Ryokan Gojyuan, Balmain: Weekend away

Read our writer's views on this property below

Jacqui Taffel finds a lush Japanese hideout that is hard to leave.

We are about to leave Ryokan Gojyuan. We linger at the front door, reluctant to take off our surippa (house slippers) and step back into our own shoes. When we walk through the door, we will return to reality: bright sunlight, traffic on Darling Street, people brunching at the cafe opposite. We have been at this small Japanese inn less than 24 hours - check-in 3pm, check-out 10am - but as we step out onto Balmain's main street, we feel relaxed and invigorated.

It begins when we arrive, swap our shoes for slippers at the door, and follow owner Linda Evans past the beautiful black kimono displayed in the lobby, past the koi pond to our room, an eight-tatami-mat space with only a low table and legless chairs on the floor for furniture. There are only two guest suites, and ours is the Matsunoma (pine) room. Sliding doors at the back reveal a modern bathroom, beautifully appointed. In front of our room is a small verandah with an occasional table, two chairs (with legs), tea-making equipment, a bar fridge full of Asahi beers, prosecco and juice, and sliding doors out to the small back garden. It's landscaped in perfect Japanese style, with a black pine, small maple, moss, ferns, and dark grey pebbles. A healthy Wollemi pine is a nice Australian touch.

Linda and husband Steve did most of the work to transform the property that has been in their family since 1930. Linda worked in IT for more than 37 years before this change of career and the couple first visited Japan in 2001, where they fell in love with the culture and architecture.

They decided they wanted to bring Japanese hospitality to Sydney in the form of a ryokan, a traditional inn with tatami-mat rooms and a communal bath. Gojyuan opened last August, and also hosts cultural workshops including calligraphy, tea ceremony, kimono dressing and origami. We arrive just after a wagashi class, making traditional Japanese confectionary. We are served the results - sweets that look far too good to eat - with green tea. Linda also proudly shows us the hinoki bath, custom-made by a Japanese company. The large wooden bath is heated to about 40 degrees and windows open onto another small garden. We can control the bath temperature, the lighting and even the level of the piped music.

Before testing it out, we duck up Darling Street to the shops but soon scuttle back as storm clouds gather. We put on our soft cotton Japanese yukata (house robes) in indigo blue and proceed to the bath house. There's plenty of room for the two of us to soak as the storm passes overhead, with thunder and lightning. It's magical.

We're going out to dinner but Linda suggests we return in time for another bath before bed. "It helps you sleep," she says. This is our first night away from our five-year-old son, who is having his first sleepover at a mate's place. So we get dressed up and go out for a cocktail before dinner at The Cottage, a buzzy spot in Darling Street, then head up the road to join friends at Nithik's Kitchen in Rozelle for outstanding Indian, a sophisticated mix of traditional and contemporary.

We are back in time for a bath before bed. Our futons have been laid out on the floor, with pillows and quilts. And this is the only tricky part of the stay. I don't mind sleeping on firm surfaces but my husband struggles a bit. If you need a nice soft bed, this is not for you, although Linda is planning to get mattresses.

A proper Japanese breakfast includes salmon bought that morning from the fish markets. Our trays are beautifully presented with an array of small dishes - broccoli with sesame paste, mushrooms in vinegar, pickles, egg omelette, a bowl of rice and a bowl of miso soup, with chilled pomegranate juice and green tea. We are still quite full from dinner but polish it all off. Like everything here, the level of detail is meticulous.

It's time to relinquish our surippa. When we pick up our son, he will ignore us, not wanting to go home. We know the feeling.



208 Darling Street, Balmain, (02) 9810 3219.


From $280-$350 a room with breakfast.


Attention to detail, and the bath.


Browsing Brays Books in Darling Street, which opened in 1969 and has a great kids section.