Japan’s New Hotels are More Ancient Than You Think
Living in Japan can feel like inhabiting a safe bubble, detached from the political strife and conflict that seems so pervasive in many parts of the world. Of course, other countries are not so bad and Japan isn’t perfect either. But what makes Japan so unique is its ability to fuse new cutting-edge technology with ancient customs and traditions.
A stop in Tokyo, home to some 13 million people, will give you a shimmering display of neon lights mixed with a raucous nightlife and over 227 michelin star restaurants.
While the city of Kyoto, despite being one of the country’s largest cities, is a cultural treasure where one can watch geishas perform while sipping green tea; a reminder of the country’s not too distance past.
But traveling across Japan has also taught me, again and again, that the most magnetic places in this land are in its mountains and rural villages. Now there’s a way to enjoy such places from the front door of a fully restored samurai house.
For years, visitors could choose between two kinds of hotels: the Western kind (large multi-story steel buildings with a few Japanese touches) or the traditional Japanese Inn, called a ryokan.
Ryokans were originally built in medieval times to give traveling merchants a place to stay. These were a home away from home as they offered traditional ofuro baths, tatami floors and a typical breakfast of fish, miso soup, rice and pickled vegetables, the essentials.
A new style of Japanese accommodation is beginning to emerge that is neither ryokan nor hotel (and no it’s not Airbnb). They are fully restored samurai-era mansions (“Bukeyashiki”).
A company called Kiraku is restoring these cultural assets by converting them into private villas for rent. They keep the exterior the same and modernize the interior (washing machine and fully equipped kitchen).
Despite their charm, the real allure of these villas, much like the mysteries that surround samurai customs, is that they are found in remote areas of Japan giving adventurous tourists a chance to explore parts of the country they might otherwise not. Perhaps also with unintended therapeutic effects.
In Search for Solitude
Like many newcomers to Japan a stop in Tokyo or Osaka is inevitable. Many however are pulled by Buddhism and seek out Buddhist temples in the mountains of south-eastern Japan for a chance to stay a few nights in a monastery to practice their meditation in an environment free from the frenetic anxieties of daily life or, to simply learn more about the ‘Buddha nature’ in solitude.
However the longer you stay in Japan, the more you’ll come to understand that the country’s soul lies within Shinto. In Shinto gods are called kami which are sacred spirits that take the form of things important to life – wind, earth, rain, plants, trees, and mountains. The “way of the gods,” as Shinto defines itself, has no official scriptures or doctrines.
Instead, there are rituals that are centered around what you might say are the core tenants of Shintoism – (1) humans are fundamentally good by nature, (2) evils in the world are caused by troublesome kami (3) keep away evil spirits for the sake of ones own peace which is achieved by (4) purification, offerings and prayers.
Close to Nature
Though Shinto may sound unfamiliar, it’s probably less foreign that you think. Since the Shinto gods are sacred spirits that take the form of all things in nature (rain, rocks, rivers, etc), there is a need to keep things as simple and as close to nature as possible.
For instance, Ikebana is a Japanese art of flower arranging. This is seen as more than just a means of decoration , but a spiritual process that helps one develop a closeness with nature and merge the indoors with the outdoors.
Like meditation in Buddhism, the flower arrangement process is done in silence to meditate and observe the beauty of nature, see the importance of space, which is not meant to be filled, but preserved and created through the arrangement of flowers.