Staying in a ryokan is perhaps one of the most enjoyable things tourists could do while visiting Japan. Though my definition of ryokans are typically onsen hotels in the country side of Japan. I stayed once in Jozankei and another time during the summer in Lake Toya, and both stays were amazing even though they were just for one night. Typically these lodging includes dinner and breakfast as well as access to their public baths. In all the stays I have had, the baths are segregated for men and women, with a rotation that occurs in the morning. The baths also has an outdoor and indoor section which makes it even better. Thus to make this trip to Japan complete, we stayed in a ryokan in Yudanaka for one night. Given how expensive it is to stay in these lodging, one night provides the best value in my opinion. Rates for a night at these accomodation options usually go on a per person basis, and it costs me ¥16,000 (~US$160). At first glance it appears expensive considering a night at the Hyatt in Shinjuku for 2 person costs less than that but I think it is worth it and this post will show how so.
First of all, the ryokan had a van that picked us up from Yudanaka station but I think guests might need to call the ryokan on arrival as I do not think they have a regular service. My friend booked the accommodation and arranged for our transport to the ryokan though we had to wait a while since we did not know beforehand what time we expected to arrive at Yudanaka station. Since we arrived at the ryokan earlier than the check-in time of 2pm, we left our luggage and snowboard at an alcove in the lobby which was curtained off. The lobby of the ryokan was empty around noon when we arrived and the lodging was extremely quiet and peaceful but it could also be due to the New Year’s holiday still ongoing in the country. I would rate the lobby of this ryokan in between the one I visited in Lake Toya and the one in Jozankei. There was a lot of seating area in the lobby with a bar at the corner that was decorated with 2 model 747 – a Northwest and Delta Air Lines jet. Small origami ornaments decorate the tables and livens up the quiet lobby and the ryokan actually sells these origami made of high-quality craft paper on the gift store.
The room assigned to us was a Japanese style room facing the town and the higher location of the ryokan provided a vantage view point overlooking the town of Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen. There was an entry foyer on entry and the toilet on the left with a shoe rack and jacket closet. The bedroom itself is located on a higher platform and is covered with tatami mats. In the evening when we checked into the room, a table with 2 Japanese chairs and another 2 western style chairs nearer the window. A set of teacups and teapot was laid out along with some Japanese bean cakes and sweets and this is common amongst all ryokans.
One notable difference with western style rooms would be the futon bedding that would be laid out while guests have dinner and the washbasin is actually located in the section of the room close by the windows. On one edge of the wall lies the ward robe where the yukatas, pillows and futons are stored at along with a TV cabinet. The room was perhaps standard sized for a ryokan and similar in terms of style to the one I stayed in Jozankei after the snowboarding trip to Niseko.
In my last post, I mentioned that we actually went out to explore the town of Shibu Onsen and visited the monkey park before returning to the ryokan at around 7pm for dinner. The ryokan will actually provide free shuttle service to the town and the monkey park and they were also picking guests up from the monkey park, hence we got a lift back and requested a drop at Shibu Onsen which is probably half way between the ryokan and the monkey park. Service in the hotel was excellent like in many Japanese accomodations. The ryokan was also geared to cater to English speaking guests and thus there was no problem in communication unlike in some Japanese chain hotels.
On returning to the ryokan for dinner, our group of 4 adults and 2 children were ushered into a private room and this is more the norm for families or larger groups. The kaiseki meal is always a highlight of a ryokan stay and this one was still full of surprises. A Japanese kaiseki meal typically combines some of the freshest unique ingredients that are local to the area and for this ryokan the special ingredient was the fresh mushrooms already laid out on the table. Diners pick the mushrooms off and grill it atop the steel mesh atop the fire.
As usual there was a pre-dinner aperitif in the form of a small cup of sake. Then the zensai platter was set up in the middle with all the food intricately decorated. I always find the zensai in a kaiseki to be the most visually appealing and the most interesting with its variety of flavours. Other side dishes in the kaiseki was the sashimi platter, pickles, a bowl of soba, an oyster in jelly and a kobachi bowl of simmered vegetables. There were 2 main entrees in the set meal, one of them a beef shabu-shabu and a grilled fish served with rice. The fish was served with a sweet black bean and a stalk of young ginger which was tasty. Finally a shortcake was served with a strawberry for dessert. Kids get their own sets and have a special non-alcoholic drink as well. Overall, this was a good meal, but compared to some other kaiseki meals I have had the pleasure of partaking, it was lacking that flavour that makes me reminisce about the meal.
After dinner, the rest of the evening was spent enjoying a song, dance and drum performance by a talented Japanese artist who played a tune of a folk song on a traditional instrument, performed on the huge drum set in the lobby and did a lion dance the Japanese way. It was supposed to commemorate a couple’s anniversary of sorts who was staying in the ryokan with the family and that perhaps highlighted the stay. In the evening we also head out to the onsen for a nice hot spring bath.
The onsen was one of the smaller ones I have been to in a ryokan but it was good enough with an outdoor portion. There was also a small lounge which was located just outside the hot spring baths but it was really too small with only 4 seats in all. It is also worth noting that the ryokan switched off the lights on the lobby level after around 10pm which seems a bit early for a hotel as there does not seem to be any other public spaces where guests could relax in and use the wifi since they are not available in the rooms.
On the next morning, breakfast was once again served in the restaurant below the lobby and our group was assigned the same private room once again. The breakfast set was similar to the one I had in the Park Hyatt Tokyo with a tofu stew, some traditional fish cakes, pickles, rice and a plate of grilled fish. A bowl of salad was also served along with juices, milk, tea and coffee. Maybe I was jaded after having so much Japanese breakfast, but this was once again a tad ordinary and did not appear outstanding.
While this ryokan stay met my expectations, it would not be one of the ryokans I would re-visit since I think there are some other ryokans that provide a much better experience overall whether in terms of food or accommodations, such as the one I visited in Lake Toya.