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Soaking Up Japan: A Tour of New and Classic Onsen Ryokan
By Hideaway Report Editor
November 5, 2018
On the train ride from Narita airport to Tokyo Station, at the end of an 11-hour flight, the thought that I would soon be soaking in a hot spring buoyed my tired spirits. There are more than 2,000 natural hot-spring baths, known as onsen, and my partner and I planned to visit one at each stop along our journey. Our first hotel, Hoshinoya Tokyo, is billed as the only true onsen ryokan (hot-spring inn) in central Tokyo. This is somewhat surprising considering the country’s extensive bathing culture, but the geothermal waters here lie far below, and Hoshinoya had to drill a kilometer-deep well to tap into them.
The property occupies a high-rise in the financial district (just blocks from the Aman Tokyo, with which it shares a similar minimalist aesthetic). Our cab from the station pulled out of the rain and into the underground hotel entrance, where we were met by a courteous porter. We were then led upstairs to a quiet tatami-lined hallway. As in a traditional ryokan, we were asked to remove our shoes before entering. (These are stored nearby so that staff can have them ready whenever they’re needed.)
The manager welcomed us in good English and ushered us to a sitting room on the 11th floor for an orientation. To maintain a feeling of intimacy in the large building, the 84 guest rooms are split into groups of six on 14 floors, with each floor’s being effectively a self-contained ryokan with a common area. She informed us that this lounge would be constantly stocked with traditional Japanese snacks and beverages, which proved to be a convenience that increased my affection for the hotel by the day. Despite the property’s being full, its layout made it feel as though we had the place all to ourselves.
After a review of onsen etiquette, plus some helpful language tips, we were shown to our room. The space was not particularly large and had a view of an office building across a small square. However, the outlook was improved by shoji paper screens, as well as the decorative steel lattice covering the outside of the building. The low Western-style king bed was just soft enough, the television was hidden and the glass walls of the bath could frost over at the flick of a switch for privacy. The main bath contained a soaking tub, while a TOTO washlet toilet was situated in an adjacent powder room.
Before taking her leave, the manager had instructed us on how to wear a yukata, the casual Japanese bathrobe traditionally worn at an onsen. Properly dressed, we headed upstairs to the 17th floor, where we parted ways. Onsens are divided by gender, as clothing is prohibited. After disrobing, it is mandatory to wash thoroughly before entering the baths. This ritual was likely transmitted to Japan from India via Buddhism and is held to cleanse the spirit, as well as to keep the waters pure.
Past the locker room, I found a small rectangular pool flanked by showers and bathing stools. Sinking into the shallow onsen, I swam through a passage until I came to a second, larger chamber, where dark walls towered two stories overhead and opened to a square of sky. As I sat soaking, cold rain began to fall on my face, and I drifted into deep meditation.
A DAY IN TOKYO
Jet lag made waking up easy. Our Japanese-style breakfast tray of miso soup, rice, jellied fruit and steamed salmon was delivered to our room right on time. Prepared for a morning of shopping, we headed to the Harajuku district.
This area is generally associated with kawaii youth culture, which embraces extreme cuteness in clothing and manners. Braving the crowds of teens and tourists, we immersed ourselves in the curious fashions and tchotchkes. For more-mainstream styles, you can cross over to the eastern side of Harajuku. There, narrow cobbled streets hide designer and vintage boutiques.
That evening, we opted for an early dinner at Soba Sasuga, a Michelin-starred restaurant specializing in handmade soba noodles, followed by a flight of Japanese whiskies at Zoetrope. We had tickets to the Yomiuri Giants baseball game at the Tokyo Dome and wanted to be there for the first pitch. At the stadium, the coordinated chanting of the fans was electric, but Tokyo’s archrival, the Hanshin Tigers, trounced the home team, so we sneaked out a few innings early for one more dip in the onsen.
Hoshinoya Tokyo 95
Serene atmosphere; seamless design; soothing onsen waters.
Those looking for Tokyo views from their room will be disappointed.
Good to Know
The hotel restaurant serves well-regarded French-inspired kaiseki cuisine, but unlimited complimentary snacks and beverages are also available in the common area of each floor.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Sakura (Deluxe King) for two, $950; Editor’s Choice: Yuri (Corner Deluxe King) for two, $1,030
Address: 1-9-1 Otemachi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Telephone: (81) 50-3786-1144
The next morning, after a simple yet delicious breakfast of rice balls prepared by the hotel, we boarded a Green Car (first-class) bullet train to Toyama. Watching the meticulously cultivated landscape flash by at 160 miles per hour felt like low-altitude flying. From Toyama we took a bus first to Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage village tucked into the mountains, and then to Takayama, a historic town comprised of blocks of well-preserved merchant houses from the Edo period (1600-1868).
Located 20 minutes to the southwest of town, Wanosato is a classic rural onsen ryokan that opened in 1858. The property consists of traditional Gassho-zukuri thatched-roof houses on a wooded five-acre riverfront lot. The sound of rushing snowmelt greeted us on arrival. We followed a path to the mossy-roofed main house. There we sat and warmed ourselves by the fire, the mountain air still being cold in late spring. After a short introduction to the inn, we donned slippers for the walk up to our room.
The river view from the large window in our third-floor suite was picture-perfect, and the adjacent sitting area made for a relaxing place to read. There was no bed to be seen, as staff roll out futons and heating mats onto the floor after dinner. My only disappointment was that our bathroom felt dated (think 1980s, not 1880s).
Wanosato has two onsens (one wood and one stone), which are rotated daily by gender so that guests can enjoy both. Neither is as dramatic as you might find at a more modern resort. However, the hot water and river view — complete with fishing herons — more than sufficed. I could easily imagine samurai stopping to soak here during the early days of the inn.
After a short adventure rock-hopping around the river in wooden sandals, we were ready for dinner. This was served kaiseki-style in a private dining room. Kaiseki dinners are lavish, and our 13 courses extended for almost two hours. With a meal that long, there are bound to be ups and downs. The marbled Hida beef, a local delicacy similar to Kobe, was possibly the best meat I’ve ever tasted, while the hearth-grilled river char was also excellent. In addition, we were served 17 species of seafood, which was rather exhausting.
After a restful night and a final soak in the onsen, we departed, taking with us memories of the rushing water and the smell of the smoldering fire. Wanosato is a relaxing place to stay for those looking for a historic yet well-appointed ryokan hideaway and it deserves our continued endorsement.
Peaceful riverside location.
Carpet and fixtures are showing some wear.
Good to Know
The location is beautiful but far from town. The hotel operates a shuttle van to the train station three times daily. Western-style beds are not available.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Standard Koto Room for two, $560; Editor’s Choice: Garyu Room for two, $760 (breakfast and dinner included)
Address: 1682 Ichinomiyacho, Takayama, Gifu
Telephone: (81) 577-53-2321
From Takayama we boarded a train south to Kyoto for a day of shopping and temple exploration. From there, we took another train to the Setouchi region and Japan’s beautiful Seto Inland Sea. Our ultimate destination was Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands. Matsuyama is barely mentioned in guidebooks, but the fact that it is home to Setouchi Aonagi, a seven-room hideaway designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando, had piqued my interest. And as part of our onsen pilgrimage it seemed fitting to visit the city’s Dōgo Onsen, reportedly Japan’s oldest, with a history stretching back more than 1,000 years.
The hot, humid air of the southern coast was a pleasant change from the cold rains of Kyoto. The hotel had arranged for a cab to pick us up at the train station for the 30-minute ride out of town. Setouchi Aonagi, an imposing concrete monolith, sat midslope on a small mountain.
Upon arrival, businesslike staff led us down a long hallway, past a floating Zen garden and what looked like a former ticket counter. Before being converted into a hotel, Setouchi Aonagi had operated as an art museum; minimalist paintings still hung in the distance at the end of long hallways. Sparkling wine and mikan orange juice was served as we confirmed the details of our stay.
Our room was accessible via a tunnel and an elevator that opened directly at our door. Each accommodation occupies an entire floor, and ours was impressively spacious. Floor-to-ceiling windows spanned its length and surveyed the surrounding subtropical forests. The décor was strictly minimalist, the redesign having been supervised by Tadao Ando himself. Unfortunately, its simplicity was unforgiving, and stains and scuffs were visible on the carpet and walls. Amenities included a king bed, powder room, walk-in closet, Bluetooth stereo and a private onsen overlooking a golf course.
After settling in, we ventured out to explore the hotel, stopping in the stylish library with its well-curated collection of design books. Through a large window we could see the rooftop pool, which had initially caught my eye while researching new hotels. Alas, the reality left me deflated. The view of the distant inland sea was impressive, but the pool water was filled with swimming insects and algae. Later, we were told that it was closed until “swimming season.” Apparently, 90-degree heat does not qualify as being in season and the pool is treated as a pond until summertime.
I asked the management about the indoor pool as an alternative, but reservations were required. Fortunately, there was an opening. The necessity for pool reservations may seem odd, but this allows guests exclusive access for one hour each day. In any event, the underground pool proved atmospheric and ideal for the type of skinny-dipping you might find in a Bond movie.
Feeling refreshed, we dressed for another kaiseki dinner. The hotel restaurant was peaceful and overlooked a large waterfall and reflecting pool. Our food was stylishly plated and included some of the freshest fish of our trip. The chef and manager were also accommodating in preparing vegetarian options, as our appetite for seafood had begun to wane.
A DAY IN MATSUYAMA
The next day was spent exploring central Matsuyama. We took a cab and then a gondola up to Matsuyama Castle, one of the best-preserved wooden hilltop castles in Japan. The weekday crowd was small, and tiny cherries were growing on the trees approaching the keep. The afternoon was hot, so we fled to the shade of Dogo Arcade, a central shopping area, where we browsed all manner of mikan orange souvenirs. Shikoku is the premier citrus-growing region of Japan, and the variety and quality of the juices we sampled were remarkable. At the Dōgo Onsen, which sits at the periphery of the arcade, Japanese tourists in yukata robes, local kids and video crews had gathered. An elderly woman stopped on her walk to welcome us and to share her pride in this “national treasure.” The intimate square felt like the soul of the city.
The bathhouse at Dōgo Onsen has three separate levels, and after deciphering the ticket system, I selected the second tier. This more private onsen was once used by samurai, who refused to mingle with the common merchants who bathed on the ground floor. The third tier is not open to bathers because it was built for the exclusive use of the emperor, but tours are available. The baths at Dōgo are more modest than our private one at our hotel, but the sense of history is the real highlight of bathing there. The water also has a higher mineral quality than most onsen, and it left our skin feeling soft the rest of the day.
After some difficulty communicating with a cab driver that was solved by Google Translate, we arrived back at the hotel and settled into what now seemed to be a luxurious prison. Once our initial fascination with the space had passed, the hard angles of our room became tiring; museums are not generally designed to be cozy. The staff was consistently friendly, but I had trouble reaching them by phone on more than one occasion. Overall, Setouchi Aonagi is a draw for an architecture aficionado, but inconsistencies of service and facilities preclude a recommendation.
Setouchi Aonagi 89
The large and luxurious room with a private onsen; the Tadao Ando architecture.
The dirty outdoor pool; the blemishes marring the minimalist look; staff members were sometimes hard to contact.
Good to Know
The hotel is a 30-minute drive from the train station in an isolated area. However, there is a helipad at the golf course next door for those who want to splurge and avoid the long cab ride. The hotel can also arrange a round of golf for guests.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Garden Suite for two, $550; Editor’s Choice: Hot Spring Suite for two, $700 (breakfast included)
Address: 794-1 Yanaidanimachi, Matsuyama, Ehime
Telephone: (81) 89-977-9500
Hoping to end our trip in Japan with a classic view of Mount Fuji, we made the long haul back north from Matsuyama to Hakone, a popular tourist stop an hour outside Tokyo. At Odawara Station we purchased a Hakone Freepass for access to all public transportation in the area and boarded a train to our hotel.
Located a few blocks from Gora Station, near the base of Mount Hakone, Gôra Kadan is a long-recommended Hideaway Report ryokan. Out front, the hotel restaurant is a converted nobleman’s house. A small side path leads to the main hotel, a modern annex that plunges five stories down into the valley below.
We were greeted by the manager and our personal attendant (who was dressed in a traditional kimono) and escorted through a dramatic hallway to our room. Our Japanese-style accommodations looked out onto a small garden. The bath contained a shower and a traditional cypress-wood soaking tub.
The two public onsens at Gôra Kadan are set in gardens decorated with large boulders, spirit houses and Japanese maples. Most of the time the setting was perfectly serene, but occasionally its tranquility was interrupted by a local train rolling by on tracks just yards away. Fortunately, I was so relaxed that I felt more bemused than disturbed. Occasionally, the baths were also taken over by families, but the atmosphere was friendly. In the early morning, we could have them entirely to ourselves.
On our last day in Japan we opted to take the Hakone round course, a well-known tourist trail. Hakone is no secret escape, but it is popular for good reason. A number of historic sites and outdoor activities are clustered within a small area that is perfect for a weekend getaway from Tokyo. We started our morning with a gondola ride to a postcard view of Mount Fuji from the top of a volcano, then crossed Lake Ashi by a sightseeing pirate ship, and ended the day with a long hike down the old cobblestone road to the last teahouse on the famous Tōkaidō highway, which connected Kyoto to modern-day Tokyo during the Edo period.
The entire experience at Gôra Kadan was seamless. The meals were served kaiseki- and shabu shabu-style, and the onsen was one of the best we visited on our trip. It was a fitting finale to our two-week hot-spring pilgrimage.
Gôra Kadan 95
Two beautifully landscaped outdoor onsens; attentive staff; the family-friendly environment.
The train that runs near the public bath is either jarring or charming depending on your state of mind. We also encountered more loud gaijin (foreigners) here than at our other hotels.
Good to Know
Because of the modern annex to the small historic building, the hotel is bigger than you would imagine from photos.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Standard Room for two, $980; Editor’s Choice: Kadan Suite for two, $1,420 (breakfast and dinner included)
Address: 1300 Gora, Hakone-Machi, Ashigarashimogun, Kanagawa
Telephone: (81) 460-82-3331