A Lesson in Service

by afatpurplefig


Ryokan Motonago has been something special.

It has taken some getting used to, in many different ways. At the risk of sounding obsessed with my size, it makes me feel cumbersome. The corridors leading to our room are small, so I have to duck under a couple of beams and doorways to get to it, and Mary and I can’t both fit in the tiny vestibule at our door together, so someone always has to open the second door (after putting their slippers on), before we can close the first.


Then there’s the floor. Our chambermaids (their term, not mine) bend, kneel and stand as though it’s the easiest thing in the world, so when it comes time for me to do the same, it’s almost a shock that I can’t. And, believe me, there is nothing quite so undignified as having to turn onto all fours to heave yourself up every time. When I knew someone was coming to make up our bed on the second night, I made sure I was up and ready, so as not to have to do it while they were waiting to move our table.

But it isn’t only the getting up that’s difficult, because it’s actually not easy to spend a lot of time sitting on the floor either. I am constantly changing position – legs out in front, legs to the side, kneeling (oh, so briefly, just to stretch parts of me) – and on both nights, I have gone to bed earlier than planned, simply because I can’t sit for a second longer. And if this is making it sound as though we’re spending a lot of time in our room, we aren’t…this is just sitting for breakfast and dinner, and a couple of hours at night.


The aesthetics of the room are unique, and beautiful. The floor of our room is covered in tatami mats, and when you are inside, you can smell the wood, especially in the bathroom. There are fresh yukata waiting for us in the cupboard each day, so pressed and starched that the fabric layers need to be peeled apart before putting them on. And the shutters are raised in the morning, to give us a view of our garden, then lowered when our beds are made in the evening.


And, whilst our environment is incredibly traditional, it has been enhanced with all modern conveniences; Shiseido bath products, fabric bags of essentials (razors, hairbands, toothbrushes), excellent shower fixtures, heating, and a warmed toilet that literally greets you when it senses you’ve come into the room (Mary summed it up best when she said, ‘it’s like it worships me, and says ‘welcome, my queen’ when I walk in there’).

There seems to be some special attention paid to this small area, inset into the wall. When we first arrived, I gave a fleeting thought as to what it might be for (furniture? luggage?), however, I soon noticed that, whenever we returned from being out, the light had been turned on in there to await our arrival. I believe it was just to showcase and highlight the small flower arrangement on the wall.

The food has been extraordinary, and I will remember it always. We have had Japanese breakfast served in our room, including grilled fish, dashimaki, pickles, tofu, and miso soup.


But it was the Kaiseki dinner that was wildly memorable. The menu didn’t have much to say in English, so we didn’t have any idea what was going to come out, from one course to the next.


Marvels, that’s what. One beautiful tasting thing after another, in a steady stream of tiny dishes, pots, trays and jars. ‘Eat, eat!’ our chambermaid would say, as she packed up the tray of used items to take away with her, and I would pick something up, poised to eat, until she left, then immediately put it back down to take a photo.

Mary and I had one mishap, when our ‘One Pot Dish’ was placed on a burner for ‘three minutes, yes?’. Only, at the end of three minutes, we couldn’t put the burner out, and we couldn’t put the pot on the plastic tray (in case it melted it), and we couldn’t touch the sides of it easily (because it was quite hot), leaving us in something of a dilemma. In the end, Mary turned her lid upside down and balanced the dish on that, and I went with frantically scooping everything out into another bowl. Rest assured we made sure to compose ourselves and return everything to its original place before she returned.

Our favourite course? This tiny, immaculate piece of tea jelly. I have no words.


For me, the hardest thing has been allowing myself to be served. They do everything for us here; take our shoes at the front door (and run to have them ready for us when we leave), make our beds, bring our meals, take our plates, dry our bathroom with fans, and bring us tea and water. They even stand at the front of the ryokan and watch us walk down the street after we leave. And I feel as though it keeps me in a state of suspended concern.

I worry that the fans mean we’ve made our bathroom too wet, and when Mary takes a different pair of shoes to wear (because I know he will grab both pairs ready for us, and it will take him a minute to figure out that the system is changing for today), and when our senior chambermaid takes my heavy backpack from me, and that the table is too heavy to move aside for our beds, and that we haven’t drunk the tea that has been left for us, and that Mary has tried on all the clothing items, meaning they need to be re-pressed. And I always try to leave quickly, so as to lessen the time needed to observe our departure. Once, when Mary wanted to repack her shoulder bag a few metres down the road, I thought I would hyperventilate, because two attendants just stood there, watching us, the whole time.

At our meals, the placing of so many individual dishes, in exactly the right places, is a time-consuming process, in a room that is silent. And I find it so difficult to just sit there. I want straighten the placemat that has blown askew while placing Mary’s dishes, and move the centre plate over, because I can see there isn’t enough space for the one that will go on the left, and move the tray closer so it will save stretching to put the necessary dishes on it, but, in the end, I just sit and will it to be over as quickly as possible.

Why is that, I wonder?

It has been a lesson in service.

Just in case you are wondering how Mary and I have existed in so calm a space, here is a picture of our things, kept conveniently over to the side, out of photo range.


And here is Mary, having dinner.