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Try Japan's inns, but be prepared for culture shock


I will be going to Asia this summer, and have the option of staying over in Japan at the end of the tour. I'd like to stay in one of the traditional inns called ryokans. Your opinion, please.

Staying at a traditional Japanese inn is a great idea for traditional Japanese, but it can be a shock for the rest of us. But do it anyway.

During a visit to Japan's northern island, Hokkaido, I stayed at two ryokans (pronounced ree-OH-cuns). According to travel writers' tales, it would be like this: Live briefly as the Japanese live in their homes, savor superb food, bathe luxuriously, gain serenity in the simple beauty of a tatami-matted room.

Nobody mentioned the culture shock. For one thing, my body was not built for eating and sleeping at floor level, bowing gracefully or eating raw fish at 8 a.m.

Both places I stayed were at hot-springs spas, two of thousands of hot springs, called onsen, all over Japan.

There are 180 hot springs on the island of Hokkaido, and resorts have grown around many, attracting visitors who come to soak in the ofuru (baths) and to drink the water, which is said to cure various ailments.

Many ryokans are small wooden structures that look like traditional Japanese houses. Some, like the two where I stayed, are hotel size, still traditional but more elegant.

The first-class ryokan, more modest than the deluxe inns, costs about $93 to $120 per person; a deluxe inn, with two meals, runs about $107 to $143 per person.

More economical and modest family inns, called minshuku, can be found for about $50 per person without meals; some have optional meal plans.

Considering the level of luxury and food, deluxe ryokans are not expensive on the Japanese scale. Rooms at deluxe Tokyo hotels, with no meals, often top $200-$300.

For more information, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 2101, New York, N.Y. 10111; (212) 757-5640.

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