My Japanese ryokan hopping adventure 2018-2019 – 7 Ryokans in 3 months

Whirlwind adventure visiting Japan ryokans in Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, Yamanashi, Gunma, Oita, and Kumamoto
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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

Bettei Otozure is a luxurious modern style ryokan nestled in a tranquil area of Yamaguchi, surrounded by lush landscape, river streams and the famed Hagi pottery area just nearby (they are known for their ceramics for tea ceremonies especially). Despite being a family run business by the Otani family, this ryokan is clearly design conscious and isn’t stuck in the times. Now managed by the 3rd generation Mr Kazuhiro Otani, the ryokan has top notch personalised service – Mr Otani makes it a point to meet guests personally, and even drove us one day to see a pottery artist.  The ryokan provides modern day comforts such as spa, large gym to burn off those kaiseki meals, and home theatre in some rooms. Public onsen and private onsen in some of the rooms are also a given. With only just 18 rooms, which are all on the spacious side, one hardly ever see their neighbours other than during meal times in the restaurant where breakfast and dinners are served. They also own the larger property (slightly more mass) – Otani Sanso, which also offers an array of restaurants which guests from Otozure could also frequent, and is simply connected by a passageway. The local cuisine is focused on the produce from the nearby Sea of Japan, and the local specialty is fugu. Perhaps as I am not a big fan of fugu, I can’t say I enjoy it as much, but the kaiseki meals otherwise are of good quality and breakfasts are sumptuous with a choice of either Japanese or Western. Teppanyaki dinners are a homey breakaway from the kaiseki fare is accessible at next door’s property. Our room was Type D, a maisonette style room which was super luxurious complete with our own private outdoor bath, it almost felt like we didn’t have enough time to enjoy the full facilities especially the home theatre upstairs.
Not to be missed is the neighbouring Hagi area – a great place to shop for beautiful pottery if you are as obsessed with them as myself. If you only have time to visit one atelier, go see Mr Kaneko Tsukusa’s pottery workshop (〒759-3721 山口県萩市三見三見畦田2300) , this man does amazing things with dots on ceramics, especially dotting mushrooms which he’s especially obsessed with! For sightseeing and nature buffs, I would recommend visiting the limestone caves of Akiyoshidai (a 35 mins drive, private car with driver can be arranged by Mr Otani if you aren’t planning to drive) which is a nice gentle hike, and driving around the plateau, dotted with limestone pinnacles. It’s truly nature’s wonder, given the plateau used to be a coral reef some 300 million years ago. Be sure to visit and support Mr Otani’s cafe Oto Cafe nearby to Otozure (I didn’t have the chance to visit it when I was there).

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.

Delicious sashimi.

Nooks and crannies of Sekitei including their public 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.

Sansou Murata in Yufuin, Oita (1264-2 Yufuincho Kawakami, Yufu, Oita 879-5102, Japan). Visited in Feb 2019.
Perfect marriage of old and new in this charming ryokan enclave
Food: 4, Onsen: 4, Ambience: 4.5, Surroundings: 4
Where rustic architecture meets modern design in Sansou Murata, a ryokan tucked away in the charming Yufuin Onsen area, one of the popular onsens in the Oita Prefecture. The famous Yunotsubo Street and nearby Floral Village, breaming with tourists is nearby. This popular tourist street is lined with a wealth of cute little shops and cafes, but the moment you arrive at Sansou Murata, you are transported to a different world. The only ryokan in this list in my opinion, that has truly incorporated elements of its surroundings and created a comforting and stylish enclave, community of curated shops, showcasing the best of what Yufuin has to offer, including the famous B-speak known for their roll cakes, and even a museum and soba shop. I was a frequent visitor at their gift shop next to their little reading area, even buying the pillow they have in their room! At first glance, the ryokan looks rustic from the outside, all original traditional Japanese houses were  brought in from from Niigata Prefecture, and they form the main ryokan building and the 12 guest rooms. Much care and thought has been placed in the design of the rooms, each room has a different concept – some Japanese, some modern. I stayed at the Sou room (another maisonette style), which had a simple Scandi feel- Japanese design, mixed in with a nice Japanese tatami room, where we had our dinner served. They may not have a public onsen, but it’s well more than made up for with the different pockets of space within the ryokan and well designed rooms that one can easily while their time away in. Classic Japanese multi course kaiseki meals for dinner and breakfast was served, and was of great quality. The service here is also excellent and, even if some of them can’t speak such fluent English, they more than make up for it with their hospitality, making me feel right at home. Definitely a ryokan I would love to visit again, and then I could visit Yunotsubo Street to stock up on some of my favourite jams.

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.

It’s all in the details from the common areas to the rooms.

Takefue Ryokan in Kurokawa, Kumamoto (5725ー1 Manganji, Minamioguni, Aso District, Kumamoto 869-2402, Japan). Visited in Feb 2019.
Ultimate ryokan getaway in onsen heaven
Food: 4.2, Onsen: 4.8, Ambience: 4.5, Surroundings: 3.8
I saved the best for last, also aptly, this is the last ryokan I have visited in 2019, as of now. A ryokan that deserves a repeat visit, it’s been consistently top on my list and I have recommended so many friends to visit this ryokan. Back a second time since my last visit in 2014 (see my last review here), and stayed in exactly the same room Omachian, I scaled down on my outside activities, and had time to really enjoy the room and the ryokan for the 2 nights I was here. Nestled amidst the mountains and trees, Takefue offers a tranquil and truly polished ryokan experience. There’s a grandeur to the ryokan, with only 11 rooms scattered through a bamboo forest of 12,000 sq ft. Guests choose their yukata in the arrival area before being ushered to their room. The architecture and design here, is still Japanese centric but done in a contemporary way and all the rooms and common spaces have views of the bamboo trees making it super relaxing and one can truly space out. The rooms are all fairly large with 5 offering their own private outdoor onsen, and are tastefully designed, and well equipped with their own fireplaces, full amenities from skincare to complimentary bar fridge and coffee machine. They place equal focus on the common areas such as the gorgeous waterfall in the courtyard, complete with a light show after dark – and complimentary drinks one could enjoy while chilling the night away. They have recently added private dining rooms overlooking the waterfall, where guests can book to have their meals there for bigger groups or lunch can be served for guests who stay more than a night. It was lovely enjoying a local shabu meal in the private room with such a fabulous view. Attention to detail here goes all the way, with soda drinks scattered in little river streams and even ice cream for guests to help themselves with. The kaiseki breakfast and dinners here are elaborate and of good quality, but the onsen in Takefue is really the creme of the crop. They have different concept onsens that can be booked for private use – and it’s seriously impossible to finish all of them in one day! And I love how they provide yuzu in the bath, as adding it to the hot spring water, makes the skin feel even better! The most impressive for me was the Chikujo No Ma (a new addition private onsen), a super luxurious modern onsen using hinoki wood, complete with a TV room and tatami relaxation deck, 1 hour was just too short for me to enjoy this amazing space. Given it’s mountainous location, guests may feel it is tad inconvenient to get to places like the nearby Kurokawa Onsen, but one doesn’t even need to go out when they stay in Takefue. Dessert lovers like me may want to visit Chez Tani for their cakes, my favourite is this amazing pudding roll cake (they even do cake buffets), it’s definitely worth a little excursion out of Takefue, or takeaway the cakes to have it in your beautiful room! It may not be exactly cheap to stay at Takefue, but well worth the splurge for anyone wanting to experience something special.

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.

Onsen, Eat, Onsen – repeat mode.

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 askloveyloi@gmail.com!

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