Thursday, May 3, 2012

Field Trip! - Gankaen Ryokan, Ashikaga, Tochigi

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

During the Golden Week holidays we made a plan to visit Coco Farm and Winery in Tochigi prefecture and, having seen that this gem of a ryokan was nearby, decided to make a weekend of it. Aside from affording us the luxury of being able to wake up and stroll 20 minutes or so down the road to the winery, the main pull of Gankaen ryokan, I have to say, was their “Sherlock Holmes Loung – Moriarty” (sic). The kanji for the lounge’s name reads 森亜亭 (mori-a-tei) Oh! I just love me some cross-language punning. Many ryokan I have stayed in have had a bit of the dusty bric-a-brac aesthetic, threadbare faded velvet, polished dark oak tables, a cared-for but fading old-world feel, but this is the first one I’d seen with a Sherlock Holmes theme! I was disproportionately excited.

It wouldn't be a ryokan without some stuffed animals

We fancied a walk when we arrived at Ashikaga-shi station, and it took about an hour to walk to the Ryokan (there are taxis outside the station however). The route we took was through the residential area of the town past lots of closed down shops and an abandoned ghost-town supermarket. Having forgotten to pack a toothbrush we ventured into a local unbranded convenience store. Two old ladies were sat with the lights off having a good natter, most of the shelves were half empty. Taking a bottle of water and the toothbrush to the counter, we were politely interrogated as to where we were going, where we were from and if we had friends in the area. I came across as Russian to the ladies who were maybe a little too apologetic when I told them we were British, clearly they had a profession in mind for me as well.. though maybe buying toothbrushes didn't help dispel them of the thought. We were having fun already, and we hadn’t even arrived at the ryokan!

Gankaen is a traditional old ryokan, which from what I can gather has been largely in its current state since the end of the Edo period in the late 1800s. In the welcome folder in your room (is it just me who loves to go through those? :) ) are postcards with present day and 1935 views of the entrance, and it looks like not much has changed. The Sherlock Holmes theme is just localised to the lounge area, and is the area where breakfast is served.

The Sherlock Holmes Lounge is a space for exploring – the mirror with top hat stand, the old Japanese beer posters, the strange wooden winch/pulley system hung in a corner apropos of nothing, the stuffed bird in the tangle of branches over the door.

At one end of the Lounge is the “Aperitif Ber” (sic) the bar, which looks like it might not be in use any more, but has an array of aged Western paraphernalia along the lines of an old blender, retro toaster, a radio with dials. Little leather pouffy stools line up at the bar, and I was thinking it would have been lovely to have a pre-dinner tipple there, only the current staff weren’t sure what an aperitif was.

The bar, "Aperitif Ber"

At the back of the lounge was an upright piano, polished and in working order, draped with a velvet tassled cover. On the music stand was an embossed leather folder bearing a lion crest on the cover, concealing a new Japanese text book for “100 popular songs for children”. There was a desk with an array of instruments, weighing scales, a tiny telescope, a couple of attractive old empty holders for unknown objects. A gramophone with a Japanese record sat next to a record box and a strange wooden chest.

Just outside the lounge is the communal teeth-brushing/hand washing area common to many Japanese hotels, sinks and mirrors in a row arranged all about with blue glass cups, vases, candlesticks, and empty enamel vessels. Opposite that was a display cabinet full of cat and witch knick knacks and sparkly scrunchies, for sale. Quirky, deliberate, sometimes crossing the line into twee, I was charmed.

I was interested to see if I might pick up any quirkly interior tips for my space. The Sherlock Holmes Loung - Moriarty is very Japanese interpretation of (Victorian) England, but there were a couple of things I had been pondering that made appearances in this space.

Flocked velvet wallpaper – in my space, maybe I'd do something with this in the bathroom area? I’m not sure what it is about Sherlock Holmes, but the excellent BBC TV series also has Sherlock dramatically backed by velvet patterned wallpaper (nice observations of the same on this blog). At Gankaen, there was a lovely folding screen that was covered in a light turquoise-green flocked paper, and framed by dark wood. Interesting to think that Japanese folding screens with cranes and mountains were all the rage at the same time in Europe with the Japonisme of the late 1800s. (The image below is from Burke Decor, sadly I lost all the photos I took at the ryokan and had to use my partner's.)

Wing-backed chairs – In Gankaen, these were a pair of deeply springy upholstered chairs secreted in the far corner of the room, next to a table on which was placed a little glass lamp, with a matching set of high-backed dining chairs pushed against another wall. Being upholstered in beige had them bordering on Granny-chic, I guess it would depend on the pattern. I think I might try to find slightly beaten up leather wingback chairs, comfortable but special. (Again, the pictures below are approximations of the chairs from Gankaen, found here and here. I quite like the William Morris one on the left actually..)

The meals at the ryokan were lovely, just what you’d expect from a traditional place – kaiseki style in a private tatami dining room, brought course by course and explained “this is the tempura course, the chawanmushi, the nama course, this is salt-grilled fish, rice, pickles, onigiri...” You do of course also get grilled as to whether you're really finished with that course, since there is still some left. The meal was started off with two little glasses of rose wine from the nearby winery (I got an aperitif in the end!).

Breakfast was also in the traditional style with grilled fish, egg roll, soup, rice, seaweed, pickles (I passed on the natto). Another feature of the ryokan was the private bath, not an onsen but set up in the onsen style with showers and wooden stools along one wall and an irregular shaped small tiled bath. You can don your yukata in your room, come down put the latch on the bathroom door and have it to yourself for a little while. The changing area has its own set of fascinating bric-a-brac in the various lotions, hair tonic(!), tortoise-shell effect plastic combs, weighing scales and strange old fashioned exercise machines, and it looks out onto a closed courtyard.

Ashikaga-shi station is on the Tobu line, which we boarded at Kita Senju station after stocking up on train-picnic goodies at the station. We’d bought reserved seat tickets for the Tobu line at the JR midori-no-madoguchi window in Yotsuya JR train station. The ryokan's website is here, and a little bit of information in English here.

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