3 Unforgettable Ryokan and Onsen Experiences from Japan Expert Rob Goss
By Ian Yates
On May 3, 2018
At times it can feel like anywhere you go in Japan you’ll be knee deep in an onsen (hot spring) or ryokan (Japanese inn), but not all inns and springs are created equal.
Sometimes you want a memory that can last forever, and so, when given the opportunity to speak with Rob Goss, the author of the newly released: Japanese Inns and Hot Springs: A Guide to Japan’s Best Ryokan and Onsen, (Tuttle, 240 pages, paperback, ¥2,160) we jumped at the chance to hear about three of the very best places to head for an invigorating bath with amazing views, gorgeous dinners and a quiet, comfortable night’s sleep to top it off.
…Not all inns and springs are created equal.
“I fell for the whole package… they [ryokan] tend to be quiet, often very attractive, the food is generally superb and soaking in the onsen is as good as a massage,” says Goss. “A ryokan makes you slow down and absorb the finer details around you.”
With nearly two decades spent living in Japan and more than half of that working as a travel writer, Goss has six books to his credit including Tokyo: Capital of Cool and the 2013 North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) Gold Award winning Travel Pack Japan.
As for how this new book came about, Goss says: “When my co-author, a photographer named Akihiko Seki (Houses and Gardens of Kyoto, Ryokan: Japan’s Finest Spas and Inns), asked if I wanted to write the book he was shooting, it was a very easy decision to say yes.”
We asked Goss to share with GaijinPot readers his top three picks for ryokan with the most stunning views and the most exceptional food — especially as this blossoming spring season adds even more to an unbelievable and unforgettable experience of traveling throughout Japan.
1. Shuhokaku Kogetsu
Kawaguchiko, Yamanashi PrefecturePhoto by Akihiko Seki / Tuttle Publishing 2017
Front row view of Fuji from your tub
Goss’ first recommendation is an inn with incredible views of Japan’s most revered symbol.
Easy to get to from Tokyo, Shuhoukaku Kogetsu in Kawaguchiko has lovely outdoor onsen with views of Mt. Fuji.
Seki’s pictures make Kogetsu look like a dream, where you can relax outdoors in piping hot baths, with a stomach full of the delicious local and seasonal cuisine. Goss suggests dining on the mouthwatering Japanese beef sukiyaki plate and topping it off with a front-row-seat view of Mt. Fuji from the two communal outdoor baths. If you happen to visit in March or April, Goss also says that “Lake Kawaguchi itself is a very nice cherry blossom spot.”
Sitting on the northern shoreline of Kawaguchiko (Lake Kawaguchi), this is a great spring escape. After you get your fill of the incredible food, relaxing bath and insane sights then maybe it’s time to walk on down to the lakefront and join in on the hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties). Goss’ book also notes that in spring, along with the cherry trees, Kawaguchiko is home to colorful shibazakura, the “vast fields of pink moss phlox that created a stark contrast to Fuji.”
Walking directly from your Fuji-facing soak to the edge-of-lake splendor with Japan’s most beautiful blossoms should be on any Japan lover’s bucket list.
For those with kids, Goss also points out that the Fuji-Q Highland amusement park is a just a short drive from the inn.
How to get there
- From Shinjuku station take the JR Chuo line Kaiji limited express to Otsuki station (60 minutes) and change to the Fuji Kyuko line to Kawaguchiko station (60 minutes).
- From Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal (Basuta Shinjuku in Japanese) to Kawaguchiko station (100 minutes).
- Pickup available from Kawaguchiko station.
- Overnight packages with meals start at ¥20,520 per guest.
- www.kogetu.com (Japanese)
2. Asaba Shuzenji Onsen
Izu, Shizuoka PrefecturePhoto by Akihiko Seki/ Tuttle Publishing 2017
Hot tub time machine
Goss next suggested the Asaba Shuzenji onsen and ryokan in Shizuoka.
My favorite thing about it is the outdoor Noh stage that can be seen from all the rooms and is separated from the main building by a pond.
It might seem hard to compete with Fuji-san, but Asaba onsen sits you in the middle of an old temple town in a pristine forest, while you’re neck deep in your bath. Gazing at the Noh stage, it seems as if you might have jumped in a time machine and returned to the time of The Tale of Genji.
The town of Shuzenji has been an active center of Buddhism for over 1,200 years, since Kukai Kobo Daishi, the Japanese monk who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism, dropped by. He discovered the hot springs and built the temple for which the town is named (Kukai was one busy man.) The history in this area simply soaks into the atmosphere creating a depth with the trees changing color with each season, and the pond lending tranquility to everything. All together Asaba resembles a mountain temple. Buddhism and bathing have long been connected and it seems plausible that reaching a state of Zen might be a bit more obtainable while soaking in a hot spring.
“The view (of the cherry trees) doesn’t turn entirely pink, but you get nice blossom accents,” Goss says. This subtlety seems appropriate in such a wonderfully subdued environment.
How to get there
- From Tokyo station, take the JR Odoriko Super View express to Shuzenji station (120 minutes).
- Traveling by bullet train, take the Kodama Tokaido/Sanyo shinkansen from Tokyo station to Mishima station (45 minutes) and change to the Izu-Hakono line to Shuzenji station.
- It’s a seven-minute taxi ride to the Asaba Hotel.
- Overnight packages with meals starting at ¥42,270 for 2 guests.
Arashiyama, Kyoto, Kyoto PrefecturePhoto by Akihiko Seki / Tuttle Publishing 2017
Away from the crowds
For those interested in stays closer to the Kansai region, Goss recommends Hoshinoya, in Kyoto.
Every room ‘oozes tradition’…
“Compared to ryokan in onsen towns the ones in Kyoto tend to have fairly modest onsen… The appeal is more the food, the age, style and history of each ryokan, and the setting… a great option is Hoshinoya in Arashiyama, which is full of blossoms in spring.”
Arashiyama, on the western side of Kyoto City, has some of the country’s most overwhelming cherry tree views and is one of the places to be in early spring should hanami be one of the experiences you’d like to have on this trip. A quiet, beautiful inn set amid the explosive color of the frail pink-and-white blossoms is an experience not to be missed.
The extraordinary gardens of UNESCO World Heritage site Tenryuji bring people from all over the world, and the trails through the bamboo forest and paths along Katsura river are a photographers dream, but none are without crowds and so Arashiyama can’t often be called quiet. However, this ryokan is reached by a 10-minute boat ride up the Katsura River, leaving those crowds far behind. Opening in 2009, the building itself is over 100-years old and the new remodel blends modern comfort with classic beauty. Every room “oozes tradition” writes Goss, and each promises a view over the Katsura River with all it’s spring cherry blossom splendor.
When dinner time rolls around, you’ll be treated to the fusion creations of Michelin-starred chef Ichiro Kubota. In the hands of a recognized master, and his unique fusion of French and Japanese cuisines, your taste buds are in for a treat.Photo by Akihiko Seki / Tuttle Publishing 2017
With all it has to offer, the Hoshinoya inn is missing one important thing: its own onsen bath. For anyone feeling any dissatisfaction, fear not, the Arashiyama area contains a few onsen open to non-guests, with the most beautiful being Hanaikada. Open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., this works as a great combination with Hoshinoya for a perfect few spring days in Arashiyama. To use these other onsen costs ¥870 per guest, including a hand towel.
How to get there
- From Kyoto station take the JR Sagano line to Sagaarashiyama station (20 minutes).
- Walk or take the one-kilometer taxi ride to the boat wharf at the south end of Togetsukyo Bridge.
- Overnight packages with meals starting at ¥210,000 yen for 2 guests.
As with the best of travel guides, Seki’s photos and Goss’s descriptions will inspire any travel lover to follow in their footsteps and sink neck deep into an unforgettable trip around Japan. The biggest trouble with a country so full of beautiful inns and hot springs is deciding where to go first, and Goss’s suggestions above seem like the perfect places to start.
Be sure to pick up Rob Goss’s latest book Japanese Inns and Hot Springs: A Guide to Japan’s Best Ryokan and Onsen for dozens more suggestions of the wonderful places to stay across Japan.
Besides Amazon, you can get it at these fine bookstores across Japan (Tokyo, Narita airport, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Hokkaido, Okinawa): Aoyama Book Center, Book 1st, Junkudo, Kaizousha, Kinokuniya, Maruzen, Sannseido, Tuttle Book Store and Tsutaya.