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Monday, 25 April 2011

Magic Mountains, Japanese Style

Written by Scott Haas
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I wouldn’t call the Japanese stoic, nor is their culture especially passive, but the country’s reputation for acceptance of things as they are, rather than as they might be, has led to many cultural misunderstandings between Japan and the west. Much of this has to do with long suffering implicit in a Shinto-infused outlook on life. Simply put, this is a striving for perfection knowing that it cannot be reached, always falling short, and in this creative process establishing a richly symbolic duality. The Japanese aesthetic has a vision of how things ought to look and their best art is as much about what is missing as what’s seen.

This is one reason why it is so spellbinding to travel to Japan and why it has inspired Western writers and artists--such as Roland Barthes, Angela Carter, Henry Moore--who appreciate the tangle of signs and silences, the way nature in Japan is felt intuitively rather than seen as something to be dominated by human beings.

J3The pinnacle of the Japanese experience of quiet and natural aestheticism is found in their ryokans. One way to describe a ryokan is to call it a Japanese inn, typically in the countryside, where guests shed clothing and spend days and nights bathing in hot springs, dozing on tatami mats, and eating seasonal vegetable-driven cuisine served in small portions in multiple courses in a style called kaiseki that is centuries old.  

Another way to tell you about ryokans is to say that they are the Japanese version of a refuge sort of like the one Thomas Mann described in, “The Magic Mountain.” The effect of being at a ryokan is magnified by surrendering to nothingness. You become a child again, only this time there are no activities, there is nothing “to do,” and you feel an extremely powerful sense of physical and emotional relief.  

J2Ryokans in Japan vary in size and quality. The most famous are in stunning natural settings where guests return annually for decades to feel young again.  

Upon arrival you remove your shoes. You are led by an old woman to a room with sliding doors.  You put on a yukata, or Japanese robe, and for the duration of your stay, you shuffle from your bedroom, where meals are served at a table positioned on the floor, to the baths, which are typically open 24 hours. Usually segregated by sex, the baths have indoor and outdoor areas, with the heat having a strong, calming effect. There are no clocks in the best ryokans, and you blend with nature, merge with your surroundings, and your mind is emptied of concerns.

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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