A friend of mine in the Atami area, Rob, is a proponent of extracting oneself from Urban Life. To that end, Rob’s helped others relocate to Japan’s well-known but rarely visited for long stays inaka. He’s worked with municipalities around the Izu Peninsula and is extremely familiar with the local idiosyncrasies. He is, in short, a real treasure for those looking for a better read of a given area than looking at online listings affords.
One day, as we were strolling around the backstreets of Yugawara talking about, of all things, geta, he mentioned a luxury ryokan being renovated. It’s near the edge of town along the Chitose River (the border between Kanagawa and Shizuoka) and was recently bought by an international art curator. His intention is to transform it into an artist in residence.
Me being me, my ears sure perked upon hearing that. I asked Rob if we could drop in to check it out. He made a short phone call, got the OK, and were soon heading to one of the coolest properties in Yugawara.
A Ryokan Too Far?
First thing that should be mentioned is that this place is far from a train station. It is, however, right in front of a bus stop, and 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. If you, too, start using bikes more, you will soon realize how short 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, I decided to test fate and get a Wilkinson Soda Water (aka tansan) before the bus came. The stars shone brightly upon us that day, and I cheerily boarded the bus with my favorite source of cold, bubbly, non-alcoholic refreshment in hand.
No Planes, No Trains, Just Buses
It took me years to even think of putting my foot on the steps of a bus. Most people I know have had traumatic experiences on buses in North America, and I’m no different. Accordingly, this may sound like blasphemy, but I like riding buses in Japan. I still don’t think they’re better than trains, but they do tend to be less crowded, with more comfortable seats, and 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. This doesn’t really jive with the listed 9 minute ride from Yugawara station, but whatever. After a not-very-appreciable amount of time, our stop was up and we got off.
Enter the Ryokan
And there it sat all nice and welcoming: a clean, modern-traditional 2 story building with a bit of rubbish outside. We walked up the gravel driveway to the double sliding glass doors which automatically opened for us. There, at the messy front desk sat the owner, Kris, in blindingly red bifocals with a twinkle in his eye.
Kris is a real character: animated, with a very stimulating vocabulary, and tales of retrofitting abandoned warehouses into art galleries across Asia. He’s pretty much the #1 type of person I secretly hope buy akiya. In very Kris-like fashion, he invited us into the listening room, threw on my favorite Eric Dolphy composition, Epistrophe, brought out coffee, and immediately began discussing the philosophy behind this purchase. This naturally bled into talking about the potential of similar properties in Yugawara and all across Japan.
A Private Tour
After sufficiently revving my imagination up, Kris suggested we go take a look. I had no choice but to enthusiastically agree.
The first floor contains 2 large lounging rooms. Of them, one is outfitted for the display of various artworks and publications of Kris’ choosing. This is very cool, and I guarantee you’ll get a kick, however avant your taste.
The other is the aforementioned listening room. Couches and recliners for listening to jazz greats or flitting through the robust selection are in the other room. Relaxingly, the bamboo leaves dance lazily in the wind.
The floor has a deep red decorative carpet, and the walls are adorned with various trinkets from Kris’ travels. Very warm light permeates the room and becomes “fleeting” once the sun starts to set. “I’m a warm light guy,” he said, pre-empting my question regarding the preponderance of light fixtures.
The first floor also houses 8 onsen baths, a staple feature of ryokan. 6 are split between two separate bathing spaces, each containing 3 large, stone-lined baths meant for different temperatures.
Another bath halfway into the basement is what I correctly assumed was the staff bathing quarters. I would say that it is unimpressive, though certainly secluded if that is your thing.
The final bath is outdoors, also known in Japanese as rotenburo. IMO this is the whole reason to go to onsen or ryokan in the first place.
It is also on the first floor, faces a parking lot, and only has so much bamboo coverage. So, there’s a bit of work to be done unless explicitly for exhibitionists. But I’m sure they’ll fix it up, it’d be a waste otherwise!
Onto the Second Floor
Past the reception counter and a scantily albeit artistically clad mannequin are the stairs to the second floor. Halfway up, they wrap back on themselves to deliver ascendants to a reception counter to the banquet room. A hallway runs perpendicularly to it, carpeted and lit just like the first floor. However, 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. The room is large enough for 2 parties of 20- 30 and is separated by a central walkway with fixtures for blinds on both sides. If you’ve ever been to a bonenkai, you can imagine the kind of parties that came to mind upon entering. This setup is utilitarian, and the ability to change use at the drop of a dime is impressive. Which is good, because this ryokan is now managed by an international art curator.
The zabuton and tables were stacked against a wall, replaced by Kris’ own paintings in various stages of completion. From a second formidable sound system came the more abrasive sounds of a free jazz troupe I’m unfamiliar with. The windows of the far wall overlooked the Chitose River and the steppe-like configuration of Atami’s resorts. FYI Yugawara and Atami are separated by the Chitose River.
As it turns out, Kris is also an accomplished artist, though I wouldn’t guess the style. His work reminds me of a friend’s, Rie Okabayashi, work with sumi-e, though. Both seem to operate completely outside the traditional bounds of their medium. The form isn’t necessarily defined by the method, and I enjoy the breaking of artistic boundaries.
Repurposing a Ryokan in Yugawara
So, seeing this traditionally constructed ryokan being repurposed not just conceptually but also physically is immensely fascinating to me.
Out of the banquet room and down the hall to the left, there is a kitchen on the left with a small but complete setup. I determined this via my memories of kitchen work in college: gas ranges, washing machines, and a dumbwaiter, the space might be tight but it is all there.
The first guest room is across the hall from the kitchen, complete with an unexpectedly lobster-adorned noren. At the far end, there is a windowed outlet with two chairs and a table overlooking the Chitose River. Aside from that, the room is sparsely outfitted with tatami mats, sliding doors, and not much else.
Stylings of Yugawara
This is how many Japanese rooms are laid out. These are open spaces to fill with whichever accoutrements one sees fit at the time. Open up those sliding doors, though, and you’ll be greeted with futon, zabuton, tables, and much more to use at your pleasure.
There are 2 other rooms of more square dimensions and with a similar layout as the longer one. The first has a winding entryway with two pairs of sliding doors not perfectly aligned with each other. At first, they seemed a bit shoddy, but then I laughed to myself as I imagined a slightly aggressive architect intentionally designing it that way. I love that kind of stuff, and conducted pranks of a similar tact in my elementary school years.
The other room, a luxury suite, featured a more predictable layout. It has the best windowed cove of the 4 rooms, and a really stunning array of mid-to-late 90’s A/V technology. There’s a vacuum tube TV, an obnoxiously large stereo, and much more. Very retro!
Ryokan Tour Complete
This concluded the official tour of the interior, and Kris, Rob, and myself returned to the first floor lounge. We continued talks on where the ryokan would go from here. This is a relatively difficult question, and one to keep in mind if you are about converting an akiya into a business.
Kris pointed out the challenges of Coronavirus for someone in a position like his. It becomes difficult to engage with non-local artistic communities, advertise, or entice guests of any kind in the normal fashion. I don’t think he was particularly hard up or worried, but it is of course an understandable frustration.
He did mention that the place (called 不思議の空間 (Fushigi no Kūkan)) is technically open. It’s just still a bit discombobulated, so it’s more a soft open. He invited us back to stay whenever we like, and also said if anyone else is wants to explore the possibilities of ryokan, he’d be glad to talk. Think about it!
Kris saw us out via the sliding front doors, and we said our farewell. There was some photography 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 we got to discussing things more interesting than geta.
The Journey Continues
One thing I’ve learned on this journey is the importance of tangentials. I’ve spent years obsessing over this in music — what’s off stage is just as important as what’s on — so it’s no wonder I’m thinking about it here, too.
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.