Ryokan Power

A good friend of mine down in the Atami area, Rob, is a keen and active proponent of extracting oneself from Urban Life and relocating to Japan’s well-known, frequently advertised, but rarely more than occasionally visited for a few days inaka. He’s worked with a number of municipalities around the Izu Peninsula and is extremely familiar with the local idiosyncrasies, making him a real treasure when it comes to getting a more holistic feeling of a given area than looking at nice properties within the city limits typically affords.

So one day, as we’re strolling around the quiet backstreets of Yugawara talking about, of all things, geta, he mentions that near the edge of town along the Chitose River (which coincidentally marks the border between Kanagawa and Shizuoka Prefecture) there is an old luxury ryokan that was recently bought by an international art curator with the intent of transforming it into a live-in production studio of sorts for a multitude of artists and styles. Artists in residence kind of thing.

Gee-golly did my ears perk up at that. I asked Rob if we could drop in to check the place out, and a short phone call later, we got the OK, and were on our way to easily the coolest property I’ve explored so far!

A Ryokan Too Far?

First thing I suppose that should be mentioned is that this place is not too close to a train station. It is, however, right in front of a bus stop, and if you’re not that scared of buses, it’ll take you about 9 minutes to get there from the closest station. Walking, about 34. By Tokyo standards (7 minutes or less walking from a station is ideal), that’s unheard of. By my bike riding standards, this is totally acceptable, and if you start using bikes as a major mode of transportation, you, too, will soon realize how short not just this distance but all distances become. I highly recommend it.

But we’d already walked about half the distance so it wasn’t very far anyway, and decided to wait for a bus in front of a drug store. After a few minutes of idly chatting while we waited, I noticed how parched I was and decided to test fate and run into the drug store for a Wilkinson Soda Water (aka tansan) before the bus came. The stars shone brightly upon us that day (admittedly a strange thing to say), and I cheerily boarded the bus with my favorite source of cold, bubbly, non-alcoholic refreshment in hand.

It probably took me years to even think of putting my foot on the steps of a bus due to the many traumatic experiences I’ve had on buses in cities like Pittsburgh, New York, Toronto, Seattle, and Vancouver, so this will probably sound like blasphemy to the uninitiated, but I like riding buses in Japan. I still have a hard time thinking that they’re better than trains, but they do tend to be less crowded, the seats are more comfortable, and really there just seems to be a bit more personal space. And that was before Coronavirus. Needless to say, I’m somewhat enamored with them of late.

Having checked Google Maps while writing this article, I want to say our ride was between 5 and 10 minutes long, which doesn’t really jive with the listed 9 minute ride from the station given that we were already about halfway along that route, but whatever; after a not-very-appreciable amount of time, our stop was up and we got off.

Enter the Ryokan

Ryokan in Yugawara 1

And there it was, right in front of us: a quite clean, modern-traditional 2 story building with a bit of rubbish outside, just sitting there all nice and welcoming. We walked up the gravel driveway to the double sliding glass doors which — surprisingly — opened automatically for us to enter, and there, at the very normal if a bit messy front desk was the owner and tour guide for the day, Kris, in stylishly “artsy” red, John Lennon bifocals, and a twinkle in his eye.

Kris is a real character: animated, in control of a very stimulating vocabulary, and with tales of retrofitting abandoned warehouses into art galleries and installations across Asia, he’s pretty much the #1 type of person I secretly hope buy akiya. And, in the fashion that you might imagine someone with the above description would do, he quickly invited us into the listening room he has set up on the first floor, miraculously threw on one of my favorite compositions by Eric DolphyEpistrophe, brought out some coffee, and we all settled in to discuss not so much the property itself but the philosophy behind it and the potential of similar properties all across Japan, if only handled correctly.

Yowzer. Best conversation I’ve had in some time. And I have a lot of cool conversations 😉

A Private Tour

After sufficiently revving my hyperactive imagination up, Kris suggested we go take a look around the place, to which I (obviously) enthusiastically agreed.

The first floor contains 2 large lounging rooms, one outfitted more as a display room of sorts for various works and publications of Kris’ choosing — which I guarantee will pique your interest, however avant you wish to tread — and the other as the aforementioned listening room with a few couches and recliners to presumably use whilst listening to jazz greats and flitting through whichever work you picked from the colorful selection in the other room as the bamboo leaves dance lazily in the wind.

The floor is laid with deep red, decorative carpet, the walls adorned with various and innumerable trinkets from Kris’ travels, and the very warm light, which I might describe as “fleeting” once the sun started setting, comes from not the ceiling mantles but from a few lanterns Kris has strategically placed around the property. “I’m a warm light guy,” he said, predicting my question as he noticed me considering the preponderance of light fixtures.

The first floor also houses one of the staple features of a ryokan, the onsen baths, of which there are 8. 6 are split between two separate bathing spaces, each containing 3 large, stone-lined baths that probably fit 8 or so, each meant for different temperatures of water.

Another bath kind of halfway into a basement that doesn’t exist is what I correctly assumed was the staff bathing quarters. I would say that it is unimpressive, though certainly secluded if that is your kind of thing.

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The final bath is outdoors, also known in Japanese as rotenburoand is IMO kind of the whole reason to go to onsen or ryokan in the first place. Now, it is on the first floor, faces a parking lot, and only has so much bamboo coverage so I’m thinking there’s a bit of work to be done on it unless its explicitly for exhibitionists, but come on, it’s Japan’s answer to an outdoor hot tub. I’m sure they’ll fix it up good and proper, lest they seek to redefine the quintessential definition of mottainai.

That about wraps it up for the first floor. Onto the second, shall we?

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A Private Tour, Cont.

Just past the reception counter and a scantily albeit… erm… artistically clad mannequin sit the stairs up to the second floor, which wrap back on themselves half way up to deliver ascendants to the second reception counter, that of the banquet room, and a hallway running perpendicular both ways to it. The carpet and the lighting is the same, though there are significantly fewer trinkets due to fewer places to set them.

As the banquet room was right in front of us, that is the first room we stepped into, and what a big one it is! With room enough for 2 parties of between 20 and 30 separated by a central walkway with fixtures for blinds on both sides, if you’ve ever been to a more traditional bonenkai or the like, you’ll easily be able to imagine the kind of party that immediately came to mind upon entering.

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That being said, keep in mind this is a ryokan now managed by an international artist and curator, so the zabuton were mostly stacked against one wall, tables were stacked upon each other, and Kris’ own paintings in various stages of completion were scattered about the room. On the other wall sat another formidable sound system from which came the more abrasive sounds of a free jazz troupe I’m unfamiliar with. The windows that formed the far wall from the entrance overlooked not only the prefectural edge represented by the running Chitose River, but also the steppe-like configuration of Atami’s well-known resorts across it.

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As it turns out, Kris is also an accomplished artist, though I wouldn’t leave it to me to accurately describe his style — I’m no critique, after all. But it does remind me of a friend, Rie Okabayashi, and her work with sumi-e. Both are completely outside the traditional bounds of that medium, yet I’m of the opinion that the form is not necessarily defined by the method, and vice versa, and think it’s quite interesting to see those artistic boundaries broken, or at least played with.

So, seeing this traditionally constructed ryokan being repurposed not just conceptually but physically, with the form and intent contained within at pretty odd ends with the original purpose, is immensely fascinating to me.

Out of the banquet room and down the hall to the left, we are first greeted by the kitchen on the left, a small but complete setup, which I determined through my memories of working in kitchens during college: gas ranges, washing machines, and even a dumbwaiter, the space might be a bit tight but the pieces are all there.

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From the kitchen, there is the first room across the hall, and it is the first of two long rooms this ryokan has to offer, this one with a somewhat unexpectedly lobster-adorned noren. At the far end, there is a windowed outlet with two chairs and a table overlooking the Chitose River, but aside from that the room is sparsely outfitted with tatami mats, sliding doors, and, at first glance anyway, not much else.

This is how many Japanese rooms are laid out; that is to say, it’s an open space, or, maybe more relevantly given this particular property, palette, to fill with whichever accoutrements one sees fit at the time. Open up those sliding doors, though, and you’ll be greeted with futonzabuton, tables, yukata, and much, much more, to accomplish just that, and use at your pleasure depending on what you want to do with the room.

From that room’s entrance and to the left, you’re greeted by a left hand turn in the hall with a very colorfully decorated door to another sleeping quarters, with Ume written above it at its head. This is Kris’ bedroom. He didn’t want us in there, so consider it a mystery.

Past that, and there are 2 other rooms of more square dimensions, but each with a similar layout as the longer one previously described. The first of which has a bit of a winding entryway comprised of two separate pairs of sliding doors not perfectly aligned with each other, which at first seemed to me to be a bit shoddy, but then I laughed to myself as I could also see it as a slightly aggressive prod intended by the architect for the inhabitants to pay attention to their surroundings. I love that kind of stuff, and in fact performed many pranks of a similar tact in my early elementary school years.

The other room, a suite of some elevated status or another, featured a much more predictable layout, the best windowed cove of the 4 rooms, and a really stunning array of mid-to-late 90’s A/V technology: huge vacuum tube TVs, obnoxiously large CD stereos, and I might have even glimpsed a Big Mouth Billy Bass peaking out from the shadows of the closet at us, but I can’t be sure.

This concluded the official tour of the interior, but Kris, Rob, and myself returned to the lounge on the first floor for a bit more conversation, part of which revolved around where he was taking the ryokan from here, a relatively difficult question, and maybe one to keep in mind if you are considering whether to pursue an akiya yourself, at least in this capacity.

Kris immediately pointed out the difficulties that Coronavirus brings to someone in a position like his as its become quite difficult to engage with non-local artistic communities, advertise, or generally to entice visitors, guests, and artists alike in the previously accepted fashion. I didn’t get the impression that he was particularly hard up or worried — though of course he may have just been hiding it well — but it is of course an understandable frustration.

He did mention that the place — which btw is called 不思議の空間 (Fushigi no Kūkan) — is technically open, its just still a bit discombobulated, so its more a soft open. He’s invited us back to stay whenever we like, and has also said that if anyone else is interested in seeing what he’s up to as well as just exploring the myriad possibilities that ryokan offer as vacated spaces. I know I’ll take him up on it, you might consider too!

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The Chitose River behind Fushigi no Kūkan

Kris saw us out via the still surprisingly automatic sliding front doors, but there was a little bit of photography and videography to be done outside, so Rob and I set out once again on foot for the backstreets, walking along the Chitose River, taking photos, and discussing things hopefully more interesting than geta.

One thing I’m learning along this journey is the importance of featuring the tangentials or the peripherals in addition to the main act, as it were. Which is a funny thing for me to say considering I’ve spent years obsessing over the same exact thing with regards to underground music — its not so much what’s on stage that is important, but rather how it affects its surroundings — and this makes me wonder at my own and general humanity’s ability to extrapolate helpful or otherwise important concepts from the specific to the universal.

I’m not really sure where to go with that right now, so I’ll leave it at that, but I will be keeping it in the back of my mind for next time.

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