Since 1991, San Francisco-native Jeanie Fuji has acted as the traditional Japanese okami (land lady or female inn keeper) of the Fujiya Ryokan (traditional wooden inn) in the Ginzan Onsen (hot springs) area.
That year, she married Fuji Atsushi, the son and heir of the 350-year-old inn and started her rigorous training under her mother-in-law in the art of serving customers, true Japanese style. This included preparing all meals, washing the dishes and cleaning all rooms. The goal was to make sure every need of every customer was anticipated and met following the age-old inn tradition of providing the right amount of service at the right time.
Fuji describes the types of things she had to learn. ï¿½Sliding a fusuma door open and shut, greeting guests, bringing them meals on small o-zen tables... everything has to be done a certain way, following the old traditions. And I had to learn how to talk with the guests using polite, formal Japanese. I often wanted to give up and go home to the United States. But now I love my work here,ï¿½ she says in a Japanese publication.
By the time she had a good decade of experience behind her, Fuji had gained a celebrity okami status that she modestly and reluctantly dismisses. By 2004, she and her husband hired Tokyo-based celebrity architect Kengo Kuma to raise the personal service of the inn to even higher level. Kuma overtook a complete remodelling of the inn that reopened in July 2006. Kuma is behind many well-known buildings, including the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey headquarters in Tokyo.
The capacity of the thoroughly wooden, three-story Fujiya Inn was reduced to only eight rooms with full capacity at 16 persons. Considering the location of the inn, right in the middle of a relatively remote rural area known for its hot springs and natural beauty, the level of luxury in the inn is astonishing.
Kuma has been able to combine traditional Japanese simplicity with international tastes and needs, yet avoided the dumbed-down, westernized version of Japanese style. In fact, Fuji has written an autobiography on this subject Nipponjin ni wa, Nihon ga Tarinai (Japanese people are not Japanese enough), in which she emphasizes that it is important for modern Japanese to recognize and re-claim the value of their own millennia-old customs and history.
At Fujiya Inn, you feel that you are part of an ancient, authentic and almost organic history that seems to be seeping through every seam and screen here. Many aspects contribute to this effect. One is Kumaï¿½s brilliant use of layers, screens as thin as veils, to both hide and reveal space. The omnipresent samushiko bamboo screens by craft master Hideo Nakata (no, heï¿½s not the horror-movie director) and his son required 1.2 million four-millimetre-wide strips of bamboo. Green stained-glass panes by Masato Shida and the prolific use of the handmade, richly textured Echizen Japanese paper add to the feeling of lightness and transparency.
The organic, natural quotient of the inn is also boosted by the baths and the hand-prepared, fresh food. The inn has five beautiful private hot springs baths including an open-air bath on the top floor. The food is based on a regular washoku (Japanese cuisine) menu and features many edible plants and other local ingredients. Fujiï¿½s favourites include the sansai, mountain vegetables, including kogomi (ostrich fern fiddleheads) and urui (plantain lily petioles.) The only exception to this local-only rule is Cafe Wisteria (English for fuji), open only in the summer months, and offering international coffees and cakes.
To get to the Fujiya Inn, take the 3.5-hour trip on the Yamagata Bullet Train (Shinkansen) from Tokyo and then get a bus to the hot springs. Or fly from Tokyo to the Yamagata airport and arrange for a pick up by the inn. By Tuija Seipell