Japan’s tourist trail is well established; Tokyo, Kyoto and Niseko dominate the tales of Japan obsessed Hong Kongers. Having fallen in love with the country myself, I was keen to explore further afield and see a different side of Japan. With only three nights to spare I wanted an accessible, but unique insight into Japanese life in the countryside. I decided to explore Nagano, a prefecture only an hour away from Tokyo by train that’s famed for its mountainous scenery and hot springs.
Indeed it struck me, whilst standing in a pool of natural hot spring water, gazing over an impossibly picturesque river ambling its way through an autumnal forest, that perhaps Nagano was Japan’s best-kept hidden secret. We were the only tourists everywhere we went, but this enhanced our experience and immersion in traditional Japanese culture. Whilst most tourists flock to beaches or spas when seeking an escape, the Japanese have long since known that it is far more relaxing to retreat to a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn), and I have to say I’m now well and truly on their side.
Our first stop was an 80-year-old traditional ryokan called Myojinkan. The longer train journey to reach here was worth it for the spectacular views, fresh mountain air and utter seclusion. Myojinkan radiated relaxing authenticity at every turn, fulfilling the traditional role of a ryokan. Guests can unwind by dressing in robes for their entire stay (yukata), eating fresh, local meals and repeatedly bathe nude in the onsen hot springs.
Our traditional room had a tranquil feel and was devoid of a bed, instead having twin futons on the tatami mat floor (Western rooms are also available but the Japanese ones are recommended for the true experience!). Most wonderfully, our room had its own terrace, complete with outdoor onsen (perfect for the more prudish amongst us!). Like in the communal areas, the décor was imbued with history and tradition but accented with modern touches to enhance comfort.
We spent all our time at Myojinkan floating along corridors in our yukata robes feeling very liberated. We even dined in them, feasting on a wonderfully delicious traditional kaiseki dinner served up by exceptionally gracious staff (there is also a modern Japanese and French restaurant which gets rave reviews!).
The three onsen were never crowded but all were split by gender to ensure privacy. For those who are new to the onsen experience, naked communal bathing isn’t as scary as it first sounds! The incredible views over the surrounding hills teamed with the mineral rich water makes for an incredibly soothing and restorative experience. Before leaving we snuck in a delicious lunch in town at their 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. Whilst also operating as a ryokan, it contrasts starkly with Myojinkan by updating the traditional elements and mixing them with a modern, Japanese aesthetic and hotel style services. The rooms were dotted around beautiful grounds centering on a lake, painstakingly lit by floating candles every night. Rooms are spacious and modern and whilst beds were still in the favoured twin style, they were proper mattresses on a raised platform and there wasn’t a tatami mat in sight. Whilst we had no private onsen, our bathtub mimicked one and our terrace, with views over the water, had us lounging luxuriously for hours on end.
At the top of the resort is the spa, offering incredibly soothing and revitalising 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 pedestrianised shopping area with boutique shops, delis and restaurants before embarking on a three hour hike up to see the volcano – organised through their wilderness excursion centre, Picchio.
Hoshinoya provided an equally relaxing experience as Myojinkan but with a very different and modernised 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, capitalising on seasonal and local ingredients and presented in a modern way.
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. Noteworthy was the divine amuse bouche offering a morsel of deliciousness that hinted 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. We were revived, refreshed and even more deeply in love with Japanese culture, food and scenery. It’s a privilege to live this close to such a rich country that affords us the chance to step off the beaten track and delve a little deeper. If this can be done in five star comfort and style, with unbeatable food and luxury, then it would be quite honestly rude not to!
Myojinkan can be booked via The Ryokan Collection and starts from $1700HKD per person including dinner and breakfast.
Hoshinoya Karuizawa can be booked direct and starts from $600HKD per person not including meals if stays are booked 120 days in advance (prices rise closer to the stay date up towards $1800HKD each).