I lay on a thin futon mattress in a traditional tatami-covered room, faintly aware, through the paper shoji screen, of carp gently splashing in the garden pond. Earlier, our dinner had come in the form of a dozen exquisite small dishes served at the low, red lacquered table in our room by an unobtrusive yet highly attentive woman in full kimono. From the dramatic (snail dusted with green tea powder) to the sophisticated (tender strips of beef cooked table-side in a hot pot), each bite surprised and delighted us. My dinner companion and I toasted with our remaining sake to the friend who had recommended this detour through Yasugi, a small town which is home to an award-winning Japanese garden and the most romantic hotel I’ve ever experienced.
Our first ten days in Japan had been filled with romantic locales. We began with the gold-leaf temple and Sakura-soaked philosopher’s walk of Kyoto and proceeded to Naoshima, a quirky, fanciful island of galleries and art installations. Next we spent three days in Hiroshima enjoying its parks, graceful rivers and hundreds of bridges, perfect for lovers‘ strolls. Then on to Miyajima Island where the slower pace of life and ancient forest provide the perfect backdrop for admiring the Ohtorii Gate, a giant, crimson beacon rising from the Seto Inland Sea. Strolling past Itsukushima Shrine to enjoy views of the gate at twilight once the last ferry full of day tourists had left, I remarked that it was surely the most romantic place I’d ever been. Twenty-four hours later, Sagi-no-yu Ryokan in Yasugi was vying for that title.
Included in our stay at Sagi-no-yu was the opportunity to take a post-dinner soak in the hotel’s private outdoor onsen or hot spring. With small white towels draped over our shoulders (and nothing else) we disappeared up to our necks in the deep wooden bath. A bamboo tap was delivering a constant stream of water into the gently overflowing tub, so on entry the water displaced by our bodies rushed over the sides and through the wooden slatted floorboards of the veranda. Steam rose languorously into the cool, dark air and my gaze settled on the rock garden, its white stones freshly raked into soothing linear patterns.
The combination of a multi-course dinner, a carafe of sake and the forty degree bath soon conspired to make me drowsy and I retreated to our room. There I found the casual summer kimono of pink and yellow flowers and the chartreuse obi that I had selected on arrival. It was thus clad that I lay on my futon, hours later, contemplating the romantic simplicity of my surroundings. Suddenly, a series of soft, and then not so soft, snores rose from the mound under the duvet next to me.
You’re snoring again. Roll onto your side.”
Is this what happens when you’re 32 and single? Romantic vacations with your mother? (Now that you know who my travel companion was, I beseech you not to revisit the outdoor bathing episode. Let’s never speak of it again.) Where was I? Oh yes, romance.
You can keep Paris, Japan in the springtime has cast its spell on me. Where else can you find the enchantment of women dressed in kimono and wooden geta taking dainty steps while eating light pink “cherry blossom” ice cream? Or the allure of a sudden rendezvous with a hundred red torii gates on a quiet forest path. Or flirtatious carp windsocks swimming upstream through the breeze. And the strongest elixir of all, the delicious, ubiquitous sight of Sakura; on dark cherry wood boughs, fluttering to the ground and swept into neat piles on the pavement. Add to that Japan’s unique blend of warm hospitality, shy friendliness and politesse crossed with ruthless efficiency, formality and fastidiousness and I’m in heaven.
I may tease her about the snoring, but experiencing Japan all over again, twenty years on, with my mother by my side was a rare gift. There may not have been romance but there was no shortage of love.