The word ryokan – meaning ‘traditional Japanese inn’ – is a word that pops up quite frequently when talking about Japanese travel, often associated with ‘traditional’ cities like Kyoto. While you can probably find a ryokan in Tokyo or Kyoto or the large Japanese cities, the ryokan experience in smaller cities is quite a different experience. Since there isn’t as much to do, you’re free to soak in good food and relaxation and really do a deep dive in the attractions that are there. If you ever need a detox from the city, the grind of daily life or even just a packed Japan touring itinerary, consider a small breather in the form of a ryokan stay in my two favourites from this trip.
Since one of my travel companions walked into the preparation room of the onsen alone and, seeing several naked bodies inside, hastily walked out, I’ve also included an onsen guide for first-timers at the end – it can be quite a culture shock!
La Foret Fukiya
La Foret Fukiya represents a slightly more ‘Western’ style inn that is still a ryokan at heart, by virtue of its onsen facilities. The hotel draws inspiration from Swiss or European cabins, with lots of lacquered wooden furniture, western style single beds and slightly retro, overlooking a courtyard surrounded by the tall pine trees – simultaneously making it super cosy and a little like the setting of the perfect horror film. The inn provides guests with beautiful yukata robes to wear around the hotel and to breakfast and dinner, so definitely do as the locals do.
The onsen in La Foret is indoors in a white tiled room with extremely high ceilings so despite not being particularly large, it doesn’t feel cramped.
Meals at La Foret Fukiya is painstakingly prepared kaiseki cuisine or traditional Japanese cuisine, all the more special because of how remote the hotel is and so generous in quantity that I physically couldn’t eat anymore. You can really feel the sincerity of the chef through all the delicate portions of the food, some of which you grill yourself in a small stove.
I particularly loved the freshness of the octopus and snapper sashimi and the chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) which had soy sauce that was like a clear film over the top of the egg, hiding a tiny bit of eel inside. I don’t usually enjoy chawanmushi but this was really light and delicate.
The breakfast was similarly lavish, featuring grilled ham, agedashi tofu, more fish and salad. I particularly recommend the yuzu flavoured mushrooms (available as a souvenir at the gift shop attached to the ryokan) that are meant to complement the rice.
La Foret Fukiya
611 Fukiya, Nariwa-cho, Takahashi-shi, Okayama Prefecture
Web: Rakuten Travel
Fukiya Furusato Village
Fukiya Furusato Village, a mere 10min walk from the ryokan, feels like a traditional Japanese village trapped in time in the high mountains or a Studio Ghibli film, framed on either side by mountains and bright yellow wildflowers. Famous for its charming rust-coloured red roofs which were dyed with bengara pigment made from oxidised iron, the village is full of small stores selling unique bengara-dyed scarves and other souvenirs. You can also attend a bengara dyeing workshop and design your own tote bags or coasters using their templates.
Fukiya Furusato Village
Fukiya, Nariwa Town, Takahashi City, Okayama Prefecture
Web: Explore Okayama
Konpira Onsen Hananoyu
Located in the town of Kotohira at the base of Konpirasan, Shikoku’s most popular shrine, Konpira Onsen Hananoyu is a luxury ryokan that boasts wonderful service, amazing food and spacious traditional tatami rooms, not to mention karaoke rooms, a bar, gym facilities and, of course, several types of onsen. If you’re looking for the luxury ryokan experience, this is absolutely it.
We were welcomed by staff in the beautiful lobby with a bowl of matcha and a kind of soy-sauce biscuit and then shown to our traditional and seriously spacious tatami rooms.
There are two outdoor onsen accessible to all guests: the Hana Sumika and Hana Terrace bath, which is accessible through the garden, in a separate building. I adore outdoor onsen – there’s just a completely different feeling to being able to breathe in the fresh, cool air while soaking in the warmth of the water. In the evenings, the Hana Sumika is also sometimes filled with flowers.
Konpira Onsen pulls out all the stops for its beautifully presented kaiseki formal dinner in its banquet rooms. If you want a whirlwind tour through Japan’s diverse food culture, kaiseki cuisine provides you a little bit of everything, until you’re literally unable to eat another bite.
I particularly loved the fresh salmon roe with our sashimi, the perfectly cooked shoyu ramen with melt-in-your-mouth pork slices and fresh bamboo shoot, ochazuke (tea poured over rice to create a type of broth) and this unique yoghurt and fresh peach dessert, topped with colourful pastel rice puffs distinctive to the area (if all the souvenir stores are anything to go by).
Even more variety awaits you at Konpira’s absolutely amazing breakfast buffet, which boasts both Japanese style breakfast foods (warm dishes) and Western breakfasts complete with salads, breads and cereal. Kotohira is famous for its udon and I really recommend the special udon station which gives you freshly cooked udon that you can customise with soy sauce or curry broths.
Konpira Onsen Hananoyu
556-1 Kotohira-cho, Nakatado-gun, Kagawa 766-0001
The main attraction in Kotohira is Kompirasan, which ranks among one of Japan’s most popular shrines, located on the side of Mount Zozu. The climb to the top of the mountain takes 785 steps, helpfully marked at various intervals to remind you to keep going (or the fact that you’re sweaty and tired and you’re only 40% of the way up). The first 300 steps or so go through an arcade full of interesting souvenir shops, crafts stores and even a cafe at the bottom selling all manner of odd ice cream flavours, including soy-sauce ice cream. We were in a bit of a hurry but this is definitely a place you can spend at least half a day exploring.
The entire hike up to the main hall takes about 45min but you’re rewarded at the top with a sweeping view of the city below, as well as the peaceful grounds of the shrine, full of places to pray and buy golden omamori charms for good luck and happiness. Those who are more adventurous can climb another 583 steps to the top of the inner shrine. Hidden secret: if you eat at the Shiseido cafe located halfway up the path to the main hall, you can drive up with a car and park at the cafe, which will cut your journey in half.
An IAWMT Onsen Guide
Experiencing an onsen (hot spring) can be slightly daunting for foreigners unfamiliar with Japanese culture, so here is a quick list of tips:
- Nudity is expected in an onsen so don’t be shocked!
- Make sure you find the right door (男 for men, 女 for women)
- You can use a small towel to cover yourself upon entering and exiting an onsen or the washing stalls but should not put the towel in the onsen water
- Make sure you wash and rinse yourself thoroughly in the individual shower stalls before entering the large onsen bath
- You are expected to tie up your hair while soaking in the onsen – many places will provide hair ties if you forget yours
- Make sure you take some time after the onsen to just sit in the makeup chairs outside and relish the boneless, pleasant ‘bonyari’ floaty feeling after an onsen soak, while drinking cold water to cool yourself down
- If you’re the type to prefer privacy, my pro tip is to have an early dinner and go while other guests are having their dinner, or get up early and go for an early morning soak which is a godsend
- If you’re lucky enough to be staying in a tatami room, you should go back after an onsen in your yukata and just lay on the floor for a bit with your eyes closed. Best thing you’ll ever do, trust me
I Ate My Way Through travelled as guests of the Japan National Tourism Organization.