Wednesday 27 March 2024

Staying in a Typical Japanese Hot Spring Hotel - with Stunning Views of Mount Fuji

See here for the TOC

Unseasonably chilly weather, together with lots of rain, has made for a miserable last few weeks, delaying the cherry blossoms, which are now expected to bloom this coming weekend (see here for the map). With university graduation ceremonies pretty much done - see here for a nice shot of my seminar students and me - and school spring break started, many families take a small vacation. Whereas in the UK, holiday camps, with on-site entertainment, activities, and facilities, are popular getaways, here in Japan hot spring resort hotels are beloved by young and old alike. Here I introduce one I stayed at recently in Yamanashi Prefecture, less than a 2-hour drive from Tokyo, called Hanayagi no sho Keizan (華やぎの章慶山). The hotel was featured in the 2022 edition of "100 Japanese Hotels and Ryokans selected by Professionals" (magazine cover pictured - see page 50). 

The hotel is located in the Isawa-onsen - onsen means hot spring - area of Yamanashi, north of Mount Fuji. It's a quiet little town surrounded by mountains and famed, as this site points out, for two things the Japanese love: hot springs and cherry blossoms! Despite being called Yamanashi (山梨)- literally mountain pear - the area is in fact famous for peaches and grapes. Indeed, with regard to the latter, there were two wineries within walking distance of our hotel. Arriving at the hotel, the first thing one is struck by is the service described in Japanese as omotenashi, a unique kind of Japanese hospitality where the needs of the customer are always anticipated. Thus, from the car park your luggage is taken and as you walk through the main entrance a bevy of nakai-san (hostesses) greet you and the head housekeeper (okami=女将)bows deeply and presents her business card (meishi=名刺). Then you are asked to choose a yukata (light common kimono) - as the picture shows there are various styles and sizes - before you and your luggage are guided to your Japanese style tatami room. Please note, tips are most definitely not needed - indeed the nakai-san would be rather affronted to be offered money just for doing their job.

These kind of hotels are a great base to do some sightseeing during the day - and then come back to relax in the evening. We drove down to the Fuji Five Lakes (Fujigoko=富士五湖), the region at the foot of Mount Fuji which give the best views of the sacred mountain. Whether you get a spectacular cloud-free view or not is all down to luck. On the first day, we visited the biggest of the five lakes, Yamanaka-ko (山中湖) and after cycling around the windy lake drove up to the best sightseeing spot - Panorama-dai (パノラマ台) - only to be disappointed with Fuji all but invisible behind the mist. But on the second day, we visited the most developed of the five, Kawaguchi-ko (河口湖), and got lucky - some of the best and clearest views of Mount Fuji that I've seen in my thirty-odd years in Japan!

After a hard day sightseeing, nothing beats going back to your hotel, slipping into your yukata and heading for the bath. Sometimes you will see the symbol for onsen (♨)but more often than not, as in the picture, you will see only the hiragana ゆ (pronounced "yu" and written 湯 in kanji) which literally means hot water. Usually this is written on a short split curtain (noren) at the entrance - navy blue signifies men, red women (the character for men=男 and women=女 is also written but this is typically quite small so be careful to go in the right one!). There are also various massage services and relaxation tools and chairs around. I enjoyed a quick 10-minute massage for ¥1000 (£5) before the bath and made use of the free foot massage machine afterwards. Inside the bath itself, I love to rotate between the regular hot baths (both inside and outside), the sauna, and the cold bath (for more on sauna and the concept of totonou see here; also see here for  some tips on bathing etiquette). 

After the bath, the next step is dinner - an incredible feast of washoku Japanese style food with multiple courses. The menu (okondate=おこんだて), pictured top right in the photo, shows just how varied the meal was, including sakura tofu, tuna sashimi, squid noodles, and chawan-mushi (steamed egg custard). Stuffed to the gills, you stumble back to your room to be greeted by a nice surprise - while you were eating a nakai-san had cleared away the table and chairs and put out the futons for you! There was no mention of this happening - it is another example of the silent omotenashi service that anticipates the needs of customers before they even voice their requests. Incredible!

But it wasn't quite time to sleep yet. In the lobby there was a taiko performance. Taiko (太鼓) simply means drum and has a long history in Japan but the kind of group drumming famous today - known as kumi-daiko (組太鼓) - is a post-war invention. The show started with a single strike on a massive hollow wooden drum, a physically tangible thunder-clap that reverberated through the audience. Indeed, it is said that the sound can reach up to 120dB, equivalent to the noise produced by a jet engine. There are thousands of taiko groups in Japan, and it can take years to perfect the technique and strength required to play. Enjoy a clip of the performance captured in the video below and do let me know in the COMMENTS how and where you like to take a break.


George said...

How lucky you were! Not only staying in such a wonderful ryokan but also being able to see Fuji-san. When I visited Japan a few years ago with my entire family and an extended family, we never got to see Mt. Fuji. We did go to Hakone and stayed around there for a few days including my brother's place which faces directly the mountain. Yet, every single day, it was covered by clouds. On top of it, even when we were on a bullet train coming back from Hiroshima, I was hoping to see a glimpse of it but no such luck.
It was still covered by clouds. You have no idea how disappointed we were.

Chris Burgess said...

Thanks for your comment George - I feel your disappointment! I have lived here for over 30 years and this holiday was the first time I've seen Mount Fuji so clearly. Usually, as you say, it's covered in cloud. I hope you get the chance to visit again and see it in all it's glory - it really is awe inspiring.