Madeleine Stratton slips into the simple, austere style of luxury that is what traditional, high-end japanese guesthouses are all about.
I’ve just reached Shuzenji, about two and a half hours southwest of Tokyo on the Izu Peninsula. This well-known hot-spring resort was established over a thousand years ago, legend has it by the famous Buddhist monk Kobo-Daishi, who, as it’s told, pounded a rock with his tokko (walking stick) to bring forth hot spring water.
Crunching across a gravel path, I’ve arrived at Yagyu-No-Sho, a traditional style ryokan with just 15 rooms. It’s winter, it’s cold, and I’m looking forward to escaping the chill with my first hot spring experience.
I pull my boots off at the entrance and slip into the plastic slipper-like shoes I’ll be wearing inside the ryokan. Stepping in, the ryokan is quiet and cozy, illuminated this evening by low yellow light. I’m ushered to a waiting room where I sit by a window and take in the view out to a Japanese garden while I wait for my usher, decked out in a kimono, to take me up to my room. A heavy wooden door is opened to reveal a suite of rooms with tatami floors and wooden and rice paper sliding doors throughout, with windows shielded by sliding blinds also made from rice paper. And there isn’t a bed in sight. The main room is currently furnished with a low table and a zaisu, a customary floor-chair consisting of a chair back, single armrest and cushion for sitting on. Traditionally in these tatami rooms, the bed, a futon, replaces this table set up in the evening, and is packed away again in the morning.
The décor is very simple. Each room has an alcove, or tokonoma, in which there is a kakaejiku (hanging scroll) and ikebana (floral arrangement) for decoration. Other than that, the walls are bare, furnishings minimal. I’m directed to a yukata to wear around the ryokan, a light cotton summer kimono, this one white and printed with an intricate indigo pattern. There’s also a pair of geta, wooden thong-like shoes with a platform, the sort I’ve only ever seen on geisha before. My feet clearly aren’t as small and dainty as is the norm in Japan, so I slip into a men’s pair in my toed socks (getting over the fact that I’m effectively wearing socks with sandals, something I’m vehemently opposed to back at home) and shuffle up to the dining room for dinner.
The style of meal is called kaiseki, a multi-course traditional Japanese meal. Tonight it will be prepared by Yagyu-No-Sho’s chef who has several decades of experience. I’m presented with a beautiful menu, handwritten in Japanese calligraphy. Each of our 12 courses tonight comes out on a tray in a selection of small bowls and serving dishes, and all are meticulously and artfully arranged. The menu is based on seasonal produce, and while I’m dining from a vegetarian menu, other guests around me are enjoying fresh raw fish and shellfish. Highlights for me include a delicious salty soup filled with slithers of mushroom and seaweed, a shriveled pink thing that turns out to be pickled plum and tastes as sweet and divine as the nectar of the gods, and miso prepared in more ways than I ever could have imagined – in a soup, as a sauce, as a garnish to a dish that comes served in a box – it looks like three icy-poles, only they’re made from tofu, each with a different coloured savoury topping. I’m charmed by the fact that hardly any of the staff speak English, and we have a lot of fun attempting to communicate our drinks orders over dinner with rudimentary sign language. After the last course is cleared away, having reached elegant sufficiency, there’s only one thing left to do.
At Yagyu-No-Sho there are two outdoor communal baths bordered by rocks and surrounded by bamboo forest, and two indoor communal baths with men and women bathing separately. But I don’t need to worry about communal bathing, as, back in my room, I slide open the door to my own hot spring bath. Natural hot spring water is pumped up through the walls to a huge square wooden tub. This bath is for bathing, but not washing, so I have to wash first using the shower off to the side. Clean, I lower myself into the tub of hot spring water and lean back to relax, enjoying the view through a slightly misted window to clusters of green bamboo. It’s simply heavenly, the perfect bath, and the best thing is, the steaming clear water will never get cold.
Where to stay
Rates start from JPY42,150 (about A$530) per person per night including Japanese full course dinner, breakfast, service charge and tax. There is an additional charge of JPY2,100 (about A$26) per person per night for weekends.
Japan Airlines flies direct to Tokyo from Sydney daily, with fares starting from A$1,195 return for economy and A$5,799 return for business. jal.com
Shuzenji is a two and a half hour drive from Tokyo. Rental cars are available from Nippon Rent-A-Car, from around JPY7,035 (about A$88) per 24 hours. nipponrentacar.co.jp
Shuzenji can also be accessed by Japan’s bullet train services. Travel on the Tokaido Main Line from Tokyo to Mishima, then change at Mishima to the Sunzu Line to Shuzenji.
When to go
The Izu Peninsula climate is similar to that of Tokyo, with four distinct seasons, where the summers aren’t unbearably hot, and the winters aren’t freezing cold and it rarely snows. I went in winter and relished the fact that I could stave off the cold in my private hot spring bath.