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Exquisite Relaxation in the Heart of the Mountains

Cultural Quintessence

Japan In-depth

Kateigaho International Edition

Exquisite Relaxation in the Heart of the Mountains

Benjamin Warner

Born in Britain in 1954, architect Warner (the tall one) is now Managing Director of Richard Rogers Partners in Japan, the Managing Director of CDI Aoyama Studio, and the founder and President of Benugo sandwich shop in Tokyo.

With proprietress Hisako Ishimura


Eating delicious food, having a good bath at a hot spring, and total relaxation: These experiences are offered as a matter of course at Sharatei.
The high level of service is possible because of the small number of guestrooms, only 10 to be exact. According to proprietor Kiichiro Ishimura, even when the inn is at full capacity, guests often inquire whether there are any other people staying there that night. "Secretly, I smile inside when I hear that," Ishimura says. The calm and quiet atmosphere inside the building is very soothing for guests who come seeking solitude.
The source of the hot waters is Owakudani, one of Hakone's well-known springs. Its milky white water contains sulfur. Besides the separate communal bathhouses for men and women (each with indoor and open-air baths), the ryokan also opened a private open-air bath in November 2002; guests can reserve it for the hour they wish. Even when all 10 guestrooms are fully occupied, the bathhouses never feel crowded.

Address: 934 Sengokubara,
Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun
Kanagawa-ken, 250-0631
Tel: 0460-4-8656
Fax: 0460-4-5079
Rooms: 6 Japanese style,
4 semi-Western style
Rooms with beds: 4
Hot-spring communal bath: One each for men and women
Hot-spring open-air bath: One each for men and women
Private open-air bath: Available
Rate: ¥32,700 to ¥60,000
Single occupancy: Accepted
www.sharatei.com/(Japanese only; good photographs and music)

My first experience with a Japanese public bath came out of necessity, not choice. I rived in one six-tatami-mat room in Tokyo with no shower or bath. The bathhouse, or sento, was a short walk away. So I took my bath every evening, showering first and then soaking in a communal hot tub with my neighbors.

A sento is traditionally a large hall with a partition separating the two sexes. Payment is made at the entrance of either changing room to the manager, who sits above the partition and has a clear view of both sides, a curious experience for the newcomer. I often wondered what the lady sitting on her perch was thinking as she carefully avoided watching me undress.

Bathing is a central element in Japanese society and is not just about getting clean. Washing takes place before entering the bath. Bathing can take hours and can be a truly spiritual and social experience.

Onsen (hot springs) are a national pastime for Japanese. Their country comprises some 200 volcanoes, which means there is plenty of natural hot water on tap. This volcanic water has medicinal properties that can invigorate and refresh one's body. Hence, the people of Japan flock to hot-spring resorts offering varieties of water from transparent to milky white to the color of a mango smoothie.

During my early years in Japan, I decided to travel around the country and visit as many onsen as possible. Japan has a highly efficient transportation system, but the best way to see the country is by motorbike. So I bought a used Honda Dream and traveled the length and breadth of Japan. The bike gave me the freedom to explore, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells at will.

I started my trip at the northern tip of Hokkaido and traveled for six months in a crisscross fashion until I reached Iriomote island in Okinawa Prefecture at the southern end of the Japanese archipelago.

After a long day, what better to do than soak in a natural bath and let the aches and pains of the road float away? Traveling through mountainous Japan, one inevitably stumbles across the most unusual things in the most usual places. My trip was no exception.

Beppu in Kyushu, for example, boasts dozens of onsen where you can get buried in hot black sand. In northern Japan I came across what looked like a gigantic manor house, which turned out to be a wooden hall filled with tubs of all shapes, sizes, temperatures, and mineral content. The only thing these baths had in common was that they accommodated both men and women all bathing naked together.

Not everyone has the opportunity to take a six-month trip around Japan by motorbike, of course. For those staying in Tokyo and seeking a brief respite from the life of the city, there are plenty of nearby places to visit.

One such area is Hakone, just 100 kilometers or so from Tokyo and bristling with hot-spring inns. I recently decided to visit the area again and set off with a colleague, Ian, a newcomer to the hot-spring experience, to stay in a traditional Japanese inn.

Our destination was Sharatei, which boasts gourmet food, wonderful traditional architecture in a serene setting, great hospitality, and, of course, hot baths.

Sharatei is a true haven from the stresses of urban Tokyo. Surrounded by greenery and in the shadow of mountain peaks swirled by mist, you enter a world evocative of a traditional Japanese painting.

Since Sharatei contains only 10 guestrooms, we felt pampered from the moment we arrived. We began our evening by changing into yukata, light cotton kimonos that are a common sight at all onsen hotels. They are usually worn from arrival to departure.

Luckily, Sharatei had a yukata to fit tall foreigners, so I am happy to say that my hairy knees were not on show. A yukata is not quite as protective as a bathrobe so I would seriously recommend wearing underwear for those not used to sitting on the floor. Remember that meals are generally served in your room, where you eat while sitting on tatami.

At Sharatei I especially enjoyed the time I spent in the outdoor bath, gazing up at the sky and letting the troubles of the world slip away. The water is milky white with a vague smell of sulfur. So be prepared to smell like a boiled egg!

Sleep comes early at Sharatei. Futon had magically appeared in our absence and the intoxicating effect of the hot water sent us to sleep in no time at all as we listened to a light rain in the mountains.

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