Reminiscing with your partner, or doing the rounds of travel stories with friends, more often than not you will be reaching first to those places, and experiences that have etched themselves deepest in your memory banks. A stay at Shodoshima Island Ryokan Mari will be one of those places, a memory relayed time and time again. It is just that good!
Our drive to the ryokan took us past olive groves, a fishing wharf, and numerous large soy sauce factories with curiously blackened wood paneled walls. At the time I didn’t realize it, but I had just taken in a snapshot of the core of this evening’s menu.
So much of the history and everyday life in Shodoshima can be gleaned from a stay at Mari. The main building itself, a classic 1920s designed house has been designated a national heritage status. This section of the now larger complex housed the fore-runner of Mari, a small minshuku (lodging house) of the same name run by current proprietor Mawatari Yasuyuki’s mother. Once the family home, it has been transformed into a series of discreet private dining rooms, and spa treatment rooms. Both indulgent highlights of the establishment.
The old-world charm of the original Mari flows seamlessly through the facility, the elegant reception, with its heavy beams and polished wood floors, the communal space with traditional iroi open fire and colorful complimentary hand-made kajitsushu (fruit liqueur) collection, and of course, the highlight of any ryokan, the onsen bathing facilities.
There are two communal bathing areas, both featuring wood-decked baths set in private and enclosed gardens. The water too, drawn from beneath the ryokan is clear, odorless and leaves your skin silky soft. Although divided by gender during the morning, as visitors seek one last dip before departure, from check-in until 5am both baths can be booked for exclusive use, allowing the luxury of enjoying this most Japanese of activities in the company of your partner.
Bathing luxury, however, is not exclusive to the communal baths as each of Mari’s seven rooms contains its own onsen, and ours was fortunately facing onto comfortable wood decking. What makes the in-room onsen even more special is the liter bottle of locally-brewed sake sitting next to the bath. While you may be tempted to sample some while luxuriating in the hot water (I did and it tasted mighty fine), it is actually for pouring into the hot water before you enter. The hot water and the sake meld giving the water a softer buttery feel, and the air hangs thick with a sweet aroma.
Each of the seven rooms, while different in design and layout, share the crisply elegant design of Japanese minimalist luxury. I was fortunate enough to stay in Room Hishi, a renovated traditional kura (store house) built more than 80 years, another of Mari’s heritage listed buildings.
The lower floor centers on a spacious room with a sunken kotatsu (heated table) for relaxation. Adjoining is the large bathroom and sake bathtub, complemented by a quaint wood deck area, perfect for cooling down after a bath or taking in the night air. Upstairs two generously sized and perfectly comfortable beds in elegantly simple surroundings.
One of the special features of the traditional multi-course kaiseki in Mari is the blind menu, you don’t know what is coming next, and the anticipation builds as you wait for the screen door to quietly slides open to reveal the next exquisite creation. Rest assured, just so you don’t get any complete surprises they enquire about your food preferences and course options on booking.
Mari’s entire menu is not just predominantly sourced from local producers, they deliberately select ingredients that tell a story, not only about the ingredient as food, but also how it is connected to the community and the history of Shodoshima itself.
The centerpiece of the meal is a large sea-food platter of locally caught fish, highlighted by a number of items rarely found on mainstream menus, giving an insight into the types of local seafood that has been eaten for centuries.
A succession of dishes, including some exquisite Sanuki-gyu beef fed on pressed olive husks, were perfectly complemented by carefully selected varieties of local soy sauce, in itself a history and culinary lesson on this most venerated of Japanese condiments.
Shodoshima is renowned within Japan for its successful adoption of olive cultivation. Luckily, we have timed our visit with availability of the seasonal first cultivated olive fruits and first pressed olive oils that paired perfectly with the clay pot cooked rice. It is a delicious local twist on Japan’s staple food.
An engaging conversation with our hostess about Mari and its role in the Shodoshima community, is both informative and inspiring. We learnt that Mari is experimenting with taking guests on short tours. Our dinner started late so we decided to skipping the nightly night tour to a nearby shrine to take in the views, but we promised ourselves to definitely catch the morning shopping tour run by the ryokan.
After a magnificent traditional Japanese breakfast, once again highlighted by local cuisine, we boarded the microbus with 10 other guests to accompany Mawatari on his morning ritual. It was a nice bonus. Not only did we get to visit the local fish market and the grocery store, but his commentary throughout was excellent, giving us an insight into the challenges faced by locals, and the measures being taken to enliven the island.
Our morning excursion, was more than just a tour, as left and right we had the sources of last night’s delicious ingredients pointed out to us. The extra details added another dimension to the gourmet experience, something one rarely gets from staying at a Ryokan.
Staying at a place like Mari, rich in heritage and fabulous food, is a treat in itself, but I was particularly heartened to hear Mawatari’s explanation of his commitment to the island’s success. He is dedicated to promoting local industries and producers and using the pull of his elite ryokan to not only bring visitors to the island to help stimulate the economy, but to use this income to invest in the future of the island’s people, help create employment, and pass on culture and traditions long into the future.
We departed Mari with a warm glow. It felt like our rather luxurious trip to Mari had greater meaning than I could have imagined, building a level of connection to the island in an exceptionally short space of time. This would surely be the first of many visits.
Photographs by Steve Jarvis Text by Steve Jarvis