Foreign Correspondence: The rejuvenating nature of Japanese ryokans

For the past three days straight I've been wearing pyjamas: the comfiest, softest linen pair, apricot-coloured with a drawstring waist and sleeves which hit the wrist just before the point at which you risk dipping them in your coffee. They are so perfect, I had forgotten I had them on until I started writing this.

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Normally when someone announces they've been wearing pyjamas for an extended period, it is assumed they have fallen on difficult times. But in this case, the opposite is true: these last few days I have been ensconced in a traditional Japanese ryokan, a kind of inn at which the custom is to wear clothes provided by the establishment. These are laid out on your bed – a cloud-like mattress on a tatami floor – each evening. Even babies get an outfit: in my son's case, it is another whisper-soft linen number, albeit in a more practical hue of navy blue, with a kimono-style fastening on the side. As children are, he is aware of the overall effect, which is winning, and loves parading through the wide, quiet hallways with sleeves aflutter on an indiscernible breeze.

This is fine at a ryokan, because while the atmosphere is calming, it is also without preciousness. No one will shush you, not even if you are a baby. There are no particular "rules". But there's something about wearing pyjamas – not to mention surrendering shoes at the door – which encourages everyone to carry themselves differently.

The space itself makes no demands. It is neutral. It is not cosy, at least not in the way Westerners might expect. There isn't an abundance of throw cushions. Lounging, in general, isn't the done thing: beds are put away in cupboards during the day, leaving the room remarkably empty of furniture. Paper screens filter light so that it always seems like a sunny winter day. (Moonlight casts a particularly lovely glow on the tatami.) You can move them according to your own preference; there's something endlessly fascinating in the way the configuration of screens creates different postcards of the outside world.

In a very civilised arrangement, breakfast is delivered to your room, with six mini-courses arranged in cedar boxes which slide open like the paper screens. There is salad, with a carrot dressing so zingy it doesn't feel like a chore to eat lettuce at 7am; a piece of grilled salmon, served with grated radish; miso soup in a brilliant lacquered bowl; and rice, the slightly sticky, sweet variety favoured by the Japanese, which they eat last as a treat. (It's considered rude to leave even a grain behind in your bowl.)

There are two other components that define a ryokan: its onsen, or hot spa, which uses mineral water from deep below the premises for a communal bathing facility; and the kaiseki, an elaborate tasting menu served in the evening, usually in a private room.

What all of these experiences have in common is that they are designed to be frictionless. There's a difference between the smooth, serene functioning of a ryokan and the 24-hour room service convenience of a big-chain hotel. The latter presumes the guest knows best; the former runs according to the belief that thousands of years of tradition can't be wrong. We think of relaxation as a dulling of the senses, a third glass of wine or a Netflix binge. But at a ryokan, every sense is heightened, with the result best described as rejuvenation.

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