Traditional Japanese life takes place at floor level and, although many Japanese homes today have a mixture of traditional and western rooms and furnishings, there is nothing quite like a few days of floorbound experience in a traditional tatami mat room to bring home the essential differentness of life in Japan.
The photo on the left is of a room in the Rickshaw Inn in Takayama, where I stayed on my first trip to Japan and I can recommend it as a comfortable hospitable place in a very attractive town. It is also one of the few places where you can easily buy the traditional Yukata robes which are provided for hotel guests everywhere in the country. The one I bought at the Rickshaw Inn was one of the nicest I have seen, my partner stole it from me as soon as I returned home and all of her friends have asked where they can get one from. Yukata make great inexpensive presents, I’ve since bought them from a market in Tokyo but they are not as classically attractive as the Rickshaw Inn version.
On my Bromptoneering trip I needed to find somewhere reasonably priced in Tsukuba for the duration of the Asian Design Conference and I thought I would prefer a Japanese style room. I stayed at the Gakuen Sakurai Hotel which was affordable with both kinds of room. However when I arrived I found that my room was facing a noisy main road and it suffered from rather bleak lighting. I asked for a change to the quiet side of the hotel and my new room was western style with a full complement of bedside lamps and a writing desk which was rather better for both ambience and the work I had to do. The hotel was good value and convenient but if I was going to Tsukuba with a bike again I would try the Urban Hotel which appears to have a bit more about it.
On the first morning I wondered about having breakfast at the hotel but the smell of overheated fishoil (fried salmon seems to be a feature of most japanese breakfasts) put me off. The Japanese breakfast is probably the defining difference for most western visitors, there is absolutely nothing about it that relates to our experience and, first thing in the morning, very few people are ready to challenge their stomachs so I am not ashamed that I have never tried it.
The following day there was no fishoil smell (or I had become used to it) so I tried the western breakfast that the hotel offered, it was a little strange and my egg was under attack from a blob of tomato ketchup but the coffee was OK. On my last day in Tsukuba a Chinese colleague and I went up the road to a diner and had a very American breakfast of pancakes with maple syrup
Once I left Tsukuba I stuck to traditional style accomodation. My next overnight stay was on Sado-ga-shima Island and I needed somewhere handy for the ferry from Niigata. The Sado Seaside hotel was recommended as good value in Lonely Planet so I booked it ahead by email. It was a cheerful if rather tatty place, most of the customers looked as though they were contractors rather than tourists, and they served an adequate if slightly strange western breakfast and a good enough japanese evening meal.
I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay on Saturday night (my birthday as it happened) since Lonely Planet implied that booking ahead was only essential during the summer months (this was October). This was a serious mistake and as the evening drew in I became increasingly anxious that I would spend the rather chilly night in a bus shelter. All the guest houses in the excellent local guide to Sado seemed to be booked up and, as I tried some larger hotels on the west coast I began to think that there was not a bed available.
This wasn’t helped by not being able to read the Kanji signs, for all I knew I was passing whole streets of minshuku and ryokan and there was nobody around that looked likely to help. On top of that many of my phone enquiries to guest houses failed on the language barrier. At this stage my failure to find a Japanese phrase book was becoming a disaster.
Gaijin paranoia set in when the doorman at a smart hotel in Aikawa told me that they had no rooms before I even got in the door. Was a dishevelled middle-aged westerner on a strange bicycle on his own just too challenging for a backwater like Sado? The doorman did suggest another hotel on the outskirts of town and this time I did a quick maneouvre to outflank the doormen and made it to the reception desk before anybody could intercept me,
There was a room, although the price of 12000 yen (about UK70) was much higher than I had hoped. Nevertheless I was just grateful to have a bed. There followed a rather strange little negotiation in which the receptionist kept telling me the times when dinner was served and I kept saying yes I understood that until a very nice lady appeared from somewhere to explain that I had to say what time I wished to eat. At that point it began to dawn on me that the Ohsado Hotel might look just like an international 5 star hotel but it combined a sleek modern appearance with a rather old-fashioned and charming way of doing things.
It reminded me of family holidays in 1950’s Britain, when everybody was happy to do the same as the next person and eating out was a risky venture. At the Ohsado you were told which dining room to go to, at which time, just like the Butlins Holiday Camp I went to around 1958, and after dinner there was entertainment laid on for all guests in the hotel lobby.
The meal was beautifully presented and the combination of seafood chic and culinary mini-dramas more than made up for sitting in rows in a brightly lit dining hall. The hotel provided particulary gorgeous yukata, which meant that the rather stodgy middle-aged clientele were converted to a flock of peacocks, with the added benefit that you could tell which wing of the hotel they were staying in by the colours of their sashes.
And the pleasant surprise to cap it all was that, although the room price was high, there were absolutely no extras. My experience of up-market hotels in general is that their whole aim in life is to lure, bully, flatter and starve you into paying huge amounts of money for overpriced rubbish while trying to kid you that you are somehow having a luxurious and life-enhancing experience. At the Ohsado, by contrast, you could buy an ordinary phonecard to use in an ordinary payphone in the lobby, the hot spa baths were truly luxurious and life-enhancing, the food was exquisite and all-included and the evening was rounded off with a performance of Noh and local classical drumming (relayed by cheap payphone to my family in England).
The entertainment was a small revelation in itself. We are used to thinking of Noh as a very intense form of high art and I daresay that there are places where it is treated with proper reverence. At the Ohsado however the mood was much lighter with amiable drunks joining in the choruses and dancing in the side-aisles much as one would expect in a folk or jazz evening in a British pub.
The following morning the forecourt was full of tour groups boarding their buses for the day’s adventure and I took great pleasure in unfolding and loading up the Brompton and cycling away with a wave. At intervals throughout the day, as I toiled up the Osado Skyline Route, one of these buses would grind past me and the occupants would wave cheefully down from their air-conditioned seats, slightly perplexed no doubt that I was doing this eccentric adventure on my own.
As I cycled away I stopped at some traffic lights beside the hotel that had turned me away. The doorman that had spoken to me the night before (more a manager by his suit and demeanour) waved and crossed the road for a chat. He was obviously concerned that I had found somewhere to stay and interested in my journey (and amazed that I was doing it on my own) and so, gaijin paranoia abated, I pedalled on my way.
My final stop was in Tokyo at the Kimi Ryokan where I had stayed before, but I had forgotten quite what an excellent place it was. It is the cheapest hotel I stayed at, and my room was very small with no private bathroom, but the whole place has a sense of calm and carefully contrived beauty that one hopes to find in Japan but rarely does. It is close to Ikebukuro station on the Yamanote line and thus convenient for the whole of central Tokyo, as well as being well-served with shops and restaurants.
The ryokan has a comfortable lounge and basic kitchen for guests and it obviously goes out of its way to cater for foreign visitors. Other guests included people learning japanese (intently watching daytime TV shows about handicrafts and cookery) and a round the world traveller from Ireland. I wasn’t able to bring the Brompton indoors (space is very tight) but there was a place where I could secure it under cover in the porch
The owner appeared at one point to tell me he also owned a Brompton (the Taiwanese version) which was disabled. I encouraged him to get it repaired and explained that parts are available but I was not sure whether the slightly different construction of the Taiwanese product would make it difficult now that they are only produced in the UK.
If you are looking for accomodation in Japan I feel that Lonely Planet is a good source for the favourite travellers’ destinations, as well as providing an objective check for places listed in other guides, but it does not cover everywhere. In Tsukuba I was able to find accomodation because it is a university city which hosts a lot of conferences, each of which has a website with a list of hotels, but otherwise it’s a bit hit or miss.
However the web is a great help, even in Japan where websites are rather basic and have limited English content, and time spent trawling before you go will be well-spent. If you intend to rely on the local tourism services you have to plan ahead and make sure you get to a Tourist Information Centre early in the day. I learned my lesson on Sado-ga-shima and would be very reluctant to rely on finding accomodation at weekends anywhere (anywhere is accessible by train from Tokyo for a weekend trip) without planning ahead, which is not ideal for a cyclist who is subject to weather and road conditions and may wish to invent their route as they go.