Part of the fun of travelling in Japan is deciding where you'd like to spend the night. Clean and comfortable hotels abound, but how about trying something a bit cozier? Something overflowing with the famed Japanese hospitality and ambience all in an unforgettable package, perhaps?
Here we will introduce you to traditional lodgings called "ryokan", "gassho-zukuri", "shukubo" and "machiya". These buildings are often of wooden construction, carefully maintained for hundreds of years. Many were people's homes, and have the warmth and ambience of a traditional house design with a lovely, easy intimate feeling complete with shoji screens, tatami matting, and an outer passage facing a garden. Often located close to the street, these buildings let guests easily mingle with the local people also living in the area. Many of these locations also serve local specialties in a cozy dining style.
Ryokan, or Japanese inns, which were used by travelers along Japan's highways in the 17th and 18th centuries, come in many shapes and styles, each wonderfully individual. The price range is quite wide, and accommodations range from no-frills to luxurious. The traditional style ryokans have preserved the history and atmosphere of the buildings, and while they may not be as gorgeous as a luxury hotel or have as many modern conveniences, they are calm and quiet, and rich in welcoming ambience. Traditional ryokan have Japanese style rooms and baths, and most offer meals included in the price of the room.
These are a type of ryokan, but extraordinary in structure and location. They are farmhouses with steeply pitched thatched roofs that invite visitors to explore and enjoy their unique location and architecture. Most offer meals included in the price of the room.
Shukubo are lodgings at Buddhist temples. While generally not fancy, they are comfortable and afford guests a glimpse of life inside the temple, complete with the special vegetarian cuisine "shojin ryori", which is a treat unto itself.
These are traditional townhouses which were the urban houses of artisans and merchants. They incorporated both residences and workspaces and have been carefully restored, preserving the original feel of the townhouse. While sizes can vary, they are usually narrow, deep buildings with a shop in front and living space in the rear with an interior garden to lighten the mostly cool and dim atmosphere. Depending on the machiya, guests may stay in rooms, or even rent a floor or the entire machiya itself.
Here are a few delightful representatives:
Toyama and Gifu, Gassho-zukuri inns
In the high mountains of central Japan, there are two regions, "Shirakawago" (Gifu) and "Gokayama" (Toyama) which contain villages all registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. All the farmhouses in these locations are built "gassho-zukuri" style; namely steeply pitched thatch-topped roofs that look similar to two hands pressed together in a prayer position. This shape limits the amount of snow which can accumulate on the rooftops in this isolated, remote location where snowfall can reach more than two meters each winter. These roofs are found in no other location in Japan. All the villages, which have existed since the 11th century, retain their traditional appearance, and the farmhouses have been preserved as best as possible in regards to form, design and materials. It is interesting to note that while the homes in this area are all built in the gassho style, there are slight variations (depending on snowfall, for instance) from village to village.
Yusuke and Shoshichi are two of the large farmhouses which are also a ryokan in the village of Ainokura in Gokayama. Yusuke allows one group of visitors to stay each night, and Shoshichi allows two group each night. At Yusuke, the first floor contains the guest rooms; the second floor exhibits traditional local silk production methods, and on the third floor, visitors can enjoy viewing the beams and roof of this unusual structure.
While there are still numerous machiya in Kyoto, their number is slowly shrinking. Shouan is one of the cities' most beloved remaining true machiya. It is the family home of the current innkeeper who converted it into a machiya, retaining the traditional architecture of the home. Shouan has retained certain distinguishing exterior and interior features such as a special window and an inner garden. This beautifully preserved machiya is just steps from many of Kyoto's main attractions, including Nijo Castle and the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Visit here to find more options of machiya in Kyoto.
Koya-san (Koya Mountain) was named a 2004 UNESCO World Heritage Site and selected as one of twenty "Best In The World" destinations for 2015 National Geographic Traveler magazine's Dec. 2014/Jan. 2015 issue. The shukubo, or temple lodgings at Koya-san, located in Wakayama Prefecture, are especially popular destinations for both tourists and pilgrims alike. Private traditional rooms are comfortably outfitted with sleeping futon and gas heaters for warmth on chilly winter nights. Depending on which temple you stay at (there are over 50 temples providing shukubo at the Koya-san complex), you may also find private baths and luxurious meals, but the typical shukubo has shared bathrooms and offers delicious vegetarian cuisine called "shojin ryori". The wooden bathtubs are a particular delight for those who enjoy a good soak. In many temples, guests can participate in sutra copying, morning services, and other activities if they like. The beautiful cultural treasures and gardens, also for which Koya-san is renowned, add to the resonant charm of this age-old temple. Visit here for more information.
So the next time you are thinking about a memorable place to stay in Japan, remember these wonderfully traditional accommodations! You'll feel like you have come a little bit closer to the welcoming heart of Japan.
For more information about these types of lodgings and more, please visit here.
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