Barefoot Traveller



When the speedy train from Osaka's ultra-modern airport deposited me in the temple town of Kyoto, Japan, I opted for an old-fashioned ryokan country-style inn.

They come in all sizes and prices, just as the Western style hotels do in this bustling city that was Japan's capital for over 1,000 years.

But my first ryokan was a dismal disappointment. Where I had dreamed of quaint rooms, lovely low tables and a sliding door opening to a traditional garden, I was greeted by a cramped, cluttered cubicle in what amounted to a very expensive youth hostel. No classic Japanese bath awaited, steaming behind another sliding door. The next morning I packed my bag and headed for the helpful folks at the Tourist Information Center, just across the street from the train station.

I decided to go for broke, spending my second and last night in the most expensive ryokan I could find. That turned out to be Hiiragiya Ryokan, and all I'd ever dreamed of. I've already forgotten the cost (don't ask) but I'll never forget the gracious rooms and the maid who served the exquisite kaiseki dinner, an elaborate traditional feast. My room had that dreamed-of bath but I opted to join friends in the toasty warm neighborhood communal baths a block or two away. Despite what you might have heard, men and women bathe separately. We soaped down and rinsed off first, then alternately dunked in cold, hot and bubbling tubs. The whole thing was very much a social event.

Hiiragiya Ryokan started life 150 years ago, then became an inn in 1861. Five generations of the owning family have run it. You enter through the old rickshaw gate, where stones are kept washed down as a symbol of welcome.