Japan’s tourist trail is well established; Tokyo, Kyoto and Niseko dominate tales from Japanophiles. Having fallen in love with the country, I was keen to explore further afield and see a side of Japan stripped of its bold modernity and Westernised touches. Admittedly I’m a bit of a luddite and a complete country bumpkin at heart so the chance to jump on a train out of the city and explore a world of traditional meals, robes and complete immersion in nature had me filled with anticipation. Choosing to travel at the tail end of Autumn but with only three nights to spare I sought out an accessible but unique insight into Japanese life in the countryside and settled on Nagano, a prefecture only an hour away from Tokyo by train but famed for its mountainous scenery and hot springs and headed to some of the country’s best luxury ryokans.
An initial word of warning; Japanese ryokans aren’t for those who like their Western comforts. The whole point is to journey back into the Japanese traditions and rituals that continue to shape the culture today. Perhaps this nervousness to step outside of comfort zones is why we didn’t encounter a single other Western soul during our stay. Domestic travel is rife within Japan with a trip to a ryokan seen as an essential health enhancing annual excursion for all the family. I have sought out spas before, immersed myself in detoxes and contemplated the meaning of life from many an idyllic spot but I have to admit that nothing has had me so relaxed and so, excuse the use of the overused word, zen, as this long weekend where I finally become stripped of worries, inhibitions and stress and instead became blissfully aware of and part of my surroundings.
Our first stop was an 80-year-old traditional ryokan called Myojinkan. Although the train journey from Tokyo at first seemed a daunting 2 hours+ we set off with our bento box breakfasts picked up from the station and found that the train journey was its own adventure. Watching the sprawling Tokyo suburbs give way to rolling Autumnal hills and witnessing the various villages we passed, my book was left forgotten on my lap as I gazed gawkily out of the window.
We were met at the station by someone from the hotel who whizzed us up to this ryokan, one of the astounding range handpicked for their luxury approach by The Ryokan Collection. Whilst service was impeccable and everything top notch, Myojinkan is at heart a traditional ryokan. Radiating authenticity it is nestled up on a mountainside, surrounded by meandering streams, infused with fresh mountain air and conveying a vibe of utter seclusion.
Wanted the full experience we were to stay in a traditional room, described according to the number of tatami mats its square footage equated to. A tranquil entrance area and raised path took us through to our lounge with nothing but a simple table and floor based chairs as its focal point and functional furniture like a wardrobe around the edge. A spare room which we didn’t need was screened off by graceful sliding doors and then a small armchair filled section overlooked our private terrace, with stone filled courtyard and its own private onsen bath which explained why the en suite bathroom could get away with feeling so dated. It was in truth, redundant.
We were instructed that most guests spend their time at the ryokan wearing the traditional robes (yukata) and after learning the etiquette of wearing them we quickly shed our Western paraphernalia and robed up. We loved the freedom and anonymity the robes brought and were loathed to put our “normal” clothes back on when we left. There are Western rooms available (and all toilets are western) but half the charm of Myojinkan was returning from dinner to find our room miraculously converted into a bedroom with the addition of twin futons in place of where our table had earlier been.
We spent all our time at Myojinkan floating along corridors in our yukata, feeling liberated from the constraints of Western clothing and accompanying aesthetic worries. We even dined this way, feasting on a wonderfully delicious, traditional and beautiful traditional kaiseki (tasting) dinner served up by kimono clad, exceptionally gracious staff (there is also a modern Japanese and French restaurant which also get rave reviews). Seated in our own private dining room we had no idea what we were eating but all of the local, seasonal dishes were divine and as we supped on sake, we tried to practice our embarassingly bad Japanese with the waitresses (at one point resulting in my saying “He is delicious” rather than “It is delicious’ – cue polite giggles).
The ryokan, close to natural springs which crop up all over Japan, had a selection of three onsen to choose from. Luckily all three, which are exclusively for guests, were never crowded and were all split by gender to ensure absolute privacy. For the unitiated, onsen are hot natural spring baths, which are only about knee deep and can be found both indoors and outdoors. Their effects are meant to be wonderfully restorative and the Japanese have many rituals surrounding their use. First up, nudity is imperative. As a self pronounced British prude, this was my first hurdle, but actually the lack of self awareness or prying eyes amongst my Japanese counterparts made me feel completely relaxed and at ease. Secondly, do your research first on how to use an onsen. Notably, wash clean first, never dunk your head under and don’t take your big towel in with you. Once I relaxed into the onsen I was mesmerised by them. With Myojinkan’s predominantly being outdoors, I reclined in the mineral waters to the trickling sounds of a nearby stream and view over surrounding hills and forests.
The next morning after an all too short one night stay, we dined on the most extravagant Japanese breakfast and reluctantly changed back into our own clothing. We took the chance to explore the surroundings and the amazing walks which had us kicking up Autumn leaves and spotting a deer drinking from a mountain lake. On our way back to the train station we managed to sneak in a delicious lunch in town at Myojinkan’s sister Hikariya restaurant before taking the train to our next heavenly Nagano destination.
Hoshinoya is located in Karuizawa, which is a mere 70 minutes from Tokyo on the bullet train (but requiring a little bit more of an indirect but wonderfully scenic route from where we were). Whilst it is also technically a ryokan hotel, it contrasted starkly with Myojinkan. The scenery was no less amazing, the food and service no less astounding, but the traditional elements had been updated and mixed with a more modern Japanese aesthetic and a hotel approach to the experience making Hoshinoya seem a lot more familiar.
The focal point was a still lake, painstakingly lit with floating candles every night. Rooms, or villas as they essentially felt, were dotted around the lake in an al fresco style meaning that navigating the resort forced you out of doors and into the midst of nature every time. Shunning tatami mats and bamboo screens, the rooms were spacious, modern and a shining testament to Japanese architecture. Beds were in the favoured modest, twin style but were this time proper, permanent mattresses on a raised platform. The rooms other furnishings included a cosy lounge area, top notch textiles and various mod cons. Whilst we had no private onsen this time, our bathtub mimicked one and our private terrace with lounge seating overlooking the lake had us relaxing luxuriously for hours on end.
Although some guests at Hoshinoya stayed in their own clothing for their stay, we were recent converts and thus favoured the comfortable Japanese pyjama type robes provided with warming fleece shawl for colder months. Perched atop clogs we explored the wonderful grounds. In the Chaya hut, morning stretching is held daily, a hark back to the days when people came to ryokans for months at a time to improve their health. At the top of the resort is the spa, offering incredibly soothing and revitalizing oil massages best preceded by a bathe in their unique meditation onsen. Cooler than most onsen the focus is on relaxation with a pitch-black meditation room where you can bathe in complete anonymity. For those looking for more of a traditional bathing experience, the hotel also runs a normal onsen with a spacious and beautiful outdoor bathing area. This is reserved for hotel guests from 9-10am but is otherwise open to the public. Hoshinoya also runs a number of other operations in the area; we hopped on bikes and cycled down to the quaint pedestrianized shopping area with boutique shops, delis and restaurants before embarking on a three hour hike up to see the volcano organized through their wilderness excursion centre, Picchio.
Hoshinoya provided an equally as relaxing experience as Myojinkan but a markedly different and modernized take on the ryokan. This was evident as much in the food as elsewhere. On our first night we sampled their version of a kaiseki menu in the magnificently laid out Kasuke restaurant. Again, multiple intricately prepared courses were each more delicious than the last, capitalizing on seasonal and local ingredients but they were presented in a modern way with innovative twists challenging our ideas about kaiseki dining. On our second night, we ventured to the sister hotel down the road and hesitantly tried their French restaurant Yukawatan, wondering why we weren’t sticking to Japanese. But boy were we blown away. A sublime tasting menu from their award winning chef had us speechless with its freshness, taste and presentation and was declared without doubt the best meal we have ever eaten and worthy of a return visit in its own right. Noteworthy was the divine amuse bouche offering a morsel of deliciousness hinting at the courses to come.
After only three nights exploring these two fantastic and contrasting ryokan, we reluctantly made our way back to the big city, but revived, refreshed and even more deeply in love with Japanese culture, food and scenery. I’m now a true convert to the restorative nature of ryokans and the medicinal and health benefits of onsen. Couple that with my desire to explore as much of rural Japan as possible, I have a feeling frequent future ryokan visits will have to be made.