A record spins and 1960s folk music warbles out over the old sunken hearth. Chichi positions the sword in my husband’s sash and stands back to assess the look. He claps his hands together, signifying a job well done. His wife, Kaka, is busy tying my obi sash, but looks over her shoulder and exclaims “Kakkoii!”. She’s right, he does look cool. With all five in our party dressed in traditional Japanese garb, we worry that we’re crossing some sort of line. But being the third night at this Minshuku (Japanese bed & breakfast), we could politely decline the dress-up offer no more. Besides, it’s hard to say no to people who ask you to call them mum (kaka) and dad (chichi). So we go with it.
What’s a Minshuku?
There are many kinds of unique accommodation experiences in Japan, from the tiny capsule to the luxurious ryokan experience and all in between. But of those, there is one that offers a closer look at everyday Japan and a chance to connect with the locals. A Minshuku, or Japanese bed & breakfast, is a family run guest house that is typically found in rural areas or near tourist spots like hot springs. Home cooked meals are usually part of the arrangement as is a whole lot of down-home hospitality.
When some friends came to visit last summer, we decided to stay at a minshuku in Kumamoto prefecture while we explored the many natural wonders of the area. Pulling into the yard, we quickly realised it was the supreme green-change we’d been looking for.
Cats lazed in the sun and on chairs—some even formed a sleepy pile inside a garden pot. The birds chirped and the breeze ruffled the vibrant rice paddies. This calm atmosphere would set the tone for the following days and nights in the countryside.
Authentic and Traditional Experiences
After our kimono photoshoot, Chichi announced that the goemon buro bath they’d been preparing all afternoon was finally ready. This traditional style, deep, metal tub is filled with water and heated by an actual fire below. Up until now, we’d been using the modern bathroom in the main house; the goemon buro was a special treat. The other couple in our group volunteered to go first while the rest of us stayed around the irori (sunken hearth) to drink tea, play records and admire the design of the 160 year old house.
Before long, our friends return with bright red legs from the shin down. “It’s so hot, we couldn’t do it!”, Sean Penn san exclaims (not his real name, but one Chichi bestowed). My husband, Jason Statham san (another hairstyle-based nickname from Chichi), feels that being seasoned ofuro bathers, we would be able to handle it. So we traipse outside to the detached bathroom.
Turns out Sean Penn san was right—it’s hot. Flaming hot. With a little creative water removal and the addition of the cold shower head, we’re soon able to enjoy
being cooked alive our bath. Joking aside, this was our first time in a flame-heated goemon buro, and we are so grateful to have experienced it.
Good Old Fashioned Fun
Relaxation and fun are encouraged at a minshuku. At ours, we spent our free time playing with cats, cooing over their kittens and exploring the little slice of paradise.
And when Chichi excitedly produced some fireworks and sparklers after dinner one night, who were we to deny him his fun? We lit up the inky blackness with our pyrotechnics, dancing around to make our hosts laugh. Once we’d set fire to as much as we could, we sat listening to the rushing river and chirping crickets and even enjoyed a brief visit from a firefly.
Delicious Homemade Food
Much like in other countries, a Japanese bed and breakfast provides meals. Each day, we enjoyed creative Japanese/western fusion breakfasts and hearty homemade dinners. Once, chichi took delight in telling us that the chicken in our hotpot had been alive earlier that day. Another night saw us enjoying a sunset barbecue outside—an impossibility in our Tokyo apartment.
It was here that I tried takana (pickled mustard leaf) for the first time. Kaka had made a huge batch mixed with egg, and we were free to pile it on top of our rice. You’d better believe I stocked up on the stuff at the souvenir stores.
Getting to Know You
The type of person willing to open their home to strangers and cook their meals is usually one interested in getting to know people. This is definitely true of chichi and kaka. As much as they tried to give us space, we still spent a lot of time with them. I remember exploring outside one day and returning to an impromptu guitar singalong between chichi and my husband. They told us all about their life and family, gave us gifts and wanted to make sure we were having the best time. During the tearful goodbye, they wouldn’t let go of ‘Jason’ and ‘Sean’ and asked us to come back with babies.
Of all the places I’ve stayed in Japan, this one stands out as truly memorable. Unfortunately it seems that it this property no longer runs, but I’m sure there are plenty more eager minshuku hosts waiting for your visit. If you can arrange an international drivers permit and a sense of adventure, a minshuku stay might be just what the travel doctor ordered.
Post by Japan Journeys.