccable at-your-beck-and-call service or the food. It was a perfect first night in Japan, because its costumed, orderly grandeur prepared me for what was to come.

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Hiiragiya Ryokan, in the center of Kyoto, began operating in 1818, and is now in the fifth generation of the family that opened it. The place is nestled without any fuss behind a wall on a landscaped city block, and maintained with a riveted attention to detail. Some of the folding screens in the 33 rooms are ink paintings on handmade paper. Wooden beams are polished, ceilings are made of reeds, the doors slide with a precision that makes the sliding door to my deck in Philadelphia feel as if it had dropped off a truck before they sold it to me in a home building store. Even the little writing boxes with notepaper are lacquered antiques.

Great Japanese celebrities, including some revered writers, have made Hiiragiya their home when in Kyoto, as have Hollywood luminaries. But no matter who you are, there are customs to be followed and courtesies to offer, and this goes for guests as well as attendants. Much of Hiirogiya's staff speaks English, and they all understand that many of the guests may be a touch shy about adapting to a culture so different from their own.

I had done a lot of homework before coming, and felt I knew what to expect. Even so, when there's a right way and a wrong way to tie the sash on your fukata and you are not sure which is which, you realize that it's OK to accept aid when you suddenly find yourself butt-naked in front of your attendant, your robe crumpled miserably at your ankles. "Let me help you tie this," she will say calmly, as if life is a series of little crises to be quickly solved, then ignored.

When I rolled my suitcase into Hiiragiya, the handsome stone walkway was soaking wet in the middle of a boiling day. It is a ryokan custom to keep it wet, a symbol that the staff has been preparing for you and you are welcome. Just how welcome is a little disconcerting: Four or five men came toward me to take my luggage and give me slippers. As in Japanese homes, your shoes are considered outside wear; inside, you pad around in slippers, and even these you remove in the private foyer of your quarters before walking on the tatami-matted floor of your room. The foyer, now a room for art and mental transition and absolutely nothing else, was once the place a weary samurai deposited his sword for the night.

I came about 4:30 in the afternoon, so I would have ample time to immerse myself in the rituals of the evening. These began with making myself comfortable in the 13-by-13-foot room, where wood, sand, clay, ceramic, straw and paper are the building tools. The room has many functions, and at first it was a floor-level sitting room, with a legless chair and foot-high table, and several cushions. "Please have a good stay and please feel at home," said my kimono-clad attendant, a young woman who later served me dinner and the next morning, brought breakfast. To begin, she served tea and some sweets, then pointed out the small sunken sitting area to my right, which led to the private garden.

I read some of the hotel's material, and cooled off from the heat outdoors - even centuries-old ryokan have unobtrusive air conditioning units. After a short time, my attendant knocked on the door to announce that I should begin my bath, whose water had been drawn and was probably about 105 degrees, kept hot by a thick wooden cover. The tub was made of cedar, about twice as deep as an American tub, and is not for washing. It is, Japanese style, for soaking. People in Japan consider a Western-style bath pointless, like a squid trying to swim deftly in its own ink.

My bathroom was really three rooms. One had a sink and commode, with an electric seat warmer and a pushbutton that turned the mechanism into a bidet, a very popular setup in Japan. The next had a sink, mirror, wooden bucket and small stool and wall spigot, for washing yourself before the bath. You simply soap up, fill the bucket and douse yourself clean. The third area had the tub. I eased in, already cleansed, sat and - this is important - cleared my mind.

About a half-hour later, I was in my fukata and the attendant was setting the low, lacquered table for dinner. I'd been asked at the front desk if I would prefer an American-style meal and promptly declined. I'm not sure I was prepared, though, for the nine-course kaiseki - traditionally cooked and presented - extravaganza that followed, served course by course with waiting time in between for digestion and, again, contemplation. Here are the highlights, all served on gold and orange lacquered trays with black rims:

Assorted sushi, walnut tofu and an icy fresh pear cocktail, sashimi (raw sliced fish), a fragrant soba noodle soup, a three-inch-long fish called an ai-yoo served only during warm months and eaten whole, a puddinglike bean curd covered in fruits of many colors, smoky green eggplant in a broth with bits of fish, a strudellike piece of seafood and vegetables served in aspic, tempuras of baby vegetables and shrimp, and many types of Japanese pickles and fruit beautifully arranged in clear gelatin.

Each course was a piece of art. It was a large meal, but very healthful, and the courses were spaced so that I did not feel gorged.

Next came time to putter in the garden. (Here, special slippers, made of wood, are worn.) I felt exceptionally centered as I looked at the small trees, shrubs and ornaments, then sprawled out in the little room that separated the main room and the garden.

The attendant came later to pull out my plump floor-level futon mattress from a closet, make it up with sheets and cushioned bedding, and show me how to use a device that looked like a giant gourd, which I could use to adjust all the lighting and the rattan curtains that separated parts of the room. I sank into the bedding and was quickly in a deep sleep.

When I awoke the next morning to a Western-style breakfast that the attendant had suggested instead of fish and soup, I felt like a modern-day warrior, armed with camera and sunglasses, in a place I was conquering by exploring its values and walking to its rhythms.

Staying in a Ryokan

Getting there. You can find ryokan - traditional inns - throughout Japan, but the oldest urban ryokan are in Kyoto. Delta, Continental and United fly with connections from Philadelphia International Airport to Tokyo's Narita Airport daily, and the round-trip economy price is about $975. From there, many train options are available to Kyoto.

Ryokan. Here are three of the better-known ryokan in Kyoto:

* Hiiragiya, in Kyoto. This celebrated ryokan is the inn described in the accompanying story. About $245 per person for a one-night stay. Phone: 011-81-75-221-1136. Web site: www.hiiragiya.co.jp.

* Kinmata, 200 years old and another longtime favorite, is also in central Kyoto. Rates, including two meals, start at about $230 per person. Phone: 011-81-75-221-1039. Web site: www.kinmata.com.

* Tiny Tawaraya, in central Kyoto, is three centuries old and perhaps the most famous of all ryokan. You can stay, without taking meals, for about $260; the full experience will cost $375, including dinner and breakfast.

Phone: 011-81-75-211-

5566. Tawaraya does not operate its own Web site.

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