It’s worth it to research like mad to find the perfect place to stay, I think. Many of my fondest travel memories involve my home-away-from-home and the people who make it feel that way… like Ryokan Sawanoya.
Sawanoya is located in an area of Tokyo called Yanaka. The moment I arrived I felt as if the stress of travel and such a huge city just lifted. In Yanaka, time slows down. Everyone moves more slowly and intentionally. They travel by bike or foot down quiet streets dotted by temples. I have so much to say about this little neighborhood, the one that made me fall for Tokyo. Another time.
My first full day in Tokyo, after immersing myself in the fish market, I got off the Yamanote line at Nippori and began my walk to the ryokan. Immediately I knew I’d made the right choice. I made a mental note to always choose the neighborhoods guidebooks deem sleepy. I walked through the Yanaka Cemetery, the sotōba (wooden plaques at the ceremony clacking in unison with the wind. I wandered down tiny side streets and was charmed by the gardens and cats everywhere. At last, after multiple people stopped to ask if they could help me find my way, I arrived at Sawanoya.
I was greeted by Mr. Sawa, the co-owner of the ryokan. His kindness is palpable, you’ll see. I have him to thank for introducing me to the liberal usage of hai, the word for yes, in Japanese culture. As I asked questions he would respond hai as he understood. He handed me maps and circled everything I must see in the neighborhood. Then, Mrs. Sawa brought me to my room on the third floor. The building is simple, lovely, and very tidy. My room is tiny and perfect, surrounded by paper doors and furnished with tatami mats, a futon bed, and a little table with a tea set on it. I’m left to settle in.
The first afternoon and every afternoon thereafter I made it a point to take a soak in the beautiful onsen (bath) on the first floor. I put on my yukata, unsure what to wear under it so I just put it atop my pajamas in fear of being risque, put on my bath slippers, and walked down the stairs to the baths. If both were available, I took the larger cedar tub. It’s meant for two but so heavenly I can’t resist taking it. After a full shower, I stepped carefully into the piping hot water and let my aches and pains accumulated from the day drift away while looking out on the little garden.
In the evenings, prone to exhaustion, after my evening walk I picked up something small at the supermarket nearby and ate in the dining room. I read, wrote, planned the next day’s adventures, or just ate quietly, listening to the sounds of the Sawa family in the back room as they concluded the day and always laughing to myself when Mr. Sawa’s son would walk by with a bird in a cage. I never did see where the bird was during the day. A little mystery. I’d fall into bed on my little futon, sure this is the way everyone must sleep whilst in Japan.
Mornings were special, too. After waking up too early, I’d make a pot of tea in my little room and relax a while…meditate, write. Once the sun started illuminating the room through the paper door, I knew it was an acceptable time to get up. I would walk down the steep stairs as quietly as possible and remove a makeshift breakfast from my provisions I stored in the fridge; kimchi, rice, or, my favorite roast Japanese sweet potato. I made my little instant coffee in the corner and chose a seat by the window. What is it about travel that makes instant coffee taste good? Mr. Sawa would arrive and bring me the Japan Times. I don’t read the paper really, but the gesture was so sweet I read an article or two, making me happier than ever I was away.
Sawanoya became my home, truly. Even now as I write I think about it so fondly–the early-morning walks to the train as I set off sightseeing and the return to quiet, familiar streets at the end of long, exciting days. The treatment I received here introduced me to the hospitality for which Japan is known. Everything is done with thought and care and presented in the most lovely way. From the little tea set on my table to the perfect paper crane set on my pillow that now rests on my kitchen shelf.
I was sad to leave on the last day. Mr. Sawa was checking someone in, so I just gave a little wave. I carried my bag to the street and as I turned to leave I noticed Mrs. Sawa and her son standing at the door bidding me goodbye. It’s a very special place.