We spent a night at a traditional inn, which is a facinating experience that you really need to experience if you want to understand Japanese culture. I spent one night at such a place last time I was in Japan six years ago in Nara. We went to another one this trip.
We arrived late to the inn at the Myushinji temple complex in Kyoto. We had to leave our car behind and carry in our luggage including towels and bath supplies. In the dusk, we walked along the cobblestone paths lined with the old walls, with ornate temple gatehouses splitting off to the left and to the right. We were actually so late to the inn, they closed the main doors, and we had to duck through the small sliding door beside the main gate.
We walked through a small garden and entered the vestibule of the inn complex. These inns are difficult to really understand on first sight- it may present itself at first as a small tradtional japanese style house. Actually, the typical layout is a series of buildings and halls connected by walkways and paths. The host greeted us at the vestibule, where we leave behind our shoes. She laid down the ground rules (in Japanese) and then lead us to our rooms.
This inn, like many other tradtional inns, were built in temple complexes stretching back hundreds of years to accomodate traveling buddhist monks. They are the literal equivilant to staying in a monestary (except the hosts are not usually monks). There is a strict curfew- if we hadn't checked in before 9, we would not have been allowed to stay. There is a lights out time, and particular times when you can take a bath. Why? Because there is only one bathroom in the inn (that is, the room for bathing, there were separate male and female toilet rooms available anytime).
The guest rooms were all located in one large building with a narrow creaky wooden corridor running around the outside. Inside, there was a heavy wall running through the center of the building, with the guest rooms formed on either side, separated by sliding paper walls. There are identical paper walls separating your room from the corridor. Forget ninja asssassins, small dogs could get you in this hotel (which is why they don't allow pets). The corridor is separated from the outside by thin sliding glass walls which rattled around in their old wooden frames. The guest rooms are tatami, the tight woven straw flooring. They actually feel really nice on bare feet, and there is the light smell of fresh straw when you get closer to the floor to sit or sleep.
Your bed is a futon, basically a series of pads you fold out and matresses you lay out on top of them. The matresses are all quite thin for western standards- no internal springs, foam, or structure. But you are sleeping, at the end, on the tatami floor, which provides all the support you need.
There was only two other guests at the hotel that night- a couple who stayed in a room a few rooms down from ours. This hotel makes you incredibly aware of yourself and your surroundings. No wifi, no TV, no radio. It's a place for contemplation, or contemplating nothing. The thin walls make you speak very quietly. The age of the temple complex and the buildings do not so much demand respect as simply state their longevity and hundreds of years of dedicated care. Everything you see is as clean, ageworn, and meticulously detailed as a musician's prized violin. You think about the size of your body, the way you walk and the sound of your footsteps on the wood floors, or the texture and scent of the tatami. Stripped of the usual media distractions, with quiet conversation your only entertainment, these inns are quite sensual. Not in a sexual way (partly because it would feel like sex in church, but also because everyone can hear you if you so much as cough), but because the experience becomes so much about what you see, hear, and touch directly.
They give you a loose tradiational robe to wear, and you take that to the bath, where you strip down to nothing in the bathroom anteroom, which is filled with baskets where you leave your clothing towel, etc. There is something about being nude in basically a public space which makes you very very aware of yourself and what all your body parts are doing and how you move through space. The main bathroom has a series of faucets with hand held shower heads for scrubbing and washing off while you sit on small stools, and then you can soak in the big wooden tub, which is used by all the guests (although not at the same time). You come out, feeling clean, and you wear this very simple cotton robe as you quietly pad your way back to the room, conscuious of the feeling of the stiff fabric on your skin.
Saori, her mom, and I spent some time in the garden in front of the inn vestibule (but inside the inn grounds) watching the moon and listening to the drip of water, and the strange coaking of frogs. Saori's mom was saying that you can only find these frogs in places with very pure water, which I don't really understand but there you go.
We ate some traditional red bean paste sweets and hot tea that the inn left for us in the rooms, and then we unrolled our beds, brushed our teeth, and went to bed.