King of Infinite Space

japan_inthedark1
1 March 2000 Appeared in Conde Nast Traveler - A  A +

The heart of the Ryokan, which derives from all this attention to detail, is that there is nothing impersonal about it; you begin to feel as if you are a guest in a kind of ideal home, rich with formal intimacy. In fact, many of the qualities that foreigners find so frustrating at the conference table in Japan–the reticence, the self-effacement, the refusal to give hard-and-fast answers–achieve in the ryokan their sweetest sublimation, as one enters what feels like a private, woman’s domain of softness and ceremony (all ryokan are traditionally run and staffed by women). That may explain why all the design principles we bring with us from abroad are turned on their head here: In New York, the best hotel rooms are generally at the top of the building, commanding a view of the city below; in a ryokan they are usually on the ground floor, where you can more easily merge with the garden. In the palaces of Europe, one often feels overpowered, almost, by the weight of history and the grandeur of tapestry and the chandelier and silverware; in Kyoto, even the imperial villas boast an almost shocking emptiness, as if to release one from the world of hours (no clock was visible in my room in Tawaraya). The Japanese room is a training in inwardness.

In much the same way, the maids in even the fanciest ryokan tend not to speak English (though Western-style hotels in Japan are generally bilingual); the implication is that intuition will suffice and words are hardly necessary. (When the maids in Tawaraya do speak, it is in an exquisitely polite version of the dainty Kyoto dialect that is, in Japanese, the equivalent of hearing characters from Jane Austen speak.) Certainly, one hardly misses the words. One day, I walked down the corridor to explore the small library in Tawaraya, and before I had even entered the room one of my maids appeared, as if she had been waiting for me (as, perhaps, she had), with a mug of hot tea. “Welcome home,” she said in soft Japanese, placing the drink beside me and slipping out of the room backward so as not to confront me with her back.

Behind this, of course, lie all kinds of principles, not just aesthetic but social and emotional, which date back to the very first inns in Japan, opened perhaps thirteen hundred years ago to accommodate itinerant priests. The Japanese speak of wabi and sabi, notoriously hard-to-translate terms that connote something having to do with loneliness, simplicity, and rustic purity; we may grasp the idea by thinking of a haiku (in which the spaces between the words convey as much as the words themselves), or a tea-ceremony room, so empty that it looks calm and elegant and large. The overall effect is to screen you from clutter and dirt and noise, and leave you free to meditate. “It’s the ultimate nostalgia,” a Kyoto-born friend of mine said to Tawaraya. “True heaven. Like returning to my childhood–the small green garden, the smell of tatami, the feeling that you have nothing in the world to worry about. Time stops.”

I noticed again how meticulousness is brought to relaxation–and that perfection and humanity are not regarded as incompatible–when I began to explore my bathroom. The cedar tub sat in a room of its own, a thermometer beside it, and next to a window that looked out on greenery and bamboo and rose no higher than my knees (the principle, again, being that a view eight inches high can be more revealing than one eighty inches high). In the separate room that housed the sink, even the scale was earth toned, and there were so many shades of beige that I thought of the temple, a few minutes away by cab, where there are 130 different kinds of moss, each of which reflects a different tint of green during the rainy season. The toilet, too had its own little room, and on top of the heated, high-tech contraption sat a small silk pouch filled with incense. Under the sliding paper windows was a tiny cedar sink in which to wash your hands.

For the Japanese guest, this sense of particularity, and of being pampered, comes to a climax with the traditional kaiseki dinner, which is the highlight of a stay in a ryokan (and may account for half the total price). As I sat at my table, my maids shuffling in and out amid a flurry of bows and smiles and apologies, bringing in one course after another, I realized that many of the culinary niceties and seasonal details of the ten-course feast were doubtless lost on me; still, I could see, on this October day, that the lacquered bowls in which the food was served were decorated with autumn leaves, or with pictures of the moon as seen through autumn grasses. Every one of the tiny dishes fit the moment – seeds from the garden soaked in sake, tiny pieces of seasonal fish wreathed in flowers, ginko berries next to spiced tofu – and many actually sat on autumn leaves. The sensuality was aimed as much at sight and touch and smell as at taste.

Even for Japanese guests, such grace notes have become increasingly exotic. Nowadays, the typical Japanese resident lives in a modern Western apartment appointed with windows and wood floors, showers and chairs and beds; and the average young Japanese woman cannot put on a kimono without the help of a beauty salon. The central challenge facing every ryokan today is how wired customer ( the likes of Jack Nicholson and Gerald Ford are often to be found in Tawaraya) while preserving an atmosphere redolent of the age of Dante. In Sumiya, a historic ryokan just down the road from Tawaraya, there are new blond-wood tatami rooms overlooking a classic Kyoto vista of gray roofs; in Hiiragiya, across the street from Tawaraya, there are specially invented remote control boxes, made of lacquered wood and in the shape of gourds, for controlling the lights and screens. Tawaraya, which has been in the same family for eleven generations – its entire history – has, in my view, the most elevated sense of how to incorporate foreign and modern elements in a world that remains deeply Japanese. There are Western-style chairs beside the veranda for looking at the garden, but they are wicker, to go with the bamboo and straw all around; there is a telephone in every room, but it is covered by a handmade cloth. Once, opening an antique-looking cabinet, I came upon a television set, but one that was wafer thin, as light and elegant as a laptop screen – the miniaturism of Japanese high-tech rhyming with the incense bowls nearby.

Coming upon such marvels, I could better understand why the small library I had visited was so richly stocked with books about Isamu Noguchi and Arata Isozaki, two Japanese-Americans who have worked hard to update the principles of Japanese design so that the old will be forever new. What is striking about the ryokan, after all, is that the classic Japanese aesthetic, with its fondness for black-and-white, its love of empty space, its belief that one rock can fill a garden better than fifty, seems to be more and more vogue everywhere, especially in the most contemporary and high-tech of environments. Just as the sushi bar has taught us a different way of thinking about food (and of looking at it), so the traditional Japanese room seems to be teaching us a different way of using space. I see its influence in the white-on-white patterns of Ian Schrager hotels and the uncluttered geometry of Armani showrooms; in the airy design of JFK Airport’s new Terminal One and the open spaces and natural light of Hong Kong’s stunning new Chek Lap Kok Airport (with its Cathay Pacific lounge designed by the brilliant English minimalist John Pawson). While staying at Tawaraya, I happened to flip through a glossy magazine from New York and came upon an ad describing a “little room overlooking the moss garden” and a “cinnamon-colored kimono with a design of autumn grasses” (capitalizing on the geisha chic quickened by the success of Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha). Twelve pages later there was another ad, depicting a Kyoto-style rock garden, with the words “security, simplicity, economy” (for a computer company, no less!).

As the world becomes saturated with “stuff” and with data – more than twenty thousand sites on the World Wide Web deal with information overload – simplicity and silence seem more precious than ever. And as more and more of us accelerate into a multitasking blur, the slowness and space of a ryokan can feel more than ever like heaven. If there are a hundred things in a room, Tawaraya taught me, the mind gets dizzy and overwhelmed; if there is just one, it grows so calm and spacious – so attentive – that in that one it can find a universe.

All the photos on this site, other than the one on the Welcome page, are taken by Pico Iyer.