What Travel Writers Say

In Sendai, a new type of "fast food"

© By Josephine Matyas
  Want a quick way to lose seven pounds? It involves 25 hours of travel to Asia and a live mollusc that squirms and wiggles on your dinner plate.
     "This is a very special meal," whispered my guide, sitting cross-legged at the low table next to me. A traditional Japanese kaiseki meal includes much more than raw pieces of tuna, miso soup and delicately carved morsels. It includes caterpillar fungus and raw sea urchin! Even more challenging, and kick-starting the rapid weight loss program, was a piece of undulating abalone slapped on the grill. I stared longer than usual at my plate. Get over it, I insisted. It's no different than a lobster tossed into a pot of boiling water on PEI.
     Suddenly, a woman two tables over, screamed. Apparently, another maverick abalone had made a quick break for it, wiggling off its shell and heading for the door; however, an attentive waitress grabbed the runaway and popped it back onto the smoking grill.
     My stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with cultural roots in the Edo Period, was the kind of sensual feast that is often transformative. Most experiences, except my near-brush with the abalone, was the kind of immersion travellers dream of when they book planes and hotels drawing them into the mysteries of a foreign culture.
     The Hotel Sakan and Akiu Spa is a thousand-year-old business, in the same family for 34 generations and one of Japan's oldest hot springs, located in Sendai, a two-hour train ride from bustling Tokyo.
     "Please enjoy our comforts and traditions," gestured okami (the general manager) Jun Satoh through a translator, welcoming me to serene Japanese terraces, gardens and rooms outfitted with rice paper sliding screens, floor cushions and low tables. "We have a mission to keep the ancient culture of the Japanese ryokan from being lost."

Albalone Cooking  Dinner, Hotel Sakan  Hotel Sakan, Sendai  Hotel Sakan Slippers 

     I arrived open minded, realizing there were dozens of Japanese points of etiquette that I would flub before making it across the lobby. Luckily, the ryokan represents the pinnacle of Japanese service, and as soon as I stepped into the atrium, there was a smiling, bowing woman wrapped in a kimono, helping me navigate the do's and don'ts.
     Knowledge expanded rapidly: shoes never touch the rush-woven tatami mats that cover floors in bedrooms and in many common areas. There are slippers designed for everything: sandals to pad about the hotel and a separate set of plastic slippers for bathrooms only. Wearing an ultra-comfortable yukata robe is encouraged in your room, lobby, restaurants, hot spring spa, and even on short excursions into town.

Sendai Dinner  Sendai Street Festival  Sendai Street Festival  Hotel Sakan Slippers & Robe 

     The basic footwear test was a trial run before they considered letting me loose in that most coveted of Japanese institutions, the communal, thermal bath. The notion of immersing my body into a steaming pool with a group of gawking naked strangers was a secondary concern. First, I needed to hurdle the change room and bathing rituals. With bathing a minefield of ancient rituals, there were no etiquette shortcuts. The four hot spring areas run 24/7, alternating use between men and women. Nevertheless, at my 5 a.m. visit, I double-checked the signage, not wanting a surprise.
     Slippers are displaced at the spa entrance, a frightening sea of tatami mats. Clothes are stripped off and placed inside open straw baskets on shelves. (There are also conventional lockers.) Clutching my Japanese "modesty towel" (tissue-sized), I strode to the washing cubicles lining the walls of the pool area. Bathers who stared could care less that I was naked; they were fascinated because I am tall and blonde. "We don't get many foreigners here," pointed out the okami.
     The art of the communal bath begins with a wooden bucket filled with hot water, followed by lots of soap and scrubbing before one dips a toe into the steaming pool. Washing with soap inside the thermal baths is a cardinal sin that would have you unceremoniously ushered off the premises. In the end, it was easy. Sliding into the outdoor cypress tub was precisely the type of purification of body and soul needed to wash away the vivid memory of a dinner that had waved at me from my plate.

Josephine Matyas is an award-winning travel writer and photographer living in Kingston, Canada. Soft outdoor adventure, history, cuisine and the great outdoors are topics she never tires of exploring. She writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines in North America, and is a board member of the Travel Media Association of Canada.

Photo Credits
Josephine Matyas

If you go
Sendai, Japan
as seen on

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sendai
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Sendai
Japanese food of a traditional ryokan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0Nxx4B6ozE
Japan National Tourist Organization, www.jnto.go.jp/canada
When to go: http://www.temperatureworld.com/
Hotel Sakan and Akiu Spa (www.sakan-net.co.jp) is a traditional Japanese ryokan. The nightly rates range from 20,000-50,000 yen per person, including breakfast, dinner and unlimited spa access. The meals served are all traditional Japanese cuisine. At night the staff will open up and prepare your futon bed.

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/

Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/


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