Snow falls in soft flurries outside the Syoshichi Inn, covering our gasshō-zukuri guesthouse in a soft white blanket and sending everyone scurrying inside to warm themselves in front of the irori (traditional Japanese hearth). Our charming ryokan is housed in one of the many historic thatched buildings which are found high in the remote mountains of the Gokayama region in Japan. Staying somewhere like the Syoshichi Inn isn’t just a unique cultural experience for overseas visitors, it’s also a popular holiday option for the Japanese. Syoshichi Inn is considered by locals to be rather luxurious by ryokan standards: not only does it have separate male and female western-style toilets, there’s also a private ofuro (bathing area) which uses water from the area’s famous hot springs.
Guests at this type of accommodation are essentially staying in someone’s home so it is considered polite to fit in with the family’s normal routine. We arrive just before sunset and are welcomed into a small entryway where we are invited to take off our warm outer clothes and enjoy an early dinner. Our chilly feet slip gratefully into a pair of soft slippers and we’re ushered into a central tatami room where we gather around an irori (Japanese hearth) to warm our hands over the traditional square fire pit in the centre of the room. We are cosseted not only in the cosiness of our surroundings but also by the warmth our hosts who come out of the kitchen regularly to check we are comfortable. None of them speak English and our Japanese is rudimentary at best but this is never an issue during our stay. Smiles and sign language ensure everything goes according to plan.
Guests at the inn traditionally eat dinner seated around the irori but this can prove somewhat uncomfortable for western guests who aren’t used to sitting on the floor for prolonged periods. In yet another display of kindness the owners have provided us with special Japanese ‘chairs’ which have a back yet sit directly on the tatami matting. It’s a good thing we are comfortable as we are about to enjoy a lengthy feast of traditional cuisine known as kaiseki. Once used to describe the light meals served during a tea ceremony, kaiseki now refers to a meal comprising of many small, varied dishes. Each of us receives an ornate lacquer tray covered with small platters of regional specialties. A whole smoked freshwater fish caught in a local stream sits alongside a square of Gokayama tofu, famous for its firm texture and pure flavour. Bowls of homemade pickles, cold soba noodle soup and a stone platter of delicate sashimi are followed by another lacquer tray laden with tempura vegetables. “All from the local area,” gestures our hostess proudly. Even though we are hungry it is a struggle to do our beautiful meal justice.
Snow continues to dance past the window as our hostess clears away the final plates. Some of the travellers in our group go straight to bed but I am determined to try out the inn’s ofuro at least once before we leave. After dinner I slip on a pair of geta (wooden clogs) and a thickly padded tanzen (warm outer robe) provided by the ryokan and brave the snowy path to the quaint wooden building beside the inn. Stars light my way and a cloud of steam escapes from the open door. Soon I am joined by another woman on the tour and we bathe in companionable silence, enjoying the ritual of our ofuro experience and the warmth of the water from Gokayama’s famous local springs.
We have been allocated our own tatami room with a futon already set up on the floor and I sink gratefully under the warm covers, snuggling into the fluffy doona and tucking my feet around the heated brick at the bottom of the bed. We were warned that staying overnight at this time of year may be uncomfortable due to the extreme cold but nothing could be further from the truth. Our winter visit is a magical experience and the cosy warmth of our historic accommodation and the deep silence of the snow covered mountains of Gokayama lull us into a deep sleep.
Disclaimer: The writer stayed at Syoschichi Inn as a guest of Toyama Tourism Association.