Much like how younger generations of Aussies grew up watching Pokemon in the late 1990s and early 2000s, kids in the 1960s were crazy about the Japanese TV drama series, “Shintaro the Samurai”. Linda Evans, who runs a traditional Japanese ryokan in Sydney’s inner-west suburb of Balmain, was one of them.
Interview and words: Taro Moriya Photography: Naoto Ijichi
jStyle: What got you interested in traditional Japanese culture at the start?
Linda: We grew up watching “Shintaro the Samurai”. Influenced by the TV series, kids those days loved playing samurai and ninja, playing with imitation swords and papermade throwing knives (shuriken) and so on. Our generation of Aussies all remember “Shintaro” in the good old days. Apparently, when the actor who played Shintaro came to Australia, he was welcomed by more than 7,000 fans at Melbourne Airport. That was more than the number Beatles fans who came to the airport when they visited! Interestingly, the TV series doesn’t seem to be as popular in Japan. Whenever I talk about “Shintaro” to Japanese people of my generation, no one ever remembers it. Wooden houses, paper doors, samurai and ninja clothes, swords, shuriken… Everything in Shintaro’s world was totally exotic and a great culture shock to us. That was the beginning of my interest in Japanese culture.
jStyle: What inspired you to build an authentic ryokan in Sydney?
Linda: My love for Japanese culture as a child continued through to adulthood. My first trip to Japan was finally made possible in 2001. We decided to take a family trip there and stay at an authentic ryokan. The most amazing experience in the Japanese ryokan was their exceptionally warm hospitality. Since then, we have been obsessed with traditional Japanese culture and we have travelled to Japan seven times thereafter. It was then that I started to think about introducing world-class Japanese hospitality to Australia, and I came up with the idea of building a Japanese-style ryokan at home. Utilising our fifth generation home in Balmain, I was determined to start a new life by renovating the house and turning it into a ryokan. “If I am going to do it, I do not want it to be semi-Western and semi-Japanese styled. I will aim for an ultra-authentic Japanese style,” that was what I thought.
jStyle: It must have been a very difficult task to build a completely authentic Japanese house in Australia. How did you make it possible?
Linda: The building was an early colonial style sandstone house built in 1855. While the original sandstone structure and walls were preserved as historical legacy, everything else was recreated. The foyer, two guest rooms, and corridor were all converted into an authentic Japanese interior with black timber and mortar. A separate room became a bathroom with an imported Japanese bathtub. Tons of soil was removed from the garden, and turned into a tranquil Japanese garden with pond carp swimming around. I wanted to reproduce the Edo-period (1603-1868) style exterior, interior, furniture and garden. Although it was impossible to purchase 100% genuine Japanese building materials and furniture in Australia, I did not want to make something that people would feel is “unauthentic”. Based on the architect’s plans, my husband and I DIYed every little thing with a local carpenter. While we sourced local products as much as possible — paint, timber and building materials from Bunnings Warehouse and repairing Japanese antiques available in Sydney, for example — I imported things that were not available in Australia, such as the Japanese cypress bathtub. It took two years for development approval, and seven years for construction and renovations. It was finally finished, just one week before the opening in 2013.
WOODEN HOUSES, PAPER DOORS, SAMURAI AND NINJA CLOTHES, SWORDS, SHURIKEN… EVERYTHING IN SHINTARO’S WORLD WAS TOTALLY EXOTIC AND A GREAT CULTURE SHOCK TO US.
jStyle: How is business so far?
Linda: Gojyuan has attracted many local customers as well as overseas visitors who want to try something different. Not only customers who have stayed in Japanese ryokans, but also those who have never been to Japan. Other than providing Japaneselevel hospitality, which was my initial purpose, I have been conforming to accurate Edo-period details as much as possible. I am also adopting the Japanese manufacturing way of kaizen to improve our service quality as well. Along with a unique ryokan experience in Sydney, you may also enjoy kaiseki (traditional Japanese style degustation) dinner at an extra cost, if you book more than two weeks in advance. At Gojyuan, we are also working on introducing Japanese traditional culture to Australians. Our Japanese instructors are regularly holding workshops in various areas such as: tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, furoshiki (Japanese wrapping cloth), gift wrapping, mizuhiki (rice paper art), kimono dressing, temari (thread ball), shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine), Japanese pickles, Japanese sweets making and origami.