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A cultural immersion in Kyushu

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The view of the courtyard garden from a traditional ryokan bedroom. / Andrew Forbes

  • Less of a baptism of fire, more a relaxing hot soak; learning the etiquette of staying in a Japanese 'onsen ryokan'

Despite my best intentions, I had committed a faux pas. The inn's hostess had become slightly agitated, her warm smile had dissolved into a look of surprise - or was it shock? Japan is said to be a nation of traditions, unspoken social rules and strict etiquette - and it appeared that I needed to pay more attention.

This was my first evening in a Japanese ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, outside of Nagasaki, on the island of Kyushu.

Japan tourism chiefs want visitors to be a little more adventurous, to go beyond the tourist hotspots of Tokyo and Kyoto, and get on a domestic flight or book a seat on a 'Shinkansen' bullet train and discover one of the other, less well-known islands of Japan. So, I had done just that, and flown two hours from Tokyo down to the island of Kyushu for some southern hospitality, Japanese style. Here the traditional spa hotels or 'onsen ryokan' with their communal baths are regarded as among the best in Japan.

Ryokan rules

After check-in, I was taken to my room by a hostess who shuffled along the corridors, taking tiny steps in her wooden 'geta sandals'.

She opened the bedroom door, revealing a small entrance vestibule and a step up into the suite. Here began my first lessons in ryokan etiquette. The hostess motioned for me to take off my shoes before walking into the minimalist room. The floor was covered in traditional tatami reed matting the colour of golden ripe wheat. In the centre was a low, highly-polished table, and two chairs by the full height windows which were beautifully dressed with 'shoji' lattice screens of wood and translucent paper. When opened, the tranquil view of the courtyard Japanese garden was revealed; a magical scene of a babbling brook that passed by the terrace windows and meandered through the maple and pine trees, among which stood ornamental stone lanterns.

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There was no bed and not much else in the way of furniture. Here one sleeps on a futon mattress, laid on the floor - it is prepared for guests while they are at dinner.

Dress code

Lying on a mat on the floor was a carefully folded 'yukata' (a cotton bath robe), together with a pair of split-toe 'tabi' socks and a jacket - this was the expected guest apparel for a stay in a ryokan.

A typical dinner served in a ryokan.

A typical dinner served in a ryokan. / A.Forbes

The hostess patiently showed me how to wear the robe, at pains to tell me to wear the left side over the right (I later understood why; the contrary is reserved for dead people!) There was a wide fabric sash to tie the robe together at the side, a little below the waist, and a simple jacket, almost like a buttonless cardigan to keep warm. After practicing tying my yukata a few times, I felt I was ready to make my way to the ryokan's baths. There are complimentary slippers provided for walking around the hotel and for visiting the communal baths. Above the entrance are curtains, blue for men and red for women. Once inside, your relaxing and therapeutic bathing ritual can begin.

The Japanese are renowned for their preoccupation with cleanliness. One of the first things one notices on arrival in Japan is how clean it is; no one drops litter, despite the lack of bins in public places. The next thing one is sure to observe is the popularity of white, surgical-style face masks. I couldn't help asking a few people as to why they are worn. Was it to protect against germs? Or the contamination that sometimes drifts over Japan from the mega-factory cities of neighbouring China? Yet the consensus is that it's more a selfless act of respect for follow citizens; the wearer usually has a cold, and the mask is intended as a gesture to prevent infecting others.

Oh and of course there are the Japanese bathrooms. Almost exclusively you will find bidet-style WCs of varying levels of sophistication. Most offer a comfortable heated seat, and multiple settings for washing and drying!

Hot springs

So, in the ryokan baths, the men were understandably taking the bathing very seriously. A long, exfoliating textured flannel was part of my room amenity kit, and looking around it seemed essential.

The hot tubs and baths are for soaking in only once you are clean. The men around me, sitting on small cedar stools, in front of the showers and taps, were vigorously lathering with soap, scrubbing with the cloth and then rinsing with piping hot water thrown over themselves from small wooden pales.

A garden fountain.

A garden fountain. / A.F.

All this effort is rewarded with the glorious feeling of soaking in the thermal spring water. It's a relaxing environment as the baths include elements of nature, with smooth stone pebbles, plants and trees reaching up to the water's edge; and many baths are integrated with the outside ornamental gardens.

Dinner

However, I had to keep an eye on the time as I didn't want to miss dinner. Here the meals are meticulously prepared, creating a sense of occasion. I arrive, flushed and hot from the baths. Before me the table is charmingly decorated with flowers from the garden, and set with small crystal glasses for sake, lacquered place trays covered with small porcelain dishes and delicate artisan ceramic plates each offering a morsel of food. The waitresses are dressed in traditional ankle-length kimonos, tied tightly with broad, silk obi belts, forming extravagant bows on their backs.

In my haste to join the table I forget to remove my slippers and walk on the pristine mat floor - causing the hostess to immediately stop what she is doing, and signal my error. The slippers are only for the carpeted corridors - no footwear is ever allowed on the mats!

Staying in a ryokan inn might at times feel like it presents a steep learning curve, but overall it is a truly authentic and rewarding experience.