Ryokan’t

I’ve been musing an unusual amount recently about which Superpower will be the first to field a Robot Army and I think it’s got something to do with a run of nights staying in ryokans. They’re ‘traditional Japanese guest houses’, which sounds quaint and fantastic until you actually check in. The first one we stayed in, for ‘only’ two nights, was to see these chaps:

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DON’T PUSH ME COZ I’M CLOSE TO THE EDGE

Aaah, yes. The famous snow monkeys. Except in Autumn it doesn’t snow. So they’re just fucking monkeys. Yes I swore. But I’m also being literal. They are just fucking monkeys:

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IS THAT YOU COLIN?

It was in Yudanaka, near the snow monkey park, and we arrived at the guest house post-monkeys, feeling peeved that the National Geographic money shot never happened and we were in fact reduced to doing bunny ears behind the only moth-eaten macaque that stayed still long enough.

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AM I REDUCED TO THIS? (THINKS BOTH THE MONKEY AND THE HUMAN)

We’d left the glories of Tokyo for this shitshow and the only thing that was making up for the mega-hassle of schlepping four kids through a couple of train stations and several hours in a minivan would be a plush joint to scran, slurp and sleep in later on. Well – never has two nights felt so eternal. These places are bona fide WEIRD (at this point, if you’re Japanese, I have to declaim my utter adoration of your country and point out that this isn’t a hatchet job on Japanese culture… just one tortuous bit of it). A single shot of Eddie looking at his dinner that night will give an idea of what I’m on about:

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IT LIVES

They’re all tatami mats, sliding screens (seriously – every bit of wall is made of paper and slides backwards and forwards but NEVER REVEALING ANYTHING GOOD) and they’ve got the slightly dim and dank air of a 1970s motorway service motel that’s been cryogenically preserved and then filled with ageing Japanese people.

Seriously – they’re like gatehouses to the afterlife. The clientele all look like they’ve got about three days left to live, shuffling around in the mandatory yukatas (Japanese bathrobes) in the mandatory flip-flops and freaky toe-socks (OK, I admit, I quite like those) like it’s the absolute best place to breathe your last few breaths. The one we stayed in first off, in Yudanaka, was also an onsen (hot spring joint) which meant that we had a wooden crate of water on our balcony, overlooking the most depressing town since Amityville, filled with eggy-farty water that was only just below boiling point. Quite how this is meant to be relaxing or health-restoring still eludes me. Maybe they’re willing the old and infirm to speed the whole thing up and literally broil themselves into oblivion?

The next ryokan was in Hakone, a seaside resort famous for it’s magic boxes (pretty awesome wooden boxes with secret compartments) and being under Mount Fuji. The menu above shows the crazy-ass kaiseki cuisine that these places serve. Lots and lots of courses of Japanese food that even the kids have to eat unless you specifically ring up in advance and beg they lay on some western stuff. It’s so out there, we had fugu – potentially lethal blowfish – and milt – cod’s sperm served as the compulsory evening meal. And while it all looks amazing, it’s the sort of food that you’d be happy eating once, for a bet, rather than regularly, for laughs – and I LOVE Japanese food.

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THAT FUGU THAT YOU DO SO WELL

Which brings me to the Robot Army: the craziest part of ryokan culture is the staff. I swear the woman who was assigned to us (it’s like you’ve got a minder for a few days and not in a good way) was a replicant. I nearly caused a total system failure when I came out my room one morning in gym kit and said I was going for a run. She blinked, twitched and said ‘But what about breakfast’ in monotone. You see, we’d said the night before breakfast would be 8am and IT WAS ALREADY 8.15. She’d been standing there, fizzing and short-circuiting, for a full fifteen minutes.

Hakone was packed with day-trippers taking in the sights. You can definitely keep your uneventful ‘volcano’ with it’s farty gas emissions (dude, I’ve got four kids, I get this on a daily basis already) and sulphur-cooked black eggs (seriously – who has ever wanted eggs to be any eggier?) but a bit of balance now (BBC Producer Guidelines-style) – it was totally worth visiting Hakone for the pirate ship and the majestic Fuji-san. I’d just go out on a limb and say that you’d be better off taking the pirate ship all the way back to Tokyo while you’re at it.

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