Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Night in Old Japan

The Great Torii of Isonokami Shrine (looking across the bay toward Hiroshima)

I spend a lot of time in medieval Japan. Since I’m not in possession of a time machine (more’s the pity) most of that time gets spent in my head, or in books, but during my research trip last June I had the chance to spend a night in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) that came as close as I may ever get to the life my ninja detective, Hiro, would have lived on a daily basis. 

The garden in front of Ryokan Iwaso

During my recent research trip to Japan, I spent a night at Ryokan Iwaso on Miyajima, a sacred island off the coast of Hiroshima. 

Miyakima (Itsukushima), seen from the ferry
Constructed in 1854, Iwaso offers a traditional ryokan experience complete with a natural hot spring.

Traditional ryokan (Japanese inns) originated during the Edo period (1603-1868) though even before this, inns existed in Japan to serve travelers and visitors. Many were surrounded by traditional Japanese gardens, where guests could stroll and enjoy an experience in nature. In that, Iwaso is no exception:

Painted Koi in the garden at Iwaso

Upon arrival, the ryokan owner would traditionally greet each guest with a cup of tea and a sweet or savory snack served in the guest’s private room. Iwaso continues this tradition; at check-in, a host in traditional dress escorted us to our room and served us tea and warm, fresh cakes filled with sweetened bean paste (a specialty of the Hiroshima region).

Our room, with welcoming tea and local specialty cakes

Rooms at a ryokan follow a traditional Japanese floor plan: tatami mats on the floor, a tokonoma (decorative alcove) displaying a seasonally-appropriate scroll or piece of art, and a cupboard with a sliding door where bedding (futons and quilts) are stored in the daytime.

The tokonoma (right) and futon cupboard

 Note: there are no beds in a ryokan room.

After dinner, ryokan staff enter the room, move the table against the wall, and prepare the futons, much as they have done for hundreds of years.

Bedtime! (They're quite comfortable, actually)

Iwaso does offer a couple of modern conveniences that guests in a 16th or 17th century ryokan would have appreciated:

Each room had an adjacent entrance and antechamber with a private bathtub and shower, and a separate room with a private Western toilet. (A fact I did appreciate—but didn’t photograph.)

Also, our room had a set of Western chairs and a table, which my son and I used to play hanafuda, a traditional Japanese game involving tiles with different patterns of cards and flowers. The Portuguese introduced playing cards to Japan in 1549—the year the Jesuit Francis Xavier landed—and given that my ninja detective, Hiro Hattori, has a Portuguese Jesuit sidekick (Father Mateo), hanafuda seemed a fitting way to pass a technology-free evening in a traditional Japanese inn.

Our room, and the annex (with lovely view) where we played hanafuda
Medieval travelers would have appreciated the traditional, seven-course kaiseki dinner, which featured local specialties—including pufferfish (fugu) sashimi and other exquisitely lovely dishes prepared to delight the eyes as well as the palate. Ryokan dinners normally feature local ingredients and regional delicacies, prepared in accordance with the seasons. Travelers could expect a delightful and changing variety of foods—at least in the ryokan that catered to samurai warriors or members of the increasingly wealthy merchant and artisan classes.

Our evening ended—as many Japanese travelers’ would—with a walk, followed by a cup of delicious sake. The famous torii gate at the entrance to Itsukushima shrine was not illuminated by night in Hiro’s day, but it did exist (the “Great Torii” was originally constructed in 1168) and I have plans to feature it in a future Shinobi Mystery. 

Great Torii and the lights of Hiroshima across the bay

I’m already looking forward to returning to Miyajima, and to Iwaso. I may have to live my everyday life in the modern world, but I truly adored my night in old Japan.


  1. Lovely, Susan. I got all relaxed and mellow and meditative just reading your post and looking at the pictures. Now, about a ride in your time machine...

    1. As soon as I've invented the place and date. (Extra points if it has indoor plumbing and no dinosaurs.)

    2. Ancient Rome! Indoor plumbing. No dinosaurs. No deodorant, but a culture of frequent bathing. Gorgeous architecture. And hunky gladiators.

  2. How gorgeous! Thank you taking us with you in such a vivid way.

    1. Thank you! It was such a vivid experience--all of Japan is a feast for the senses. I cannot WAIT to go back.

  3. I'm enticed. I'm also impressed at how you managed to work in a fish other than on a plate. See you soon!


      (See you at Bouchercon!)