I don’t know if I will ever have as great an experience in a ryokan as I had in Kokuya, in Shibu Onsen. That sounds sweeping, but the experience we had in Kokuya and in Shibu Onsen was so fantastic, I don’t see how any other ryokan right now will top this. For now at least.
Let me say that I am writing this now, two weeks after my trip, back home and looking at the pictures, visiting the Kokuya website, I honestly wish I were back there and not here.
This is the Dentetsu train which winds its ways into the valleys and hills outside Nagano. It is a 50 minute journey to the last stop at Yudanaka.
The train was not packed and we passed by lovely scenery in the sunset. We zoomed past backyards, tiny farms, schools, apple orchards with trees laden with fruit, persimmon trees and their bare branches, sweeping vistas of rivers, hillsides of colour and in the distance, snow-capped mountains.
It was almost 5pm and near dark by the time we arrived in Yudanaka station. And cold! In the surrounding hills, snow had fallen and lightly dusted the trees. It was beautiful. I believe it was the first snowfall of the year for the area.
Yudanaka is actually one of the districts of Yamanouchi town, population 17,000. While Yudanaka also has its share of onsen ryokans, Shibu Onsen, further up the road, is quieter, less ‘commercial’ and still retains the air of an old genteel Japanese spa town, where narrow lanes wind up into the hills and lamplights turn the nights into a sepia-toned scene.
It is for this reason that I chose Shibu Onsen over Yudanaka. I was intrigued by the old-world feel. That, and the lure of Kokuya, a 400-year-old ryokan which has been in the same family for generations.
Slippers were laid out for us already. We slipped out of our shoes and put them on. Quietly and unobtrusively, someone else had magicked our shoes away. In the lobby, we were thrilled to see our names written on a board to welcome us! So were the names of the other guests for the night.
Unlike other conventional hotels, check-in is not at the front desk in the lobby but in the comfort of your room. We were led through corridors, up and down stairs to finally arrive at our room. The room’s name is Ayame. Clicking on the link will show you pictures of the room and the layout.
The hostess graciously told us that they have kindly upgraded our room from a standard room to a room with a private bath. I was polite and grateful like a real adult, thanking the hostess for her generosity, but inside, I was squealing like a teenager in glee! The room was large, a 12 tatami-mat room, with attached toilet and the star attraction – our personal outdoor bath!!
We sat down at the table for the hostess to orientate us and finish the check-in process. Sweets were already on the table and the hostess prepared green tea. Midway through, Zeno came by to say hello. Can I say how grateful I am to him right now in this blog? He helped secure this reservation at Kokuya at a very special rate and not only did we get a very, very good rate, the room was upgraded!
The hostess asked if we needed another room since there were 7 of us and it might be a bit tight in the room. I hesitated to impose but Gillian was giving me urgent frantic nods which the hostess read. She smiled and conferred with Zeno. Next thing we knew, she had given us another room. I thought it would be the usual standard room but no, it was a few steps down the corridor and it turned out to be another lovely room with our very own personal outdoor bath. Here’s where I squealed internally with joy again! The room is called Sakura. Click and see how lovely it is!
Before leaving, the hostess checked with us when we would like to have dinner and then left us to our own devices. The kids did the usual bargaining – who is to use which room. In the end, the four older kids took Ayame while KH, Trin and I took Sakura. Once that was done, we hit the baths! We barely had an hour to spare but we really wanted to try out the baths and the ryokan had at least 6 public baths for us to sample!
Quickly changed into our yukatas. Kokuya had also thoughtfully provided yukatas even for the small ones! The boys went their way and the girls went theirs. The baths change over at 9pm so that both sexes can try out the different baths at some point.
The girls tried Issa, the outdoor bath but it was so hot they had to gingerly go in. Meanwhile, Trin refused to try any, crying that it was too hot. But she agreed to sit by and watch me get in. While Gillian and Cait tried Issa, I went next door to Fukuroku where there are 6 different wooden tubs of different types of hot spring water and heat intensity.
The boys tried Kassei but did not have time to try any other baths because they took so long to get in! Owain really loves the onsen but always takes such a long time getting in!
All too soon, it was dinner and we were all the more famished due to the journey and the baths! We were shown to a large private dining area where we sat at the table instead of the usual way, on the floor. Once again, our names were written on a sign outside the door indicating the room.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, for the food!
We had a full 9-course kaiseki meal with fresh ingredients from the mountains, the orchards and the rivers. I had worried that my children would not be able to appreciate the kaiseki, but I need not have worried. Isaac still says this is the best meal he had in the whole trip. To my surprise, the kids were also adventurous enough to try new stuff!
They had given Trin and Owain a slightly differently menu, but the portions are so generous and huge the kids had difficulty in finishing them all. Here is the menu:
Japanese food always looks so prettily presented in tiny portions and on small plates, bowls and saucers. They look so exquisitely dainty that one always wonders how this can fill one up. But when you have course after course of tiny delicacies coming your way, each more tempting than the last, you’d feel stuffed to the brim.
Every mouthful left me wondering: how did they do this? How did they cook this? And then, what’s next and how can they top this one? But the thought never stayed too long because I was just too busy in wonder at the procession of taste, colour and presentation.
I looked over at Isaac and wondered at his intense concentration on the food. I never thought he would enjoy food to this extent that he would focus so intensely on the food. He later told me he finished everything! There wasn’t a single dish (okay, except for the pickles perhaps) that he did not like. Even till today, he sighs wistfully that the food was SO good…
The children had pasta, salad, soup and steak. Yes, steak – done to a nice medium-rare perfection!
Every meal also ended with rice – gohan. Did I mention that Japanese short-grain was soft and fragrant? A very nice change from the usual Jasmine rice we have at home. Dessert was a gorgeous wine-infused apple with cream. Yummy! No pictures because we were already halfway through the dessert before we realised we had forgotten to take a picture of it!
Here we are at dinner:
While we were at dinner, someone had laid out the futons nicely in our rooms. The kids were content to sprawl around watching TV and snuggled under the futons. The diehard tub enthusiasts were keen to have another go – this time, in their private tub. Gosh, the kids really knew how to live it up – soaking themselves in the hot waters of the gushing spring, under the stars, AND watching TV while in the tub – yes, there was a TV set outdoors too.
Meanwhile, while the kids are esconsced in their room, KH and I decided to take a night walk on the streets outside. It was cold so we put on the tanzen – a dark blue robe – on top of the yukata, and with our getas clacking noisily, we went out.
We saw some other guests from other ryokans, all dressed in their yukatas (and some in track suits!) walking around as well. Armed with the key with the wooden plaque, a towel and a water bottle, they were checking out the nine public sentos that Shibu Onsen has. Few residents actually use these sentos today, but to ‘take’ the waters of all nine baths is said to be good for health and for luck.
It was freezing cold out there but atmospheric. Hardly anyone was out but we enjoyed the brief walk we took to the end of the street. Just up the hill across the ryokan, steep steps lead up to a shrine or temple. At the far end of the street, there is an onsen temple with a faded torii. Lamps light up the broad steps but we did not go further.
Near Kokuya and descending slightly below street level is the main bath of the nine sentos in Shibu Onsen. There is a small shrine accompanying it. Tied to a wire frame are the usual unfavourable omikuji, or fortune slips of paper.
It was getting colder so we did not linger. Right next to entrance, sitting on a small shelf was the inkpad and stamps for the sento. Every sento had one. I looked forward to visiting every sento the next morning for my stamps!
Meanwhile the futons were calling – warm, inviting and cosy.
It had been a long day and I was eager for the soft warmth of my futon. I fell asleep, the glass door to the balcony slightly ajar, listening to the gurgle of the water gushing from the spout into the bath.