In search of the perfect spa in Japan
By Giles Hoff
It’s 6.00 am, and while I would normally be just about waking up, a combination of jet lag and excitement mean I have eagerly been awaiting the opening of the Onsen since 5.00 am. I expect to be the only one there as I guess no-one else will be jet-lagged, and no-one gets up this early when they’re on holiday – surely? My assumptions are correct, for the time being at least. I take my first dip in the steaming waters which are housed in a natural rock pool. First a toe, then a leg and then I go hell for leather and just dive head first underwater. Wow! Immediately, the hot fresh spring water wraps me in a cocoon that is completely relaxing, making my whole body feel on fire and totally revived in a second. I crouch in the middle of the shallow pool, only my head protruding, and notice the steam constantly swirling around my face while simultaneously clearing my lungs. I find it hard to comprehend how this water just comes out of the ground beneath, heated by volcanic activity thousands of feet below the surface, but it does….
There’s no-one else here, and nothing else to do except soak, relax and know that you’re doing your body the power of good in the process, so I find an edge of the rock pool and lean back against the volcanic rock, which seems to fit my back perfectly. I close my eyes and drift off into semi-consciousness, despite the excitement of my first foray into an Onsen. I’m a million miles from anywhere, physically and mentally. Perhaps this is it – perhaps I have found paradise.
I had decided to go in search of the perfect spa after I grew conscious of the way the word “spa” is so misused in the West these days. After all, “spa” literally means “healing through water.” I’d visited Japan before, but from a totally different perspective, primarily sticking to the main cities and exploring the culture and history of the country, which in themselves are utterly absorbing and fascinating.
At that time, I’d heard of “Onsens” (hot springs) and the “Ryokans” (inns) that are often built next to them, and I thought this would be an amazing combination – seeing the ancient customs and traditions of a Japanese inn, combined with the etiquette and rituals of the Onsen bathing experience – and how right I was!
First on my list was Kuramure, a place I had read about and coveted for many months. A selection of warehouses, joined together on the banks of the river, lined the road for 100 yards or more, yet their single storey structure made them subtle and unobtrusive. You certainly would not imagine this was a Ryokan. No entrance was evident, the cobbled stone walls cleverly cladding the building and hiding any evidence of an official doorway. When I did eventually arrive at the front door, I didn’t even know it – a part of the wall I was standing next to simply slid silently to one side and invited me to enter a small inner corridor. As it closed quietly behind me, I thought I would be plunged into darkness before another door slid open in front of me and I stepped into the cosy front lobby. I was greeted immediately with big smiles and handshakes from the owner and his staff and led straight to my room, a maisonette-style apartment with a living area, Japanese bedroom, bathroom, and of course, a hot tub.
I was more interested in their communal outdoor Onsen though, and headed straight that way. The men’s outdoor tub is longer than it is wide and runs along the back of the building where the river flows and the hills rise up steeply before you, and there was plenty of snow on the ground around the hotel. This gave a wonderful sensation with the contrast of the hot water hugging your body while the cold air invigorated and refreshed your head and face. A night-time soak with the snowy hills lit up in front of me by the hotel’s lights was a great prelude to a good night’s sleep – well, that and some sake….
I then flew to Komatsu airport, arriving in the early afternoon to some brilliant weather and awesome scenery, and that was not just down to the Japanese Alps, still snow-capped in the near distance. I had, for the second time, planned my Japanese sojourn quite well with regards to the cherry blossom season.
This made my stay at Beniya Mukayu all the more pleasant. With its garden full of blossom trees, sitting on a hill overlooking the small town of Yamashiro, Benija Mukayu is a minimalist design classic. Cool white walls are broken by long lines of glass. A free-standing wood burner kept the lobby cosy, along with comfortable chairs all looking out to the beautiful Japanese garden, adorned with outdoor art installations donated by some of the country’s most gifted artists.
However, what most excited me about this place was the fact it was a hybrid, combining the traditional Japanese Onsen (private rotenburo on the balcony of each room, plus communal baths) and also a massage treatment area. In addition, the owner is an avid Yoga practitioner and teacher, and has created a Yoga Hall overlooking the garden, called “Horin” (literally “Square Forest”), which is simply a large wooden floored square lined with floor-to-ceiling wooden beams that represent trees.
So, to the experiences themselves. After putting on my Yukata and slippers (most Ryokans make this compulsory attire once you have checked in, and I have to say it enhanced the experience hugely, apart from being very comfortable clothing), my first port of call was to take a massage, and they duly fitted me in at a moment’s notice. They stick to what they know here and I took the signature treatment which was a herb ball massage, which uses different herbs (all locally grown), packed into a muslin and then steamed. After applying for 45 minutes or so, they finish with an aromatherapy oil massage to help the herbs soak in. This was all finished off with a foot bath and foot massage.
After a sumptuous 14-course Kaiseki dinner served in my room by my butler (everyone is assigned one on arrival and they will tend to your every need), I decided to head to the communal baths. They are on the ground level overlooking the Japanese garden, which houses a small Japanese tea house for tea ceremonies, amongst its beautiful plants and trees. I’d have preferred the large wooden tub to be outside, but the huge window is enough to give you the impression of being in the garden and touching the trees. Slightly drowsy, I headed back to my room thoroughly relaxed and began to really feel the benefit. No sooner had my head hit the pillow on my futon then I was fast asleep.
I then had to undertake some fascinating train journeys to reach my final destination, Hakone. Only an hour or so from Tokyo, this is the countryside playground frequented most by the citizens of the city, with its charming hills, views of Mount Fuji, lakes and various villages that dot the incredibly quaint Hakone Tozan Railway.
My first port of call was Gora Tensui. Whilst a Ryokan in the traditional sense, with predominantly Japanese rooms and tatami mats with futons for sleeping, this inn, like most I visited, had hauled itself into the 21st century with some sleek design work. My first treat was to be seated immediately at the bar, after being asked to remove socks and shoes. The reason for this became quickly apparent as I placed my feet in what seemed like a trench running the length of the bar, but it was in fact a foot spa! You are then allowed to order any drink you like, whether that be Champagne or a good cup of tea. This was a great start and a wonderful way to end my long journey.
What amazed me most about my trip was the standard of the food. I have always loved Japanese food but just as I thought I’d had the best meal I could, the next place would raise the bar again, and Gora Tensui did just that. An exquisite squid dish that just melted in the mouth (the quality of Japanese squid is so different from the rubbery rubbish we are fobbed off with in Europe) was followed by quality beef. The Japanese just don’t know how to do things badly!
I was then invited to try the “rock bath,” rather like a sauna. I lay down on a slab of pure marble which is heated by the natural spring waters running beneath it. Humidity is then created with a sauna-like system but the heat is kept at a tolerable temperature because the space is quite large and the ceiling high. I actually fell into a deep sleep, which was incredibly relaxing – the heat treatment doing wonders for the muscles and joints.
The next morning, I went to the communal baths. They have an indoor man-made option and then through sliding glass doors, you get to the piece de resistance, and possibly the clincher in my search, a rock pool full of milky, sulphuric hot spring water. Up until now, all the places I had visited were pure clear spring waters, still full of minerals and goodness, but this is the colour of water I had been looking for, indicating a greater concentration of healing properties. Unlike some such pools though, this did not have a high enough level of sulphuric matter to make a smell, which would have ruined the experience.
On my way back home to the UK, I began to reflect on my exploration. The truth is, I found it very hard to pick a winner. The winner was really Japan as a whole and the sum of all the parts made the journey spectacular. The only difference with Japan was, I couldn’t find anything negative to say at all. There are normally downsides to any country but with the land of the rising sun, everything is exceptional, from the food to the hot springs, the quality of the accommodation and most importantly, the high standard of hospitality.
My search for the perfect spa had subtly turned into something else – the perfect journey. Whilst I hadn’t planned it, I had unwittingly travelled to all the major islands of Japan, and had discovered immaculate and unique Ryokans to stay in all over this country. Rather than pick one Ryokan to stay in, why not experience them all? It’s a great way to see Japan and you know that every night you are going to end up somewhere unique and very special.
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