If you ever head to Japan, you have to try staying at a ryokan.
My experience is based on our stay at Kiriya Ryokan. Nestled in the hot spring village of Nozawa-Onsen, it was suggested to us by a ski-mad friend, and it's proven to be a favourite.
Owned and run for 5 generations by the same family, Kiriya Ryokan is one of those places you'll remember when you're too old to travel. It’ll give you a warm memory that makes you smile and think “Yup, that was special”.
It has that intangible something – a blend of warmth, professionalism, personality and…belonging. Well, for my husband and I, at least. We have stayed at Kiriya twice in the last 6 months. Our first stay was in Dec 2014 and our last stay was in March 2015. Yes, we loved it that much. Swaddled in snow, with the occassional wild kamishka (Japenese wild serow) visiting the garden, it's a retreat as well as a great place to base your ski/snow-boarding trip.
Kiriya is located just 2 mins from the centuries-old hot springs that represent Nozawa-Onsen.
It's also close to the walking escalator that takes you up to the gondala to the mountain. So for all you ski/board freaks, this is a very handy location. It's literally 5 minutes walk away in heavy snow, so on a clear day, make that 3 mins.
For people like me, who don't ski or board, but do apres oh so VERY well, Nozawa-Onsen and Kiriya offers a tranquil sanctuary. You won't get bored out of your mind. It's safe to wander around by yourself (like most places in Japan). The pics below were taken on an after-dinner stroll. The place is lit up beautifully.
The owner, Ko Katagiri, speaks English fluently and will help you if you need to hire ski/boarding gear, recommend great places for dinner/ lunch, or (for people like me) suggest cafes where you can get a great latte and watch the snow fall, or savour a brewed cherry blossom tea. Yes….it's NOT just for people chasing the POW. Nozawa-Onsen is that great balance of being able to satisfy the snow-freak and the regular person who just wants to relax and have tea and wander the village and sight-see and shop and have an onsen.
A quick rundown on terms:
Ryokan – kinda like a bed and breakfast Japan-style. Throw in a spa-retreat feel and a bit of a meditative sanctuary WITH alcohol and great food, and you have it.
Onsen – public bath (rooms are separated by gender) where you wash yourself before getting into the hot spring pools to relax. So think of it like those snow monkeys, but with attention to personal hygiene before getting into the water.
Yukata – cotton dressing gown thing – not a kimono. Just think of it as off-duty samurai gear. Cool huh? 🙂
To be defined as a "ryokan", an establishment has to meet certain standards. And Kiriya has this in spades.
The rooms have traditional tatami mats on floor, wood & paper panels screening off rooms, and beautiful work by artisans. Rooms are set up with traditional Japanese formats (low tables, entry rooms etc.). So with a ryokan, you can ask for traditional futon beds or western beds, but I'd suggest you try the futon. You're in Japan, so why not? Found it comfy and very warm. Ask for more bedding if it's too hard for you. 🙂
Kiriya itself has some rooms which were built in the 60's. The woodwork on the panels, windows and ceiling is simply gorgeous. Tatami mats, antique vases, paintings, lamps …everything just slows down in this environment. You breathe deeper. You won’t get this experience in Tokyo. Well, you can, but you’ll be paying 5 times more for it. The rooms are very well maintained, immaculately clean. There is something so grounding about being surrounded by wood, watching snow fall softly outside your window. Anyway, I digress.
Service with a smile:
5 generations have run this place, so they know what they’re doing, and Ko-san does an excellent job of introducing guests to what Kiriya & Nozawa-Onsen have to offer – at their own pace. Your kids want pizza, no worries, she’ll tell you which restaurant can help you with that. Want to find a romantic restaurant to celebrate your partner’s birthday – yup, can do. Sight-seeing? Sure. Very accommodating, and very helpful.
Her mother and father and husband help run the place, and it's lovely to know you're spending your hard-earned cash on a lovely group of people, not some big conglomerate.
Their kaiseki dinners are spectacular. A kaiseki is a traditional Japanese meal that is served at a ryokan. It generally has a few courses, some cold, with some hot or cooked courses cooked at the table. Coupled with sake, their kaiseki is an affordable chance to savour the traditional flavours at Kiriya.
Breakfast – they can do Western or Japanese breakfasts. Now, don’t be expecting buffet monstrosities with servings the size of your head for Western breakfasts, but they do ham and eggs and toast, cereal and coffee. Think of it as helping you live longer. So you can ski or board more. I found the Japanese breakfasts quite addictive, actually. My body started to look forward to healthy food and portions.
Japanese visit a ryokan to de-stress. In each of the bedrooms, guests can wear the traditonal "yukata", and a woolen outer coat over the top. So take off your corporate gear or your tight leggings and skinny jeans, and basically, hang loose in your yukata. It's fine to wander around the ryokan, or even to the neighbouring onsen with this on. You'll see Japanese wearing this around the village. Wearing the yukata felt strange at first, but I soon realised it was liberating, casual and very relaxing. Especially after a visit to the onsen!
The onsen at Kiriya is incredibly relaxing. You must try it. Other public onsens dot the village – you can pay to enter these or pay a donation for upkeep. Kiriya is yours to use and is open 24 hours. You quickly get past any body-issues (yours or other poeple) as you realise the experience of de-stressing is the priority. No one cares. We’re all there to relax, take in the waters. Kiriya is unique in that it has a hot spring as a source of hot water for the onsen. In some other places in Tokyo, they used heated water, which can smell chlorinated. Here, there's no smell of sulphur or chemicals. There's some minerals, as to be expected, but it's all natural. It is very therapeutic.
Close to Nappa Cafe – this place is like if Ghibli studios made a movie about a cute couple who owned a cafe and made awesome lattes and food. IN REAL LIFE. I've reviewed it here: http://www.theadventure.com.au/explore/the-best-cafe-in-nozawa-onsen/
Close to the walkway to the gondola going up the mountain.
Close to the traditional village-only hot springs (yes some hot springs are reserved for villagers), so you may see villagers cooking vegetables, corn and eggs. And the view at night is magical. It's lit up beautifully and is safe to walk around after dinner.
Close to the public hot springs (out the front of Nappa Cafe) where you can bathe your feet (it was too snowed under to try when we were there). So if you need a foot spa, give this a go!
So besides all the functional amenities, the special part comes from Ko-san and her family. Oh…And their cat Choskei. I'm not sure if I'm spelling his name correctly, but make sure you meet the cat. He's a cat's cat. Aloof. A lover of sleep, and a killer of plastic bags. A real character.
This is Choskei with his favourite game "get the plastic bag".
This place holds a special place in our hearts. For the great value, for the delicious food, professional service, beautiful views, excellent location and most importantly, for the generous hearts of the Katagiri family. Please visit them. You won’t be disappointed.
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