wifm’s Top Five Onsen

by Catherine Shaw
wifm’s Top five Onsen Autumn’s the best season to soak in style

My first experience of “skinship”—the special bond said to be created when people share a traditional hot-spring bath, or onsen, in Japan—was unforgettable. Relatively new to Japan and wracked with shy western notions of shedding clothing in front of strangers, I had studiously followed the strict etiquette of scrubbing and careful rinsing before nervously approaching the steaming waters of the tiny outdoor bath of a ryokan in Hakone. It would be fair to say that getting to know my fellow naked bathers was the very last thing on my mind.

Politely observing my induction to the ancient ritual of soaking in these mineral-rich waters were an octogenarian and a gaggle of middle-aged Japanese ladies.

With my body quickly submerged and with some modesty thankfully regained, the therapeutic benefits of the waters began their work: muscles slowly relaxed, my mind—devoid of iPhone, laptop or television—calmed, and the timeless attraction of retreating to an onsen ryokan became clear. Not only do the mineral waters work their magic on a range of ailments from circulation to arthritis, all are guaranteed to reduce stress and relieve fatigue without any effort.

The non-judgmental contemplative communal experience is also surprisingly liberating and calming. Add to that the soothing hospitality of a ryokan, its fresh seasonal cuisine and the chance to repeat the soaking experience several times a day or night—no wonder the ritual of visiting a ryokan has remained popular for over a thousand years.

In short, ryokan combine the ultimate combination of timeless Japanese hospitality, art, culture and architecture. Here are five of our favorites featuring onsen, from family-friendly to ultra-exclusive. Enjoy.

Hoshinoya, Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture

RyokanJust one hour by shinkansen from the capital, Hoshinoya is a favorite weekend getaway for stressed Tokyoites, offering an excellent balance between tradition and modern comfort with its contemporary take on the quintessential Japanese retreat. It is also the ideal experience for novices thanks to its English-speaking staff and supply of etiquette guides and maps. The emphasis is on privacy and convenience: think futons laid out for rest at any time during the day, flexible mealtimes and 24-hour Western or Japanese room service menus. It also sports a fully equipped music and book library; massage treatments, an ecology centre, and a nearby specialist brewery. Hoshinoya’s famous indoor meditation onsen, reserved for guests only, offers a not-to-be missed unique experience that adds an almost spiritual element to the therapeutic waters: revealing the details here would spoil the surprise, but this is a highly recommended must-do.

Komaki Onsen Aomoriya

Traditional Japanese inns and young children are usually a recipe for disaster: ryokan interiors usually feature delicate shoji paper screens and centuries-old antiques. It is no surprise, therefore, that the few establishments catering to families are so popular. Komaki Onsen Aomoriya’s vast complex of hotel-like accommodation, restaurants, entertainment areas and onsen, located near Misawa in Aomori, the northernmost prefecture on Honshu, may be far from a small traditional style ryokan, but it is nirvana for parents of young children who will enjoy the Edo-themed, indoor entertainment “village,” cultural shows, games area and the stunning outdoor baths. Both Japanese- and Western-style rooms are available. English is relatively limited, but the staff are eager to please and the service is unpretentious and friendly.

The Japanese cypress wood baths and outdoor rotenburo are set amid a tree-lined pond and are illuminated at night. And children, even with their inevitable splashes and excited laughs, are warmly welcomed. Those looking to unwind further can head for a reasonably priced foot massage at the Edo village.

Arcana Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture

The super-chic 16-room Arcana ryokan is set in the forested retreat of Shizuoka, just two hours from Tokyo—the perfect choice for design-conscious travelers who really want to get away from it all but still want to maintain a certain standard of luxury. Renowned for its sleek contemporary interiors featuring wood and brick, fireplaces and furniture by Osaka-based design specialists Graf, the ryokan is renowned for its stunning natural forest setting—best appreciated from the private hot-spring bath on each balcony. The sophisticated spa uses Thann products and offers an unusually wide choice of authentic Japanese therapies designed to reduce stress and rejuvenate even the most fatigued traveler. The cuisine is equally impressive, especially when enjoyed in the dining room with its dramatic forest views.

Gora Kadan, Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture

25This renowned luxury spot, originally a summer villa retreat for the Imperial family, is one of the most often recommended onsen ryokan thanks to its winning blend of old and new combining traditional hospitality with modern comforts. Set within the forests of Fuji-Hakone National Park some 90km south of Tokyo, the Relais & Chateaux property is a haven for the weary with its garden spa offering a full range of therapies from shiatsu massage to facials. The mineral waters, said to be good for “smooth, soft skin” are drawn from two springs and seven of the unusually spacious 44 rooms have private rotenburo. There are also two more onsen and two rotenburo for communal bathing.

Tobira Onsen Myojinkan, Nagano Prefecture

Another Relais & Chateaux property, Tobira Onsen Myojinkan celebrates a stunning natural setting with its location in the Japanese Alps, in the tranquil Yatsugatake-Chushin Quasi-National Park, close to the castle town of Matsumoto. Rooms range from minimalist Japanese to elegant western-style—all offering soothing zen-like calm interiors and striking mountain views. Some come with specially designed baths for private relaxation. The onsen for communal use include the Neyu “lie-down” bath and Setsugekka, a unique standing bath, while the waters are particularly recommended for those suffering from arthritis and gastrointestinal problems. The ryokan’s excellent cuisine features traditional Japanese kaiseki, creative modern Japanese and organic French—using fresh vegetables from the ryokan’s own organic farm.

History Ryokan were originally introduced in the 17th century as rest houses for feudal lords travelling to Edo (now Tokyo) to pay respects to the Shogun. Thanks to Japan’s volcanic geography, there are thousands of sources of hot water. According to Japanese law, onsen waters must flow to the surface at 75°F and contain a certain amount of minerals such as iron or sulphur. The mineral content is always displayed.

Resources The Ryokan Collection: www.ryokancollection.com
Ryokan: Japan’s Finest Spas and Inns, by Akihiko Seki and Elizabeth Heilman Brooke
Japan National Tourism Organization: www.jnto.go.jp