One of the most authentic Japanese experiences a traveler can have is a weekend spent at one of the country’s Ryokans, a traditional hotel and hot springs or “onsen”.
Onsen touring is a national phenomenon, and for many years there were hot springs pilgrimages. A soak in the springs isn’t simply enjoyable, the Japanese believe in water’s divine, curative powers, and onsen water is no ordinary water—it’s renowned for its ability to heal illness and injury.
I had my own Ryokan weekend recently at Hoshinoya Karuizawa, an hour from Tokyo by train. When you arrive in the mountains, you’re given a traditional dress to wear around the property, either kimono-style or a shirt and pant suit. All guests have free access to two onsen hot spring facilities—one traditional style, the other zen style—at the resort. You also have 24-hour access to the meditation bath where you can relax in the hot springs pool and enter rooms submerged in water, dark and light.
This is also the first eco resort in Japan and it generates 70 per cent of its own energy, much of it from the hot spring’s geothermal heat. The run-off water from the baths heats floors during the colder months (making a stay in winter particularly lovely) and runs air-conditioning in the summer months.
In my summation, a perfect day at Hoshinoya starts with some morning stretches in the Chaya (teahouse). Then take part in the morning onsen experience at the hot springs next door—the property has exclusivity for hotel guests during the hours of 9-10 a.m. every morning, which is a special treat considering how busy it is when open to the public. Afterwards, discover the nearby Harunire terrace with its string of outlets and restaurants. In the early evening, take a twilight eco tour through the forest and discover the region’s rare wildlife, including songbirds, flying squirrels and glowing fireflies.
Choose from Japanese or French Cuisine; both restaurants are the work of award-winning chefs and every detail is taken in the dish. Yukawatan, a spectacular 24-seat French restaurant housed on the grounds of nearby Bleston Court, a hotel popular for weddings and also owned by Hoshino Resorts was hard to top.
The autumn foliage was breathtaking. The resort has complimentary bikes you can use to explore the town and mountain trails. The scenery is calming and peaceful. In the evening, boatmen float along the resort’s main pond, lighting the floating paper candle lanterns by hand. Their twinkling lights reflect on the water and provide a stunning backdrop while you sit out on your suite’s patio or gaze out the window from your bed.
An inspiring place, you’ll feel rested, at peace and in tune with nature after your stay, just as I did.