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Hc : : Akita: Yokote: Hiragen Ryokan
Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter!
Mount Fuji wood screen, detail from ground floor bedroom.
There's an American pre-teen book called the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler about some kids who sneak away from their parents and hide out to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Met is a giant place filled with all manner of odd objects, and of course to live amidst so much history and rare human artifice is a fantastic fantasy.

This winter, Hiragen Ryokan may be the closest I've come to living in an empty museum.

Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter!
A grand mix of Victorian/Meiji styles and traditional Japanese,
with exposed wood and art abounding.

Built during the Meiji era, the long hallways, tall ceilings and expansive rooms echo a time when travelling might be ceremony, or at least community. Each of the rooms is designed for sitting, with a low table and two chairs facing. Each ground-floor room as an adjacent western-style seating area with a view, either of the ryokan's Japanese garden or the river behind.

Each of the rooms is largely plain; the floors are straw mats, there are sliding screens and doors between each of the rooms, the hallways, and the sitting areas. Rice paper over the windows. But there are many flourishes: the screens are flecked with gold, or painted with ink - branches, birds, mistly mountains, chrysanthemums. Each of the rooms has a hanging scroll with Chinese characters. Old wood abounds. Look up and a laughing fat wood Buddha statue or a grim looking porcelain samurai lord is looking over you. Above a window, a view of Mount Fuji rendered in wood outline, from a time when stories were told with shadows. In the hallways, Ukiyo-e prints hang near oil paintings. The entire places brims with art and craft. And when I arrived on a chilly Wednesday in the middle of February, this giant inn was nearly empty.

Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter! I came upon Hiragen Ryokan as I was strolling in search of lunch. The edifice resembled an old East Coast public school. I could piece together enough Kanji characters to see the sign said "travelling place" - ryokan. Inside, the halls here large, empty, quiet. Wood was everywhere. A rare mood for modern Japan.

A young woman was tending shop, she showed me a room that had me gasping. An older gentleman wearing traditional Japanese garb entered the ryokan as I was preparing to leave. He quickly warmed up to having a visitor and spent much time explaining about the history of this building, the family that made it, the current status of the business, his studies in sociology, his work with a newspaper, his daughter's travels abroad. I couldn't follow nearly all of it, perhaps just a bit. The flavor. He was obviously a learned man and this place channels its history through him. He showed me prints and paintings and photographs. He lamented that young Japanese wouldn't know about any of these types of wood, or the famous themes or artists we were discussing. We spent some time talking, him proceeding ahead eagerly, myself urging him verbally and straining to understand or translate.

Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter!

Walking away from this in was a challenge; it was singularly the most elegant Japanese interior I'd had the chance to interact within during my stay in this country. I paid a fee to withdraw from my other hotel early and immediately transferred myself to the Hiragen Ryokan.

Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter!
Three bedrooms have their screens removed been converted into a common room for kneeling meals.
Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter!
The cabinets in your room might be painted with the watching face of an old man. (Howard advises: That's Bodhidharma you gaijin philistine!)
Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter!
Clay Buddha on a wooden tray.
Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter!

green tea for one

Like most ryokan, tea comes included with the room. In this case, it's a nice small tea set for one. A cannister of green tea, a shiny cherry-bark covered tea scoop, a small ceramic single-cup sized pot for brewing, a small tray with tea sweets, a thin porcelain cup painted with flowers. The wood coaster for the tea pot had a kamakura (snow house) scene etched into it.

dinner for one,
served in my room

Dinner arrives carried by the smiling young lady of the house.

Clockwise from the lower-left corner:

Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter!
  • Chawanmushi (egg and chicken custard).
  • Chicken nabe soup with kiritanpo rice rolls (cooked as I eat the other foods).
  • A red and black vessel with unagi and scrambled tamago (barbecued sea eel and egg).
  • Sashimi: two kinds of tuna and raw shrimp.
  • Pickled daikon radish, carrot, and some sweetish green pickled thing.
  • A tiny dish of slightly crunchy slimy sea beings.
  • Soup with a fish ball served in a black bowl with a fantastic spotted top.
  • Some yellow-covered (mustardy?) slender white vegetable matter served as an appetizer in Yokote.
  • Small squarish food nibblets including some smoked pork, a cube of yellow sweet custard, a green and brown striped thing that tasted like forest, edamame (soybeans).
  • Below the table, tub of rice, the first one I'd been served at a Ryokan that was full up to the top. And steaming hot, so much so that it burbled and gasped all through my meal, the warmest thing in the room.
The phone rings at 21:15 my first night at the new inn. It's the young female staffer here:

"Hello, honoured guest."
"Hello!"
"You are our guest."
"Yes, I understand."
"Tomorrow, there is a meal in the morning."
"Yes! I understand."
"About that breakfast -"
"Yes, is it okay?"
"There may be some Natto served if that's okay. Is that okay?"
"Okay. Anything."
"Thank you Okay."

Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter! breakfast,
served in a common room

I wasn't eating alone. My chair was set down back to back with two other chairs, with ample space between us. The first gentleman before me turned on the TV immediately. I turned around my chair so I might not miss the rooms loudest source of stimulation. I sat facing him and his late-arriving cohort, we sat in our robes watching the news and then a soap opera about an aspiring young female chef, reading the newspaper, between painted sliding doors, detailed woodwork and a hanging scroll.

Breakfast had Natto as promised. With the raw egg - the flavor combination is swiftly rising up in my taste estimation. Especially wrapped in some dry flat nori seaweed dipped just slightly in soy sauce - the unborn baby of a bird, the pounded salted flavor of the sea, fermented fruits of the earth, all on the flavor clouds of Akita rice.

Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter!

Clockwise, lower-left corner:
  • Rice, full and warm again
  • Stringy vegetable matter, slightly pickled and sweet
  • A slice of grapefruit, a tomato wedge, a sprig of broccoli, with a blurb of mayonnaise
  • An uncracked raw egg sitting in a hole in the lid of the bowl in which you are urged by tradition and surroundings to stir that egg.
  • A small pile of Natto dusted with some salty flavor flakes - perhaps dashi? Whatsitcalled.
  • Mmmm, spinach with bits of shaved fish or shrimp. Dashi? Whatsitcalled.
  • Pickled vegetable matter and a pickled sour plum. Yum!
  • Miso soup, here shown slightly settled.
  • Up the middle, a few thin strips of dried salted nori seaweed
  • A small roasted fish with a belly full of white eggs, all of which may be readily consumed. Tobiko? Puffy red salmon eggs. Tamago - scrambled egg, cooled and cut into a square. Two small sweet beans. A loose piles of stringy seaweed.
Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter! Before I came to Akita I had the sense that travelling somewhere where the weather sucks and most everyone else leaves will provide unusual opportunities. So now I have the chance to stay at a giant ancient inn, talk extensively with the proprietor, and examine each of the empty rooms. So I can't see the elegant Japanese garden. And large plastic screens block the windows from being caved in by snow. And it's so cold my toes and fingers hurt constantly. But that makes the bath all the sweeter. And I think the gentleman just talked to me about lowering the price. I couldn't exactly follow; I just figure I'll pay cash and see what happens. Meanwhile the chance to gaze upon and pay some tribute for my travels to a happy fat Buddha statue in my room puts warm in my chest, as does the richly scented plain wood box where I've stuck my passport and wallet, in hopes they smell like that wood by morning. Now it's nighttime and a light from outside my room illuminates a shadow of Mount Fuji and two island forest scapes on the other side of the room. I'm completely stimulated.

There's something deeply sacrelicious about listening to MP3s of Redd Foxx and his raunchy tales in the quiet cold traditional Japanese inn.
I visit the bath; it's everflowing, hot. For my toes this means minutes of searing pain.

My second night here, the inn is quite busy, with people in early for the Kamakura festival. I can hear their voices, old people and children, paddling about before dinner, taking baths.

They have promised the showcase single I was in to someone else so I am moved to a more modern seeming room with less exposed wood and no silhouette screens. There's a piece of fabric dyed to show a man-made forest being clearcut. Still I can look out this window and see the snowcovered Japanese garden. And I have convinced myself that this room is warmer.

Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter! Both nights and days here, wandering in the halls between the rooms, the bathrooms and the conversations, you could clearly see your breath. This place was a great example of localized heating - the bedrooms and bathrooms only. And the heat was such that you wanted to sit within two meters of it, because it wasn't for heating the room, just bodies.

They had a thermometer hanging in the hallway that read freezing; in the morning the water where I brushed my teeth the night before was frozen in the sink. Much like Tsurunoyu. Fortunately both places had heated toilet seats.

Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter!
In each of the rooms, there is a tiny table with a strip of mirror, set behind a pillow. Old fashioned vanity.
Japan, Akita, Yokote, Hiragen Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn.  Cold in the winter!
Minimal furnishings. A horizontal scroll. A small teevee.

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