14-15 August, 2017
Look in any guidebook or on any travel website, and a stay in a ryokan will be top of the list for must-do experiences in Japan. More than simply a traditional Japanese inn, a stay in a ryokan involves extreme relaxation and a glimpse into Japanese culture while being surrounded by beauty. Sounds awesome, right? Unfortunately for me, all of this beauty and pampering comes with a pretty hefty price tag, so I had assumed that a night in a ryokan would end up in the category of things I didn’t end up doing during my life in Japan. Luckily though, I stumbled upon a good deal on Booking.com for the luxurious and highly-rated Kissho Yamanaka ryokan in Yamanaka Onsen and managed to convince three friends to splurge with me!
I had visited Yamanaka Onsen back in January, and looked forward to seeing this quaint spa town in the summer season. Getting there from Kanazawa only required an affordable hour-long ride on the local train, letting us arrive early to maximize our 24-hours in luxury. We got off the train in Kaga Onsen, the hub of the nearby group of onsen towns, and the ryokan provided us with a free shuttle that took us into the mountains to Yamanaka Onsen. There was a loop video on the bus that made the hotel seem pretty swanky, but still our jaws dropped when we entered the opulent lobby. We were served sweet iced matcha tea and a staff member gave us the schedule of events and services that we could get in on for that day. I see now why people splurge on luxury experiences. You get a lot for the money that you are spending!
Next we were shown our room, named “Kanze” on the seventh floor. I say room, but really, it felt like a palace compared to our humble apartments! First there was a stone foyer with a shelf for shoes and provided wooden sandals for walking around the hotel. Our main room, which was presently the sitting room but would be transformed into our bedroom while we were at dinner, was huge, and lined with tatami mats. In one corner was an ornamental vase, and along another wall was a wardrobe with cotton yukata (kimono-like robes) for us to wear. Attached to this main room was an enclosed veranda, with a mini-bar, coffee and tea service, and armchairs that looked down upon the river.
But the best part, and the reason we had gotten this room, was the bath. The point of visiting an onsen town is to take the local healing waters, and although the ryokan had lavish public baths, the nicest rooms on the seventh floor included open-air, private baths. Ours was a deep, stone-lined tub fed by a small, hot fountain. Leading out to the bath was a room with a sink and towels and all possible toiletries for us to use. After the staff member had shown us the room and answered our questions and left us in this paradise, I just couldn’t help myself, and freaked out, jumping up and down and squealing in my excitement.
Before we got too cozy, we went out for a stroll to check out the town. The main tourist street was pretty sleepy, and most of the shops were definitely catered to older visitors, but we took a path down to the river and were able to have a blissful nature walk. We also stopped off at a grocery store for some sake and snacks for the room before returning to the ryokan to indulge in our first luxury experience of the day: the pancake service.
Japan is into pancakes. I’m not really sure why. But in Japan, breakfast is light and healthy, traditionally including miso soup, rice and fish, so pancakes are reserved as a sweet treat to be eaten in the afternoon with coffee or tea. The pancake service was held in one of the ryokan’s three restaurants, where we were seated at a bar lined with teppan grills and watched the chef make them in front of us. The style of pancakes that are popular in Japan are small, thick and fluffy, and these were absolute perfection. They were served with a tray of toppings, including classics like butter and syrup but also Japanese flavors like red bean.
After the pancake service, we lazed around our room, reading and luxuriating in the bath, before taking advantage of another ryokan freebie, a free glass of beer in the lounge before dinner. Typically, a stay in a ryokan includes breakfast and dinner, and I don’t think I’ve ever had such gourmet meals. Dinner that night included 11 courses, and it was the kind of meal where one course could consist of a piece of fish floating in a broth sprinkled with sprigs of greenery and gold flakes in a black lacquer bowl. In true Japanese style, every course was exquisitely prepared and displayed, with much consideration in the choice of garnishes and dishes. It was as beautiful to look at as it was delicious to eat, and I ate many things that night that I had never tried before.
Dinner lasted a full two hours, and with our bellies stuffed we rushed back to our room to hurriedly dress in colorful yukatas for the town festival. All summer long in Japan, summer festivals are held, and attending these local events is truly a highlight of this season in Japan. The Yamanaka festival included geisha dancing, taiko drumming, and a local rock musician, but because our dinner had lasted so long we missed all of it! We did arrive in time for the “lucky draw”, a strange lottery of weird prizes like fireworks and rubber masks, but none of us won anything, and sadly the festival wrapped up shortly after we arrived. At least we looked good in our yukatas! It was back to the ryokan to enjoy what was left of our evening, with sake, card games, and a midnight dip in the bath.
While we had been at dinner, our sitting room had been cleared away, and futons and pajamas had been laid out on the tatami floor. To Westerners, sleeping on a futon on the floor may sound uncomfortable, but I assure you, I had one of the best sleeps ever on that floor. Breakfast was early, and again consisted of a myriad of tiny gourmet dishes in beautiful containers. It was all delicious again, but I don’t know why, something didn’t quite agree with me and my stomach was a little off that morning. I guess after my simple, single living I’m not used to fine dining!
Before too long, our stay at the ryokan had come to an end, and it was time to pack up and say goodbye to our beautiful paradise of the past 24 hours. For a first ryokan experience, it had been pretty magical. I only hope I can do it again while I’m in Japan!
*Many of the beautiful photos in this post have been used with permission by one of my cohorts, the amazing Jenny Lee. It is due to her paparazzo-like skill with a camera that there are so many more photos of my face than usual.