Walking into the Ochiairou feels like returning home after a long journey, right down to the scent of Mom’s vanilla-scented aromatherapy candle. Well, that is, if seven parts of your house happen to be officially recognized as tangible pieces of Japan’s cultural heritage.
After trading our wet shoes for “foreign-sized” slippers and stepping across the threshold onto the soft, warm carpet, we made our way down a long corridor lined with intricate shoji paper doors and handmade glass panes that were so old they’ve warped. After checking in at the small reception desk, we were led to our room—named, as the rest are, for scenes in the classic novel The Tale of Genji. This is fitting, as the surrounding Amagi mountains have long offered respite for Japanese writers seeking quietude.
Our “room” was divided into five distinct zones: a genkan, a changing area with a mirror and lacquered makeup station, a main tatami dining/sleeping area, a Western-style sitting room with couches and a coffee table, and a small carpeted area near the window with a mini fridge stocked—but not for very long—with beverages. Soon, a smiling, kimono-clad woman appeared and greeted us by placing ten fingertips on the ground, bowing deep, and pouring us green tea.
How, we asked ourselves, did we find ourselves suddenly transported from the cubic confines of Tokyo into the lap of ageless Japanese luxury? Why, by chauffeured private car, of course.
We booked our luxe excursion through a new foreigner-friendly concierge service called Nirvana, founded by Takayasu Hara, whose family owned a ryokan in Izu until it went bankrupt in the late ’90s.
Hara has since committed himself to preserving the area’s remaining inns by appealing to two new demographic groups: foreigners and younger Japanese. He trumpets the differences between the standard hotel and the traditional ryokan, saying one big drawback of modern hotels is the lack of omotenashi, the Japanese concept of genuine, heartfelt hospitality. It all comes down to flexibility, says Hara. This flexibility might entail accommodating those with dietary restrictions or dealing with sudden medical situations—and our recent stay served as a good test of both, as we requested a vegetarian version of the included kaiseki meal, and a rocky wet path led to a hurt ankle.
As Hara drove us through the mountains, farther and farther from the electric glow of Tokyo, he offered information about the area. Coming from a city where entire blocks are regularly torn down and rebuilt, it was refreshing to hear our personal concierge introduce a passing ryokan built just after the war as “fairly new.” Indeed, the two we visited, Ochiairou and Shirakabeso, have over two centuries of history between them.
Some specific parts of the ryokan are much older—like the carved-out, 1,200-year-old tree serving as one of two outdoor baths at Shirakabeso. (The other is a giant, hollowed rock that you have to see to believe.) Such details, once revealed, were fascinating.
Take, for example, the shoji doors of the Ochiairou, which the owner proudly showed us on one of the daily tours of the inn: the intricate wooden designs are constructed not with glue, but with hundreds of handcrafted miniature pegs and holes. This is a dying art form, with only a handful of craftsmen able to employ these centuries-old techniques. Technology is rendering them obsolete, but that only makes the works more beautiful to behold.
Other details are just as impressive, like the iron roof tiles on the Ochiairou’s main building. The original owner became rich when gold was found on his land, and he used his wealth to purchase the ornate tiles, at a cost of what in today’s terms would be around half a billion yen. While most of the country’s iron was confiscated by the military in the early part of the 20th century, this cultural relic was spared.
Despite the sense that the Ochiairou and Shirakabeso haven’t changed much in the past century, the rooms and corridors remain immaculate. The gardens are as lush as ever, and the Kano River running between the two inns just as turquoise. And with this paradise just a few hours from Tokyo, anyone can call it a home away from home.
It is possible to drive down from Tokyo on the Tomei Expressway, but be sure to power on that navigation system, as the area’s small unmarked roads have a way of confusing even regular visitors. Before your trip, study up on Japanese traditional inns with a visit to the informative English website of the Japan Ryokan Association (www.ryokan.or.jp/index_en.html).