Pumpkins. Mushrooms. Persimmons. Mmmm…
Late autumn ripens my memories of Japan.
To the night Lynn, Ward, Magellan and I, dressed in kimonos, ate kaiseki at Ryokan Kurashiki. “Dishes of October, The feast to do the sight of autumn colors,” served by a kindly Japanese woman in the autumn of her life who Ward nicknamed “Ryokan Mommy.”
The Japanese revere kaiseki, a succession of beautifully composed little dishes of the season’s freshest ingredients presented to delight the eye as much as the palate. At Ryokan Kurashiki the artistry begins with a hand-made menu accented by maple-leaf stickers the colour of pumpkins and persimmons.
After four days of hiking the Komano Kudo, we were ready for this feast. But first I want to tell you about Kurashiki.
Looking the same as it has for centuries, its traditional black-and-white kura (wooden storehouses) lining narrow pedestrian-only streets along a willowy canal, the old town of Kurashiki has been voted the most picturesque in Japan.
Located on the Seto Inland Sea, Kurashiki prospered in the Edo period when wealthy merchants built kuras to store rice, cotton, sugar and sake. Today, those merchants’ kuras and homes have been transformed into a jumble of small shops, artisan studios, cafés, museums and inns. Like Ryokan Kurashiki, which Google says is one of the top ryokans in the country because of its unique homage to traditional Japanese inns.
Ryokan Kurashiki began its life as an inn in 1957 when the former home, shop and warehouses of a wealthy rice and sugar merchant were joined together. As you might expect when you combine three buildings, the place is a maze. Every inchi was refurbished with exquisite Japanese craftsmanship and furnished with fine antiques. And every guest room is spacious and unique.
Ryokan Mommy offered us a welcome drink and showed us to our rooms. Magellan and I slept in the former sugar storeroom on the second floor, in the Inui Suite overlooking the canal. Lynn and Ward pillowed down in the two-level Kura suite, once a tool shed. Its main floor now has tatami mats and a traditional kotatsu, a table with a heated pit below for warming your feet. When we stayed, the inn had only five guest rooms but on its 60th anniversary, three more were added.
The ancient tradition of ryokans serving kaiseki to their guests continues here. (Ryokan Kurashiki sometimes serves lunch and dinners to locals as well.) We were given the option of having dinner in our room or in the restaurant or in what I’ll call “the traditional Japanese tea and reading room overlooking the garden.”
It is said that few cultures approach food and drink with the solemnity of the Japanese. The four of us had experienced kaiseki dinners in mountain towns and villages but none as visually elaborate or deliciously fresh. And none compared with the obvious pleasure and pride that Ryokan Mommy took in serving. Was her husband the chef? Did they own the place, we wondered?
And then, the next morning, this lavish breakfast, as Lynn describes: “burning coals and raw fish, sliced thin with the skin on and an eye staring up at us. So much food: tofu and mushrooms, layered egg, pickled plums, a potato salad and a massive bowl of rice.”
And who was there to greet us at 0700?
Was it her husband assisting her at breakfast? I didn’t know until writing this story. Unlike every other trip, my dairy of our trip to Japan was artistic not wordy.
All I know is it’s an art to make people feel at home. It’s a gift to deepen a traveller’s feelings about your country’s traditions. An aptitude unique as the inflorescence of an autumn chrysanthemum.
Trust the Japanese to have a word for this—omotenashi—hospitality from the heart.
And then dear readers, I received a reply to an email I had sent the Ryokan. Here it is:
Firstly we are so sorry for late reply.
And thank you for your e-mail with such a compliment.
We are really glad about you are going to write the blog about us.
Regarding your question, the staffs who had served you in 21st October, 2016 are KIYOKO as a older woman and KATAYAMA as a gentleman.
They are not our owner but they have been working for our RYOKAN for long time.
Definitely we will tell them about this email in order to make them proud about theirself.
I hope it clarify your point.
If you have further questions about us please let us know.
We are always welcome to answer to you.
4-1 HONMACHI, KURASHIKI OKAYAMA
Here’s the Ryokan’s lovely website.