In Praise of Ryokans: Why We Left Our Hearts in Shin Hotaka

Between visits to the cities of Kyoto and Tokyo, we planned a nature get-away to the Japanese Alps. The train from Nagoya to Takayama was somehow adorable, and we sat right in the front where we could watch the conductor’s ritual-like signals every time we passed a junction (a technique called for error-prevention is called shisa kanko).
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We spent just one night in Takayama, which gave us time to follow the famous Higashiyama walking course, a 400-year-old hiking trail that passes through a park and more than 10 temples and shrines on the outskirts of town.
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The park was full of Japanese maple trees
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and beautiful hydrangeas,
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and after we lost the trail in the midst of an ancient cemetery,
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we were startled when magical music-box-like sounds starting broadcasting across the valley. We later found out this was the ‘5pm Chime’, which is a much more poetic version of the emergency broadcast tests we’re used to in the States.

The next morning, we had a hearty lunch of Japanese curry
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before catching the bus to Shin-Hotaka, our main Alps destination. We were very excited to be staying at a ryokan called Kazeya, which offered traditional tatami-matted rooms and a variety of onsen (hot spring baths) in a beautiful natural setting.
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The hotel had only 8 rooms, and to share between them there were two huge private baths where we could soak together,
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even larger gender-segregated public baths built into the rock of the hillside,
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not to mention a smaller tub right on our balcony.
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It goes without saying, we spent several hours each day relaxing and soaking. When we weren’t in the baths, we spent some time exploring the surrounding area on the hotel’s bikes:
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and on foot. We hiked to the nearby Shin-Hotaka ropeway, a gondola transport up Mount Hotaka (the third-tallest mountain in Japan) offering spectacular views of the surrounding scenery.
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That is, when the viewing platform isn’t socked in by clouds.
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Nevertheless, we decided to give it a go, and enjoyed the views on the way up before the tram pierced the cloud layer.
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From the top of the gondola, we found the start of the trail which heads up and over the back of the mountain
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and then down the other side into the valley of Kamikōchi, the “Yosemite of Japan”.
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Unfortunately, it was pretty cloudy there as well, and we only caught a brief view of the surrounding mountains on the bus ride back to Shin-Hotaka.
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When we returned to the ryokan, we took as many baths as we could and then put on our yukuta before heading to our last delicious meal. Guests are encouraged to wear yukuta (‘bathing clothes’) when staying at a ryokan – after the baths, to dinner, and even for a stroll through town. It felt a little weird at first, but when we realized how comfortable it was, we didn’t want to go back to regular clothes.
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Between the amazing food, baths, and scenery at Kazeya, we were very, very sad to be leaving already. Jason almost had to drag Sarah back to the bus stop, where we retraced our steps to Takayama and then Nagoya, before catching the Shinkansen (fast train) to Tokyo!

1 Thought.

  1. This brought back memories of my stay in a ryokhan with a Japanese friend. I can’t remember where it was. You seem to have a great visit as I did. Jane

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