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KYOTO: The Ultimate Japanese Experience : The Inn of Your Dreams : Immersion in Ancient Custom at the Tawaraya

January 23, 1994|CAROL ISAAK BARDEN | Barden is a Houston-based free-lance writer.

KYOTO, Japan — This is how it was for me. I was in Tokyo, tripping over stockpiles of luggage in neon glass-and-brass hotels, bilingual three-ring circuses built solely to provide shelter. Instead of finding the Japan of my dreams, I found a city hell-bent on becoming modern.

I went to Kyoto because I wanted to see Japan's ancient spiritual capital. But more important, I was on a pilgrimage to the world's most famous ryokan, Tawaraya, a Japanese inn of legendary refinement and, it must be admitted, more than modest cost (rooms begin at $320). After a 2 1/2-hour bullet-train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto, I found the Japan of my dreams.

Tawaraya's name (which roughly translates as "old rice bag") may not have the same kind of instant recognition as the Ritz in Paris, but this 19-room inn is the Japanese equivalent of the finest hotel, and is even more seductive because one gets a sense of staying in a private home.

A special hospitality swept out the entrance the moment my taxi pulled up in front of the two-story inn. The stones of the entrance had been ritually washed (an act of purification and a sign of welcome) and I was greeted by three members of the staff: the squat shoe-keeper, Sakuzo Matsushita; Fumi, my jyochu-san (lady-in waiting) in her neat silk kimono, and the ebullient general manager, Mr. Yamaguchi. They offered me a kind of graciousness and hospitality fit for a feudal lord. Robert Burns, past chairman of the board of Regent International Hotels in Hong Kong, had told me how it would feel: "It will seem as though you have walked into a painting, like you've taken a magic carpet ride into another world."

As I contemplated my surroundings, all the images of old Japan suddenly snapped into place. It really was like my Japanese art books--the calligraphy prints, the translucent shoji screens, the lacquered chests, the gauzy colors. The shoe-keeper helped me out of my shoes and into silk slippers. There was none of the reception desk clutter, none of the gosh-awful computer environment of Tokyo. I noticed someone in the office bowing as he spoke into the telephone.

The shoe-keeper followed respectfully behind with my suitcase as Fumi, in her white-gloved feet, led me down a maze of winding corridors past tranquil gardens, Korean chests, hand-painted screens, scroll paintings, an extraordinary array of treasures. We padded silently on a dark wooden floor that glistened by candlelight. Without her, I couldn't have managed; for starters, I wouldn't have found my room. The inn seemed to be built on the "hide-and-reveal" principle, and although it is booked to capacity year-round, no one else seemed to be around--no samurai, emperors or shoguns.

In keeping with Japanese tradition, the family who built Tawaraya, the oldest ryokan in Kyoto, believed that the fundamental elements of all things are found in nature and that benefits come to people who situate themselves properly with the landscape. Guests should always have something beautiful to look at, so each room had its own undisturbed garden view. My garden had Japanese maples, ferns, a tiny lake of gravel next to the mossy earth, black stones that glistened in the rain, and a lantern. Everything had been trained, trimmed, pruned, immaculately swept and clipped. There was not a stray leaf or a twig anywhere. In one corner was a stone cistern with a wooden bamboo ladle, and the only audible sound was that of a tiny waterfall--the sound of water dripping.

No one had gone through the house gussying the place up. Inside my bare but elegantly ornamental room was an entry foyer with three modern chairs arranged for Westerners (gaijin) and a large sitting room covered with pale, black-bordered, sweet-smelling tatami mats, springy and soft. In the center was a lacquer table and two chairs with bamboo backs and zabuton (silk-covered cushions) but no legs. There were no silly bouquets--just a single perfect Casablanca lily in an ikebana arrangement in the tokonoma, a peaceful alcove for contemplation and prayer.

I soon began to think of 67-year-old Fumi, a lady-in-waiting here for 37 years, as my Zen master furthering my ryokan (pronounced ree-o-KAN; singular and plural are the same) education. She showed me that I must be barefoot on the tatami mats, but in the foyer and dressing area I could wear my slippers. She helped me shed my clothes and climb into a yukata (a light cotton kimono with a silk sash) and introduced me to my zori (wooden clogs) for walks in the garden. She demonstrated the few concessions to modernity: the air-conditioning controls, the antique rotary-dial telephone, and how to get Japanese soap opera on my television set.

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