Answering a question that’s puzzled travellers for decades.

If you’ve ever stayed at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), you’re likely to have noticed a small room off the main one, usually with a table and chairs set up by the window. However, the main room almost always contains a low table and a couple of hard-backed legless chairs, so what’s the use of having a second set in this antechamber?

Our reporter Ahiruneko has often pondered this deep and seemingly unanswerable question himself. For him, this space is something he’s come to expect from all ryokan he stays at, and just seeing it gives him an indescribable sense of being a traveller.

▼ If Ahiruneko doesn’t see this type of setup when he’s travelling, he feels like something is missing from his trip.

This space is known as the “hiroen“, which literally translates to “broad rim” although the “en” refers to an engawa (literally “rim side”). In traditional Japanese houses, the engawa is a covered, non-tatami-mat corridor off the tatami rooms that runs around the edge or “rim” of the house. A hiroen is a small room on the engawa that acts like a verandah, often with garden views.

As you might guess, a room like this has a sense of old-school luxury to it, which is perfectly suited for the high-class vibe of a ryokan and why you’ll often find them in the guest rooms. Other features that give travellers a sense of luxury travel are the tea containers, containing tea pots, tea cups and tea canisters.

▼ Traditional lidded tea containers like this are known as “chabitsu”.

Ahiruneko doesn’t usually brew tea at home, but whenever he sees the tea set on the low table at an inn, he finds himself becoming a tea connoisseur, carefully making tea and slowly sipping it after settling in.

That brings us to another feature of a ryokan room — those legless hard-backed chairs at the low table, which Ahiruneko says he only ever see at inns…or his grandmother’s house.

▼ Another throwback to old-school Japanese luxury.

With the tea caddy on the low table, this is the place where it’s best enjoyed. Some guests might use the table and chairs inside the hiroen to sip their tea as well, but Ahiruneko says there’s a better way to make use of this space, and it starts by taking a trip to the ryokan’s public bath.

▼ A trip to the public bath requires a change of clothes, into the supplied yukata or light kimono.

Ahiruneko likes to bathe after dinner, when staff have laid out the futons in the room and there’s nothing much left to do than watch TV and sleep. Once he gets out of the bath, there’s another thing he likes to do…visit the beer vending machine.

While you could bring your own drinks in with you or buy them at a nearby convenience store, making a purchase from a beer vending machine inside the ryokan is one of those very old-school experiences that Ahiruneko always looks forward to during his stay.

▼ There’s an unusual sense of joy in using a vending machine while in your slippers in a dimly lit hall.

Upon returning to his room with his can of Sapporo Black Label beer, Ahiruneko felt a flutter of excitement as he made his way to the hiroen, placing his beer on the table and sliding into the chair beside it.

While he could’ve poured his beer into one of the glasses inside the case on top of the mini fridge — the case itself is another very ryokan feature — he decided to crack it open and drink it drectly from the can instead.

According to Ahiruneko, a beer purchased from a ryokan vending machine tastes better than a beer bought anywhere else. Adding to the flavour is the place where you drink it, and for Ahiruneko, there’s no better place to do that than in the hiroen.

While the act of drinking a post-dinner beer — or any type of drink — in the hiroen will make you feel like royalty, it’s also quite practical, because once the futons are laid out in the room, there’s no space to properly use the low table anymore.

So next time you’re staying at a ryokan, you might want to take these tips from a Japanese local to heighten your enjoyment of the traditional experience. The hiroen might be small in terms of size, but it’s certainly big on impact, especially if you know how to make the best use of it…before dealing with the question of whether to fold your futons the next day.

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