A Night in Medieval Japan

I spend a lot of time in medieval Japan. Since I’m not in possession of a time machine (more’s the pity) most of that time gets spent in my head, or in books, but last summer I had the chance to spend a night in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) that came as close as I may ever get to the life my ninja detective, Hiro, would have lived on a daily basis.

Old Japan - Ryokan garden 

During my research trip to Japan, I spent the night at Ryokan Iwaso on Miyajima, a sacred island off the coast of Hiroshima.

Old Japan - Miyajima from Ferry

Constructed in 1854, Iwaso offers a traditional ryokan experience complete with a natural hot spring.

Ryokan originated during the Edo period (1603-1868) though even before this, inns existed in Japan to serve travelers and visitors. Many were surrounded by traditional Japanese gardens, where guests could stroll and enjoy an experience in nature. In that, Iwaso is no exception:

0616 Koi at Iwaso

Upon arrival, the ryokan owner traditionally greets each guest with a cup of tea and a sweet or savory snack served in the guest’s private room. Iwaso continues this tradition also. At check-in, a host in traditional dress escorted us to our room and served us tea and warm, fresh cakes filled with sweetened bean paste (a specialty of the Hiroshima region).

 Old Japan - Iwaso Tea Greeting

Rooms at a ryokan follow a traditional Japanese floor plan: tatami mats on the floor, a tokonoma (decorative alcove) displaying a seasonally-appropriate scroll or piece of art, and a cupboard with a sliding door where bedding (futons and quilts) are stored in the daytime.

 Old Japan - Iwaso Tokonoma and Closet

Note: there are no beds in a ryokan room.

After dinner, ryokan staff enter the room, move the table against the wall, and prepare the futons, much as they have done for hundreds of years.

Old Japan - Futons

Iwaso does offer a couple of modern conveniences that guests in a 16th or 17th century ryokan would have appreciated:

 Old Japan - Iwaso Guest Room

Each room had an adjacent entrance and antechamber with a private bathtub and shower, and a separate room with a private Western toilet. (A fact I did appreciate—but didn’t photograph.)

 15L28 Hanafuda

Also, our room had a set of Western chairs and a table, which my son and I used to play hanafuda, a traditional Japanese game involving tiles with different patterns of cards and flowers. The Portuguese introduced playing cards to Japan in 1549—the year Francis Xavier landed—and given that my second protagonist, the Jesuit Father Mateo, is Portuguese, hanafuda seemed a fitting way to pass a technology-free evening in a traditional Japanese inn.

Medieval travelers would have appreciated the traditional, seven-course kaiseki dinner, which featured local specialties—including pufferfish (fugu) sashimi and other exquisitely lovely dishes prepared to delight the eyes as well as the palate. Ryokan dinners normally feature local ingredients and regional delicacies, prepared in accordance with the seasons. Travelers could expect a delightful and changing variety of foods—at least in the ryokan that catered to samurai warriors or members of the increasingly wealthy merchant and artisan classes.

 15L28 Great Torii

Our evening ended—as many Japanese travelers’ would—with a walk, followed by a cup of delicious sake. The famous torii gate at the entrance to Itsukushima shrine was not illuminated by night in Hiro’s day, but it did exist (the “Great Torii” was originally constructed in 1168) and readers will encounter it in a future Shinobi Mystery. 

I’m already looking forward to returning to Miyajima, and to Iwaso. I may have to live most of my life in the modern world, but I’ll never pass up a chance to spend a night (or more) in medieval Japan.