Sapporo–After several weeks of staying mostly in youth hostels, Jason and I finally pulled out the credit cards and charged our parents (at their suggestion, I should clarify) for two nights at the Nakamura Ryokan here in Sapporo. And, man, what a difference that extra ¥3000 a night makes. We certainly didn’t have women in kimonos laying out our bedding for us at the Kawaguchi-ko youth hostel.
A ryokan, by the way, is a traditional Japanese-style inn. Think of it as a classy hotel with tatami mats, a public bathhouse, and the option of having meals served in your room. We had our own room with a television and no curfew. It was great.
Now, that isn’t to say that the youth hostels in which we’ve slept have been prisons (although the one in Yokohama appeared to have been one at some point in the not-so-distant past). At least two of the hostels in which we have stayed haven’t had a set curfew, and in more than a few we’ve had a room all to ourselves. What set the ryokan apart, I suppose, was, first of all, its cleanliness: hostels, though usually not outright dirty, tend to be somewhat dusty places, and the ryokan was spotless. Secondly, the service: hostel owners oftentimes will do little more than show you to your room and point out the closet wherein the bedding is kept. Finally, as I said before, the range of options: the public bath (many hostels have bathing facilities but don’t keep the baths full; the showers, after all, are what you use to clean yourself, the baths being there more for relaxation) and the meals (which, contrary to the Japan Youth Hostel Association’s website, most hostels don’t serve).
As could be expected, a degree of formality is associated with the ryokan’s high-class atmosphere. Unfortunately, this entails a greater formality in the hotel attendents’ speech–wonderful, I suppose, if you are a native speaker and can appreciate the level of respect your hosts are according you, but difficult to understand if you still have trouble asking for directions to the nearest internet cafe. Speaking with the clerk both over the phone and in person, I was reminded of something our host in Sanda said about making reservations before she spoke Japanese fluently, to the effect that it would be better if the hotel clerks communicated with foreigners as they would with a child rather than a superior. Oh, well. When you’re about to check out and the cleaning staff bows lower than their waists to thank you for staying at their inn, it’s difficult to complain.
Of course, we’ve had some good experiences with hostel owners as well. The night we arrived at the Tsuruoka Youth Hostel–which, despite its name, was actually located in a tiny coastal town called Sanze, several stops on the local train from the actual city of Tsuruoka–our host offered to take us to the beach to see the light plankton that frequent the waters around there. (“Light plankton,” if I’m not mistaken, is a generic term describing several varieties of plankton that glow with a chemically induced phosphorescence, much like that of fireflies, when disturbed.) He rowed us out a short ways on the water, resting the canoe against a large rock formation, where Jason and I were able to swish our hands in the water and watch the light show. After that he drove us and the other guests to two onsens: one full bath, and a “foot onsen” where you simply take off your shoes and immerse your legs up to mid-shin in the hot water. Needless to say, it was one of the best nights we had on this trip.
The best hostels we’ve been to, by the way, have been in the most out-of-the-way locations. Sanze was such a quiet town that the train station was completely empty by the time we pulled in–there wasn’t even one attendant there to take our ticket. In Shiokawa we practically had an entire wing of a private residence to ourselves for two nights, as there were no other guests; the owner there also took us to an onsen and even provided us with a free dinner for one night of our stay.
Come to think of it, the best experiences we’ve had here in general have been in the small, out-of-the-way parts of Japan. Staying in the country is something to consider if you’re planning a trip to Japan; if you only hit up Kyoto and Tokyo, you’re really missing out.
Of course, small towns can also be boring. That’s why the Super Famicom we’ve been schlepping around since Kawaguchi-ko is worth it’s weight in gold.
More later. Or maybe not.