When it first came to my attention that the world’s two oldest hotels were located in Japan, I made a mental bargain with myself. The bargain was to keep my list of dream vacations manageable. That is why I gravitated first toward Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, which dates back to the year 705 and is certified by Guinness World Records as the older of the two.
It helped that the location was in Japan’s central region of Chubu. I actually have a file on my laptop labeled, “To-Do in Chubu.” (Nice rhyme, if I do say so myself.) There are still many places in that file that I have yet to visit. The occasion of my recent marriage, however, provided a good excuse to cross “world’s oldest hotel” off the list.
Tucked away in the town of Hayakawa, deep in the mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan had been beckoning us newlyweds. History and hospitality are twin pillars of Japanese culture; my wife and I decided to balance the back half of our first mini-honeymoon on those.
We had already enjoyed a taste of urban luxury in Shinjuku at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, where Lost in Translation was filmed. Now we were headed for another one-night stay at the hot springs inn where I would learn to overcome my reluctance about public bathing.
Getting to the hotel is part of the adventure
Counting adopted heirs, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan has been run by the same family for 52 generations. It’s about an hour away by shuttle bus from the nearest train station, Minobu. My wife’s hometown of Fujinomiya is on the same train line. The Minobu line starts in Shizuoka but ends in Yamanashi, with Mt. Fuji in between — straddling the two prefectures.
Having lived in Shizuoka, I already knew that there was a rivalry between it and Yamanashi over which side holds the better view of the mountain. This is a deep-seated rivalry in the grand tradition of the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers baseball teams. It’s something I had rather inconsiderately not taken into consideration when planning our trip.
My new in-laws must have been less than thrilled to see us to go behind enemy lines — on our honeymoon, no less — in Yamanashi. If so, however, they maintained perfect poker faces as we left their house in Fuji’s shadow and caught the train to Minobu.
That hour-long shuttle bus ride from the train station really gives Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan the feel of being a secluded hideaway. Winding through tunnels on the way there, it almost felt like we were headed for some Japanese version of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. I’m a big movie fan, so for me that was exciting.
The horror movie twist? While she was sleeping next to me on the bus, a Line message that my wife had sent me outside the restroom back at the station suddenly popped up on my iPhone. The delivery delay with that message only made it seem that much more like we were entering a time warp on our way to the world’s oldest hotel.
Savor the decor of the original ryokan
While not quite the Overlook of Hollywood fame, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan does indeed overlook a ravine in the mountains. At the hotel entrance, our bus was greeted by courteous staff members in nibu-shiki (separate-piece) kimonos.
After we checked in and enjoyed our complimentary yuzu and lemon welcome drink in the lobby, one of these kimono-clad staff members escorted us to our room. Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is the O.G. — or OR (original ryokan) — meaning that all Japanese inns as we know them date back to this hotel.
The rooms are of a generous size, with a partition separating one 14-tatami space from another 8-tatami space. From the window, we could see the misty mountains and hear water rushing through the ravine.
At night, my wife and I were goofing around and we took a picture of her in silhouette, wearing her yukata behind the backlit shoji (sliding) doors. It looked like something out of a J-horror movie. But in a fun way, if that makes any sense…
Overall, the service during our stay was impeccable, with the staff even going so far as to delegate slippers in the genkan for my big gaijin feet with a special name card. The card outside the room had my name misspelled, but everywhere else — like our table in the dining room — they got it right.
Conquer your fear of open-air heights
As we surveyed the area surrounding the hotel, walking uphill from it, we encountered a bridge over the ravine. I, for one, thought it was cool that there was this long, swinging bridge leading over to a spooky forest on the other side of the ravine. My wife, on the other hand, was not quite so enamored with the idea of walking out on said bridge.
Back at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, we had luxuriated in the view of the Meiji Shrine from our room. Sipping coffee from the room’s espresso machine, my wife had even curled up in a Scarlett Johansson pose in the windowsill. With my iPhone camera, I snapped the obligatory shot of her looking down on the city. She seemed entirely in her element above Shinjuku.
The difference there was that she was behind a window. The wooden footbridge over the ravine outside Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan leaves the people crossing it exposed to open air. It’s got a secure metal framework around it but it doesn’t necessarily feel secure if you have aeroacrophobia, the fear of open and high places.
I also wanted to take the steps down to the bottom of the ravine. The walking space was narrow, however, and along the way, there were overgrown bushes jutting out over it. Suffice it to say, our time outside the hotel wound up being limited because my wife was mildly traumatized by all of this exploratory action.
Get comfortable bathing with strangers
She was not the only one of us who had to venture outside her comfort zone. This was the first time for me to go all-in on onsen. Other than a dip in a capsule-hotel sauna and a trip to Ooedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo, I had always shied away from the public bathing aspect of Japanese culture. But I wanted to get my money’s worth at this historic ryokan, which fetches luxury hotel prices (about the same rate as the Park Hyatt Tokyo, FYI. After taxes and service charges were applied, our room came out to ¥64,000, meals included).
I sucked it up as best I could and it was really no big deal even if it was slightly awkward in the hotel lobby running across gents I’d seen naked. “Hey, there!” I thought. “I know you. Isn’t this embarrassing! Let’s not look at each other.”
At Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, the bathrooms in the rooms have oaken tubs. Apart from that, there are indoor and outdoor observatory baths that rotate between men and women. When you check in, you can reserve a private bath in advance and this will also allow you to bathe co-ed.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, double-dipping snacks may be a party foul but I triple-dipped my body in three separate baths, all of them outdoors. Of course, I showered off before and after each bath, per onsen etiquette. I wasn’t born in a barn.
The baths weren’t as smelly as I was led to believe, but I was surprised by how dirty the water looked. It had minerals swirling around in it and I knew those were good for your skin but there were also bugs. The bugs would come bobbing along in the bathwater and I did get bitten.
In the dining room, at the hotel’s mountain kaiseki (elaborate dinner tray) banquet, I also curiously found a winged insect in my rice. Was that part of the mountain banquet? What would the late great Anthony Bourdain do in a situation such as this? He’d probably eat the bug.
Bookmark Hoshi Ryokan as your next destination
Our well-mannered server was aghast at the notion of me eating the bug, even by accident. She apologized profusely and brought me a fresh basket of rice. In the end, I chalked it all up to the rustic mountain charm of the world’s oldest hotel.
It might seem like I’ve been painting a less than flattering portrait of Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, but that’s not at all my intention. With the lone possible exception of the bug in my rice, I had exactly the kind of experience I was hoping for at this hotel. Which is to say, I had an experience, something new and novel, different from my life in Tokyo. Whether or not that experience might match your tastes is up for you to decide.
As for me, I’m giving serious consideration to adding Hoshi Ryokan to my dream vacation list. That’s the world’s second oldest hotel. Wikipedia tells me it’s located “in the Awazu Onsen area of Komatsu, in Ishikawa prefecture, Japan.” GaijinPot Travel tells me that Ishikawa is “Chubu’s dignified cultural center.”
It’s settled, then. Next stop: Hoshi Ryokan. I’d also half-seriously consider visiting Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan again when it’s autumn and the fall colors are out (meaning those green maple leaves we saw outside the hotel have turned to red).
See you at the world’s two oldest hotels in 2020 … but let’s not make eye contact while we’re naked in the baths.
Getting to Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan
- By train: From Shinjuku, take the JR Limited Express to Kofu station, then transfer and take the Minobu line to Minobu station. Coming from Nagoya, take the Tokaido Shinkansen to Shizuoka station, then transfer and take the Minobu line to Minobu station. The hotel’s shuttle bus departs from Minobu at 1:40 p.m. (in time for check-in at 3 p.m.) and reservations are required.
- Web: www.keiunkan.co.jp
Would you visit Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan? Have you visited any other cool old hotels in Japan with interesting history behind them? Share your own unique travel experiences in the comments.