The air is so pure, and the food is so sublime you'll wonder, why me? Why now? You'll release a pleading moan to the universe that can take it all away the moment you get a taste of the way things could be.
Staying with Family You Never Knew You Had
I wish I was back at Shoan inn right now, tucked away in a pine forest on an outcropping in sacred Matsushima, where no one can find me. In the spirit of reliving a treasured memory, let us go on a little journey back to early April 2016.
We pull onto the property to find a staff member in kimono waiting to carry our luggage. Weary from days on the road, it feels like a symbolic gesture when she lifts our bags out of our hands. We follow her inside and get the impression we’re visiting the manor of a benevolent aunt, one with a penchant for pine trees. The luscious painting-like carpeting, wood furnishings, and much of the artwork on display is a nod to where we are, Matsushima, pine tree islands. Even the rooms have names that start with the kanji character for pine. Ours is called “Late-spring Cicada.” Yes, I’m dying from the poetry of it all…
The room opens up to a view of our own private alcove. Time for my second deep sigh… We flutter around with our cameras stalking a heron stalking a fish. Eventually, we settle for a cup of hot green tea and bunny-shaped sweets. I realize white rabbits are another motif here. You pry me away from my reverie and we head downstairs to meet with Mr. Masaharu Sato, who will explain everything.
We learn that the lounge we’re sipping coffee in has been done up according to our aunt’s specifications. I like her sense of play and appreciation for an eclectic mix of Japanese and Western design. She matches a curvy Venetian table and electric blue armchairs with the clean lines and subdued colors of the room itself. Mr. Sato pulls out some early Showa era design magazines, confirming my nerdy suspicions.
It’s clear that Shoan is a labour of love – you can feel it in the air. But it comes with a love story to break your heart. Imagine our beloved aunt working long years with her husband who has finally found the property of his dreams. Imagine the two spending a decade trying to get the rights to build a place of their own here, only to have our uncle’s life come to an end… Now imagine our aunt struggling to bring his dream to fruition. And here we are today. Yeah, there’s a piece of dust in my eye too.
See that wall unit stacked with our uncle’s favorite books? Mr. Sato gently swings it closed as if the unit itself were a book to reveal the other side. It’s stocked with a selection of unique glasses. Suddenly the room has transformed into a bar. Feel like a drink? Pick your poison, pick a glass, fill out a slip, and leave it in a box. Straight out of a storybook for grown-ups. Our aunt also decides on a musical theme of the month for our listening pleasure. This time, we’re treated to tunes from 18th Century Italy.
Mr. Sato tells us our aunt took it upon herself to make this inn female-friendly. Aha! This is why we’re seeing so much white rabbit – check out the logo – which in Japan represents women and girls He says our aunt grew up in the hospitality industry and noticed, time and again, that many Japanese inns were tailored to male clients. The ladies’ hot spring baths were too small, as were the vanity areas in the rooms. And check-out times were always too early for women who wanted to sleep in (for once!) and enjoy a leisurely breakfast. So at this ryokan, check-out is at noon versus 9am in most other establishments. The baths are larger than average and the two bathing areas are made available to women, then men, on a rotating schedule. Fair and square! There are two outdoor baths and one is made of Japanese cypress. Today we’re told it features fresh roses… SOLD.
Shoan is operated by Sakan, a family business based in Akiho Onsen near Sendai with a thousand-year history. Our favorite aunt carries the torch of the family business as the 33rd generation of Sakan innkeepers. Did I mention she’s practically been knighted by the Japanese government? Mr. Sato tells us, a bit bashfully, that she selects Shoan staff from a pool of workers at the Sakan inn at Akiho Onsen. Employees like him are pretty much her adoptees. They share her sense of pride in their work and willingly roll up their sleeves when asked to lend a hand out back. The “promenade” we’re now walking along was cleared by Mr. Sato himself, along with his siblings, I mean coworkers, and their respective families.
And because life is not fair, and the universe is out to get us, we arrive at the slightly overgrown lookout at magic hour. There’s that heron’s nest, in a choice spot just below eye-level, in its own red pine that dramatically stretches out over the water. Time for another deep sigh… The color produced by the low-hanging sun reflected in the bay is… okay, let me try to describe it – a bluish-grey yellowish-orange mauve – and it twangs at my heartstrings. You remind me that champagne service is available in this very spot, and I wish for a split-second that you are the man of my dreams and not my best friend. Then you laugh and drag me back in time for dinner.
I do not regret this. We head down to our private dining room in our pretty pink yukata robes like a couple of giddy teenagers. In front of us are personalized menus that match the names on our slippers. You whisper that this will likely be one of the best meals we’ve ever had. So I’m prepared to have my socks knocked off! The woman who first greeted us returns to tell us how this will all go down. We listen attentively, and learn about the saké (and Champagne!) that’s there to celebrate our return home. She tells us the story behind each piece of edible artwork that’s presented to us. I hate to admit that everything that goes into my mouth elicits an eye-roll… of pure ecstasy.
Warning: I am about to write a gushy paragraph about steamed white rice.
The unadulterated, subtly-sweet, steamed white rice is revealed to us standing up on end, kind of like the hairs on the back of my neck. You tell me this is a thing, but that you’ve never actually witnessed it. The rice, cultivated here, is a variety called hitoméboré, or love at first sight. Kill me now… Our hostess returns after a while, and we sit up straight after rubbing our bellies like a couple of slobs. I can tell from the smile on her face that we’ve been busted. She offers to make us rice balls with the unused portions so we’ll have something to eat on the road tomorrow. Thanks, mom!
But it’s this one tiny morsel that encapsulates the Shoan experience for me, and of course it’s local, like practically everything else. It’s one of the first things we’re served: an appetizer, featuring a seared scallop and a single katakuri violet blossom that is only found in nature this very week. I can practically hear my own heart break as my teeth sink into it.
In fact, I could write pretty words about every single delicacy we polished off but you’d be reading for days because breakfast was another adventure in complete culinary harmony. Hot and savory pickled plum tea to start? Please, sir, I want some more…
I catch myself shaking my head in disbelief over the course of our stay; they’ve thought of everything we could possibly need. From the fully-stocked sewing kit in our room, with which you mend a stocking, to the note from the staff accompanying the perfect little bouquet of flowers placed there for my birthday. (!) I’m beside myself. This can’t get any worse. I mean, better.
But this very personalized attention to detail can be explained…
The founding family of Sakan practiced Buddhism. Our aunt once received some wise words from a visiting monk: musei-yobito. It’s a mysterious term on which she has come to base her philosophy of service. This loosely translates to the much-less-eloquent: call out to others without the voice. This is how they provide the impeccable service they do without overstepping boundaries. They read our demeanors, listen to our behaviors, and anticipate our every whim. Now if only we could get our lovers to think the same way! (Note to self: Ask if Sakan runs a romance bootcamp…)
Mr. Sato tells us about another important mentality cultivated here. When people arrive, they make it a point to say welcome home instead of simply welcome. When leaving, their send-off is have a wonderful day instead of thank you. The idea is that we’re family now, and they’ll be waiting with open arms for us the next time. And there will be a next time. Some guests come year after year with newer generations of their own kin, others are single travelers looking to tap out from society for a few days, and there are also young families who want private time, here, in their vacation home. Everyone loves our aunt and her faithful crew!
If I haven’t convinced you to experience the homecoming that is a trademark of Sakan Shoan, then I guess you’ll just have to go back and see for yourself. (See what I did there?)
There’s another anecdote I wanted to share with you about magical Sakan Shoan. It’s located in Miyagi, the prefecture hit hardest by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. The disasters on March 11, 2011 left over 23,000 dead or missing and displaced over 300,000 people nation-wide. The town of Matsushima was largely protected from massive tsunami by all the pine tree islands that acted as breakers. But Higashimatsushima, not a 30-minute drive east, wasn’t so lucky.(Find out more here) Shoan played an important role in local recovery efforts. It took a week for the inn to get its electricity back, and an entire month to get running water again. But our trusty vacation home, along with the rest of Matsushima, served as a temporary base for rescue and aid workers from across the country. Police and emergency medical services personnel camped out here alongside construction workers, with 150 people at one point packing the guest rooms and lounge meant for 30, max. After the tsunami, business was so bad that Shoan employees feared for their jobs. But things at the inn got back to normal after about a year. And now, it’s doing better than ever. Mr. Sato tells us about some of the rescue workers who recently came home to Shoan with their loved ones in tow. Yeah, yeah, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.
Ivy Yukiko Ishihara Oldford
May 19, 2016
Sakan Shoan information
1, Tetaru-aza-umeki, Matsushima-cho, Miyagi-ken
|Number of rooms||11|
|Check in/out||in 2:00pm out 0:00pm|
Iso Sushi (Sushi) - 4-12, Isozaki, Matsushima-cho, Miyagi-ken - TEL:022-353-2826
Shokadou (café) - 109, Matsushima, Matsushima-cho, Miyagi-ken - TEL:022-355-5002
SHOBIAN (café) - 120, Matsushima, Matsushima-machi, Miyagi-ken - TEL:022-354-4016
Akama (Japanese-style grill) - 10,MatsushimaNamiuchihama, Matsushima-cho, Miyagi-ken - TEL:022-354-5538
Taikantei (Japanese-style Western food) - 98-9, Matsushima, Matsushima-choi,Miyagi-ken - TEL:022-354-3191
Uchimi(ramen)v - 10, Matsushimasenzui, Matsushima-cho, Miyagi-ken - TEL:022-354-2363
Bistro abalon (french) - 26-21, MatsushimaSanjyugari, Matsushima-cho, Miyagi-ken - TEL:022-354-5777