24 April 2010

Service as Design

Gora-Kadan Ryokan, Kanagawa, Japan

If there are few experiences in my life that I'd like to put in a time capsule, one would be the single night spent at the traditional Japanese ryokan (inn), Gora-Kadan, in the mountains outside of Tokyo.

I never thought that seated on a wooden stool, in a communal bath house, scrubbing down with soap in a row with six other nude women would ever constitute as one of my life's spiritual moments. But it did. The very grandeur of the bath house with its soaring ceilings, dim lighting, individual vanities at the shower stations with mirror, soaps and sponges and the hushing sound of slowly running water in the indoor onsen (natural hot springs bath) transports one to another worldly state of being. There was a mother at the end of the vanities, washing the hair of her young daughter. There was something so intimate and loving, regardless of being amongst strangers. To add, there was also a stone, outdoor bath with waterfall surrounded by trees and bamboo. The changing room was warm to the bare feet with its fine wooden floors and carefully designed built-in shelves for water and tea dispensers, baskets for each guest's personal effects and neatly folded, multi-sized towels for various uses left no needs to address.

After soaking in the onsen, guests were escorted to a relaxation room with a breathtaking view of the mountains and valley. While sipping iced green tea, massage chairs were turned on to relax. Yes, more of that. A stroll around the property was brief, but the calm that the structure projected was in play. Blocked mobile phone service sent some guests into withdrawal while others were in a trance from over-relaxation. An exquisitely prepared ten-course dinner, famous in ryokans, was then served in each guest room. What we know as room service is put to shame here, especially with our butler bowing to the floor, every time he left our room serving a course. Serving breakfast the following morning was as attentive. In fact, he never left our sides during our stay.

I could go on about our room, futon beds, the shiatsu massage in my bed after dinner, but I will stop. One surrenders in many forms here. Leaving behind daily routines, a life of running. We were faced with ourselves and the peace within. It took some time to find it, but the tradition of insurmountable ryokan hospitality was designed to heal and restore the spirit. One hasn't experienced Japanese culture at its sensorial glory until surrendering to a traditional ryokan. Some nudity required.

Gora-Kadan Ryokan, 1300 Gora, Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa, Japan; www.gorakadan.com

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