By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
How does an American woman who doesn’t speak Japanese manage to run a traditional Japanese guest house called a ryokan? As she does so with flare and fun, blending American sensibilities and Japanese culture. “It’s as traditional as we can make it,” Renee Dole says of Fuurin-Oka, which she calls a futon and breakfast. Fuurin-Oka means “wind bell hill,” and beckons guests seeking an exotic escape and serenity on Bainbridge Island. The ryokan is the only one of its kind in Washington. “I don’t think people in Seattle even know the ryokan exists,” said Dole.
You may be struck by the emptiness of the room when you arrive. There’s barely any artwork, no clutter, and certainly no conventional bed, dining room table, or chairs. “It’s such a neat experience to walk into the room and see nothing,” said Dole. Guests from Japan tell her they feel like they’re home.
But Dole takes no credit for the traditional Japanese atmosphere created by the design and wood of the Japanese house, the tatami (straw) floor, garden, and the ofuro (soaking tub) made of cedar. The original owners who built the house in 1999, pioneered the whole concept, said Dole. One of the original owners, Michele Ann “Mickey” Molinaire, still lives on the island, and Dole relies heavily on her for everything from breakfast menus, including the incredibly pungent, sticky, natto (fermented soy beans), to who to call to repair the tatami floor.
Dole and her husband, Steve, are re-opening the ryokan on July 15, after a three-year hiatus. Before they closed, they ran Fuurin-Oka, worked full-time, caught the 7:45 a.m. ferry to Seattle, and then decided something had to give. That something was the ryokan, and Fuurin-Oka closed when Dole was six months pregnant. “We found out I was pregnant when we were in a ryokan in Japan,” said Dole. “I wondered why I wasn’t feeling well.” Two sons and three years later, Dole said she’s ready to get back to serving up her version of ryokan culture.
Ryokans in Japan today vary, from the ultra-modern to the traditional, semi-traditional, and hostel-like home stays. Ryokans were first used by travelers, including samurai, of main highways, especially between Tokyo and Kyoto, beginning in the 1600s. Guests typically experienced a pleasing onslaught of traditionally unannounced visits by their hosts. Delicate shoji (paper) doors swished open and closed, sometimes accompanied by a gentle whisper of “sumimasen” (meaning pardon me). Male or female hosts wore yukatas, and if you’ve ever worn one, the wrap-around effect forces you to take very tiny, mindful steps, resulting in the sound of sock-covered feet shuffling across fragrant tatami floors.
The swishing and shuffling was a welcome sound to weary Japanese travelers. It meant the host was attending to you, all the while exchanging pleasantries. Hosts brought food, describing each morsel in exquisite and sometimes excruciating detail. With a swish and shuffle, the host returned to help you undress and prepare you to bathe, then soak in the ofuro. More swishing and shuffling announced the host’s return to lay the multiple layers of your bedding — the futon, on the tatami floor.
You won’t find unannounced visits to your room at Fuurin-Oka. The guest house bears Dole’s unique signature, from the breakfasts she serves, to her hands-off approach. Dole knows her customers well — they’re mostly “couples in love. It’s a very romantic setting.” They are mostly Americans who appreciate privacy and an exotic place to escape and relax. Couples wear yukatas (thin cotton robes), said Dole, and unlike many Japanese people, are more modest about their bed and bath environment. Dole recognizes and appreciates the difference between the American and Japanese sense of privacy and modesty.
Dole accommodates the Western culture, doesn’t hover, discreetly provides service, and has diagrams and instructions on how to run the bath and lay out the five-layer futon bed. Americans seem to be more independent, said Dole. “They want to run the ofuro and make the futon beds themselves.”
Guests rave about the breakfasts, and you can easily find internet blogs, photos, and reviews of Dole’s beet or Chinese roast pork (char siu) topped rice balls, chawanmushi (egg custard), and other breakfast items. Traditional Japanese breakfasts served at ryokans include rice, miso soup, grilled fish, pickled vegetables, seaweed, raw eggs, and natto. Dole’s Japanese style breakfasts are a mix of old and new. She uses whatever is available in her garden — plums for umeboshi (salted plums), and eggs from her chickens for the tamago (Japanese omelette) and chawanmushi. “I’ve added new recipes and dishes, like figs, and maybe I’ll put a flower in your soup. I like to have fun with it,” she said, and she enjoys creating her signature sushi rolls. “It’s like artwork.”
But Dole doesn’t want to focus on the food. “It’s too much pressure!” She’s afraid a traditional Japanese chef might visit and be disappointed. She’s not sure whether some of the dishes she makes are traditional, but she enjoys making food “fun and beautiful.” Dole shifts the conversation away from food. People should come and stay for the whole experience, she emphasized.
“Fuurin-Oka is such a unique and memorable experience for folks,” Dole said. The room is tucked away in a bamboo grove, and the “yard is a treasure.” Guests enjoy the simplicity of wearing yukatas and immersing themselves in the traditional Japanese house and garden for a few days. And most guests are fascinated by the “spa,” soaking in the cedar tub multiple times a day. Dole uses “spa” and “ofuro” interchangeably to describe the Japanese soaking tub, a testament to Dole’s east meets west philosophy.
Dole said they put the property up for sale at one point, but “came to their senses.” She’s passionate about the ryokan being too unique to ever give up. Dole plans to operate the ryokan for a long time, offering an exotic and relaxing getaway for guests looking for something off the beaten path.
Arlene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.