The trees part, and the view takes my breath away. I'm standing near the edge of a sheer cliff. The sea is directly below me. A strong wind roughs up the sea. Billowing waves crash against rocks. The horizon stretches out before my eyes.
Dancing Fish and the Women of the Sea
“The food at this ryokan is sumptuous.” Lured by raving reviews, I embark on the long journey south from Tokyo to Mie prefecture. I arrive at Yumeyuuka (“an elegantly played dream”), a Japanese-style inn in the thriving seaside town of Osatsu. Not only is it said to be protected by the gods, it’s home to many vibrant traditions, the most famous of which is ama free diving.
Traditional ama (“women of the sea”) dive for pearls, seaweed and shellfish, using little to no equipment. This practice is reputed to have a 2,000-year-old history in Japan. There are around 250 active ama divers in the Osatsu area, and about 800 across the country. Surprisingly, some of the staff at Yumeyuuka are themselves ama.
The website had me expecting a typical luxury ryokan. But I was in for a wonderful surprise. The staff, like the women of the sea, are jolly and refreshingly brisk. The innkeeper is a charmer, and enjoys chatting with his guests. The layout of the inn is just as interesting. The main building houses the reception area and restaurant, while the guest rooms and communal bath are located in an extended row of cozy houses, evoking images of the way things must have been in this area, decades, maybe even centuries ago.
In many rural Japanese towns, neighbors used to help each other out, both materially and emotionally. In this town of ama, things haven’t changed, and their ties remain deeply rooted. Divers form groups and share seaside huts, as well as a rock-solid trust that’s crucial for their safety. There’s something we city-dwellers can learn from this sort of hardy interdependence.
I set my bags down and decide to see for myself the landscape that captivated my host. I take the path alongside the communal baths, and head up the slope that leads into the woods. The trees part, and the view takes my breath away. I’m standing near the edge of a sheer cliff. The sea is directly below me. A strong wind roughs up the sea. Billowing waves crash against rocks. Farther out, the water seems calm, but the waves are aggressive by the time they reach the rocks below. The horizon stretches out before my eyes. I see the town to my right, and to my left, jagged green cliffs jut out over the sea. I reflect on how people have coexisted with this dramatic environment over uncountable generations.
The Yumeyuuka innkeeper is an Osatsu local, who came across this cliffside property when he was just 20. It was love at first sight, and he decided to buy it on the spot. I stand in the very place he did and completely understand the impulse. I can guarantee that anyone who comes here will fall under its spell.
My host and his wife ran a small guesthouse in another town. Eleven years ago, they finally felt the time was right to start building here. Of the nine rooms at Yumeyuuka, I get to stay in the one named Kaze-no-to (“The Wind Room”). It’s an exclusive suite complete with a dining room, a Japanese-style tatami room and a bedroom. It can accommodate up to six people, making it perfect for families. On my terrace, I have an open-air bath made of carved stone, and to my delight, the majestic scenery that enthralled me not so long ago.
Back when they first got started, the couple did everything they could with their own hands. They leveled the ground, built the baths, and designed the inn itself. Now, they run the place together with their son and daughter-in-law. I think that’s what gives this place its homey warmth.
And oh yes… does the food ever live up to its reputation! All the seafood is local. The dishes are carefully laid in front of me, one after another. My chopsticks can barely keep up! I enjoy Ise lobster and Matoya oysters prepared in different styles: sashimi, grilled, stewed or fried. It’s mid-February, so I’m lucky to be treated to something special that can only be enjoyed in early spring – odorigui of shirauo, or live Japanese icefish. It’s my first experience eating something this way. The fish dances gently in my mouth, and I’m convinced there’s no fresher way to appreciate these gifts from the sea.
In addition to this abundance of seafood, the region is blessed with the bounty of the mountains. The locally harvested spring vegetables and mushrooms are excellent. I sigh with admiration every time a new dish is placed in front of me. The dashi, or base flavor, is extracted from local dried bonito and kelp. It’s perfectly balanced, and highlights the essence of each ingredient. Only the people who know their corner of paradise inside-out can provide such extraordinary cuisine and service. I have everything here I could possibly ask for!
Yumeyuuka receives a growing number of incognito guests and visitors from abroad, but everyone is welcomed as if they are a local. Some may see elements of the inn as rigid: the staff speak Japanese exclusively, and serve only traditional breakfasts. But this rigidity comes with its perks: impeccable service across the board, and a refreshingly unique experience you’ll get nowhere else.
As I prepare to head back to bustling Tokyo, I thank my hosts and promise to return. I can’t wait to share this place with my own family.
by Aiko Goto, translated by Emma Price
April 30, 2016
|Number of rooms||9|
|Check in/out||in 2:00pm out 11:00am|
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