It’s been a whirlwind 2019 and I do apologise to my readers for the long radio silence. It’s been a mad year of renovating and moving house which can be terribly intense. I am back in action again! Many of my fans often ask me what I look for or where to go when picking Ryokans. Given I hit my all time high list of visiting 7 Japanese ryokans in a mere 3 months during the season of Fall Winter 2018-2019, I thought it would be most apt to share with you snippets of my travels to these mostly new areas and ryokans and my own rating reviews of them based on 1 to 5 (5 being the best). I often look at the ryokan first in terms of its room, ambience (which includes both the room and hotel), food, and if it’s a new area I haven’t been to, all the better. It’s always exciting to research and find interesting sights, shops and food haunts in the Japanese countryside.
Bettei Otozure in Yamaguchi (Yumoto-2208 Fukawayumoto, Nagato, Yamaguchi 759-4103, Japan). Visited in Nov 2018.
Japanese hospitality meets Modern Luxury
Food: 4, Onsen: 4, Ambience: 4, Surroundings: 4
Beautiful arrival courtyard greets me.
In my super spacious room.
My fav spot in the lobby.
Chatting with owner – Mr Kazuhiro Otani.
At Akiyoshidai Cave. Ready for a nice walk.
Sekitei in Hiroshima (3 Chome-5-27 Miyahamaonsen, Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima 739-0454, Japan). Visited in Nov 2018.
Japanese old charm meets treasure house
Food: 4.5, Onsen: 4, Ambience: 4, Surroundings: 4.5
This charming ryokan inn facing the famous Miyajima and the Seto Inland Sea is an idyllic getaway for anyone looking for something a little bit offbeat and different from the typical Japanese ryokans. At first glance, the arrival area and hallways of the ryokan seems pared down and understated, looking more like a simple Japanese residence, with only 12 rooms located in a U-shape surrounding their famous Shakkei style garden with views of the Seto Inland Sea, which is a perfect postcard shot for the ryokan. There’s more to it than this – the current fourth-generation owner, Junichi Ueno has a penchant for design and antiques, and we were told that he remodelled the ryokan to his personal taste when it was damaged by a typhoon. What one would find are secret chambers and nooks for reading, and chilling out, filled with treasure trove of his personal artefacts, and beautiful classic vintage chairs to lounge in. We chose the An-An room for its privacy (did not see the point of everyone in the garden looking into our room) and loved the layout of the bedroom and dining rooms upstairs and private onsen on the ground floor. The public onsen is pretty good and has enough variety of different pools to enjoy. Breakfast is typical local Japanese style served in the common restaurant, while dinner in our room, was a lot more indulgent and was a visual feast in presentation as much as taste for the 2 nights we were there. Their dinners feature their signature local seafood, and it was one of the most elaborate and thoughtful kaiseki meals I’ve had in ryokans to date – I especially loved their conger eel claypot rice. The service here is discreet, and staff may not seem as engaging probably because of the language barrier, but we had a lovely lady who could speak English to tend to our meals and other enquiries. One can have much to do here, with Hiroshima city and Miyajima Island just nearby. Be sure to spare some time to visit the famous Itsukushima Floating Torii Gate, with my personal favourite time near sunset. The island is littered with many eateries and cafes, it’s easy to spend the whole afternoon here!
Enjoying views of Sekitei’s gorgeous Shakkei style garden.
My private room onsen.
Sunset at Itsukushima Floating Torii Gate.
Bettei Senjuan in Gunma (614 Tanigawa, Minakami, Tone District, Gunma 379-1619, Japan). Visited in Jan 2019.
Food: 3.8, Onsen: 4, Ambience: 3.8, Surroundings: 3.5
Zen interiors with modern accents
The most memorable element of Bettei Senjuan is their beautiful curved glass wall which looks out to the snow filled garden, when I visited here in winter. General interiors and rooms take on a more classic Japanese typical design, and personally for me was not that memorable, especially the Japanese style room B that I had booked which just looked a tad boring to me. Breakfast and dinners are served in the restaurant, which has a comfortable ambience with different style of rooms – which unfortunately we can’t choose, it’s assigned to us. One has to try the plum wines here – they have more than 100 types of Japanese plum wines from different parts of Japan, and many aren’t retailed overseas, definitely something I miss about Senjuan. And they showcase one of the famous local sake distillery’s sake selection – Mizubasho, which naturally pairs well with the kaiseki meal. The kaiseki food on the contrary though of decent quality, was nothing to shout about and didn’t leave a mark in my tastebuds. The ryokan is equipped with their own spa and pretty good public and private onsens for guests to book. Gunma tends to be especially colder than other areas in this part of Japan during winter, and one other fun aspect was riding the snow sleigh in their garden, which makes it a fun experience for families with children to visit here. The ryokan is surrounded by many local small ski areas, which I skipped having just finished my ski holiday in Hakuba. What was most interesting was probably the Hara Museum (ARC) – a beautiful modern museum, with cool installations and that amazing soft serve silky smooth ice cream from Ikaho Green, just nearby. Given the food and room was a slight let down for me, and the surrounding areas not much to offer, it may not deserve a revisit in my list despite it being a Relais and Chateaux Hotel.
The signature hallway of Bettei Senjuan.
Snow sledding in the backyard.
Starting our sake pairing during dinner.
Amazing selection of my favourite plum wines.
Wajoen Ryokan in Yamanashi (137 Isawacho Hatta, Fuefuki, Yamanashi 406-0023, Japan)
Classic Japanese in wine country.
Food: 3.5, Onsen: 3.5, Ambience: 3.5, Surroundings: 3.8
This is probably the only ryokan I picked not for the ryokan but rather for the destination, as this seemed the best in the Koshu region of Yamanashi. Still worth a review if anyone was looking at a decent ryokan experience in this town, given Yamanashi is coming up as Japan’s ‘wine country’ – it’s like what Napa Valley is to California. With only 11 rooms, this ryokan is a smallish intimate residence, with focus more on the rooms, some of the larger ones with their own private onsen. We had our meals in another unoccupied guest room so that we could enjoy it with our Japanese friends we came to Yamanashi with. I don’t remember much of the food, perhaps because I was drinking a lot through the day with the various wine tastings, I definitely slept really well. Onsen is on the smaller scale here, with just one public pool for dipping and the rest of different formats depending on which room with private onsen you book.
Known to be the where the first wine in Japan was made, Yamanashi is most known for their local Koshu varietal grape. For the curious wine explorers, this might be an interesting place at first to visit, but not to sound like a wine snob, I did feel disappointed by the quality of the wines – based on the few wineries we visited including Katsunuma Winery, the more established Kurambon (over a century old) who is known for their biodynamic wines, the wines generally lacked depth and complexity. On the contrary, the most memorable highlight was surprisingly my visit to Hakushu Distillery, which has a beautiful large estate, and is home to a large bird sanctuary. The guided tour on how their whisky is made was enjoyable, especially the whisky tasting session and how to make the perfect highball – it’s all in the water! Just remember you can’t drink and drive, it’s zero tolerance in Japan. For a quick food run, I enjoyed my chicken ramen at Mizushima Ramenらぁ麺 水嶋 (2 Chome-3-3 Marunouchi, Kofu, Yamanashi 400-0031, Japan) near the Kofu Station, much needed after all the wine tasting, and be sure to check out nearby – Rokkodan Cafe 六曜館珈琲店 (2 Chome-15-15 Marunouchi, Kofu, Yamanashi 400-0031, Japan), a local kissaten (old school Japanese coffee houses) run by the loveliest Japanese lady – have a Wiener coffee and strawberry parfait, and crispy gyoza only served in the evenings.
My cozy room at Wajoen.
My private outdoor onsen.
Hakushu Whisky tasting experience.
Rokkodan Cafe, quaint kissaten.
Ryokan Konomama in Aso, Kumamoto (5304-1 Kain, Minamiaso, Aso District, Kumamoto 869-1411, Japan). Visited in Feb 2019.
Idyllic modern ryokan in the countryside.
Food: 3, Onsen: 3, Ambience: 4, Surroundings: 3.8
Not so typical ryokan set in the Minami-aso region within the Mount Aso region in Kumamoto, it feels more like a quaint resort in the countryside – this was what drew me to this place to test out for a 1 night stay, and it served Italian food for a change! This is the most budget friendly in my list – paid 27,000 yen per person when I came here in February. With only 10 rooms, they have a mixture of Western style, with option of maisonette room (I booked this), and Japanese style rooms – which still looks fairly modern centric. The views of the mountains in the backdrop and their observatory tower, as one arrives in the arrival lobby is immediately calming, and the rooms almost uniquely “disappear” into small hills that flank either side of the ryokan’s landscape, this is what I love about the ambience. Onsen is not such a big focus here, but some rooms like the maisonette have private open-air bath. Meals are served in the common dining room, in our own private room, but unfortunately the dinners were a little disappointing, I think there needs to be some work to be done on their Italian cuisine, in terms of flavour and dishes. On the contrary, the traditional Japanese breakfast is a lot better, and I wonder why they don’t just stick to what they are best at for dinner too? The immediate surroundings are more suited for sightseeing and nature lovers who can visit the Mount Aso National Park, though there are many quaint cafes and small Japanese restaurants in the Minami-Aso area. For more sense of civilization, Kumamoto city is just an hour’s drive away, where you can indulge in a pretty delicious tonkatsu at Katsureitsutei Tonkatsu (8-18 Shinshigai, Chuo Ward, 熊本市中央区 Kumamoto 860-0803, Japan), and walk it off with a hike up to see Kumamoto Castle (which unfortunately was damaged from the 2016 earthquake, and is being restored now). The ryokan is a cute place to perhaps visit for a 1 night’s stay, but it’s still not a full fledged experience in my opinion that qualifies for a revisit.
Observatory tower at Konomama.
Enjoying the outdoor view from my room.
My private onsen.
Breakfast at Konomama.
100 over years old Japanese house at Sansou Murata.
My private Japanese garden.
Museum in Murata’s community.
Waiting for my B-speak roll cake.
Hero shot of the bamboo forest at night, my favourite view here.
Chilling in my private onsen at Omachian room.
Shabu lunch with a view at Takefue.
Signature bamboo in kaiseki meal.
So this rounds up the 7 ryokans I have visited in these 3 months, I hope this gives you first timer Japanese ryokan goers and even ryokan repeaters like me some new ideas of where to go next for your ryokan getaway! If you have any queries, just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!