There are two Japans. One is the tangible, modern nation of today, the LED-spangled cities and bullet trains. The other is more ephemeral, the mystical psychological landscape of the nation's past. Always present, always just out of reach, it is the kingdom of the geisha, kabuki and the ryokan, the traditional roadside inn.
In the post-World War II influx of Western culture, this realm, and the ryokan, frozen in time, and except for a few very discreetly placed modern amenities, ryokan remain a virtual, if a little romanticized, timewarp back to the 1600s when they first appeared. I couldn't wait to do the timewarp again.
Kyoto being gateway to the Japan of yesteryear, it is no surprise ryokan proliferate throughout the city. Like much of Japanese culture, hospitality is a ritualized art, but I had no idea the extent Hoshinoya goes, a luxury modern twist to the ryokan experience. One of the top ryokan hoteliers of Japan (and one of the most historic), Hoshinoya properties takes ritual and turns it into high science. Sitting prettily by the Hozu River, the Hoshinoya Kyoto (just west of the city proper), the hotelier's flagship, ushers guests by private boat to what looks like a mountainside village that drifted out of a samurai's dream.
That "village" was actually the Hoshinoya's individual villas, and my stunning abode, tucked harmoniously in an ancient forest overlooking the Hozu's southern banks, was all clean lines and classic Japanese style. Some ryokan can be particularly spartan, furnished with little more than a few pillow-seats and a low table, with futons stored behind sliding-door cabinets. Hoshinoya effortlessly integrates Occident with Orient, leaning away from traditionally sparse décor to Japanese versions of Western design. Tatami flooring and sliding shoji doors blend seamlessly with West-inspired beds and sofas that are all low, wide and angular, creating a conspicuously sumptuous setting that nevertheless remains in line with a traditional Japanese mindset.
Settling in, I freshened up with deliciously warm wetted towels, sampled scrumptious Japanese snacks and changed into my comfortable Japanese loungewear while enjoying a cup of green tea. As my dinner and activities were graciously planned for me, I decided to draw myself a bath in the deep cedar tree bathtub and Zen out, trees whispering up into the day outside.
That evening, the darkness held back by candle-lit lamps floating in the Hozu, I was invited to a traditional 13-course kaiseki starring the purely Japanese fare for which ryokans are famous (no Twinkies here!). A communal experience, I joined a couple and two natives to watch the chef make homemade buckwheat noodles, which were only a hint of the out-of-this-world traditional feast that was to follow. And in a heartwarming show of empathy, the most beautiful American-styled breakfast was set up for me the next morning, in-room, as I watched the clean waters rush and rill by my window. I positively floated through the rest of the day.
But I wasn't done, and neither was Japan. Hoshinoya's second property waited patiently for me a stone's throw from Tokyo. A popular retreat from the capital's oppressive heat in summer and skiing hotspot in winter, the town of Karuizawa, rests languidly in the arboreal vales of the Japanese Alps in Nagano Prefecture, like America's Pocono Mountains but with a touch of Aspen.
Blending perfectly into this landscape is the Hoshinoya Karuizawa. A driver was waiting for me as I arrived (more hot towels) and we were off to the ryokan's "welcoming cabin," where a poised young lady sat playing traditional Japanese music. With the ring of a gong, it was time to be guided through a village-like layout similar to the Kyoto site to my riverside ("mizunami") villa.
Hoshinoya Karuizawa is gorgeous. Accommodations are deluxe. Amid the villas, a traditional Japanese kaiseki restaurant, lounge, an impressive and colossal lobby, a spa and a menu of traditional Japanese activities are all for the taking -- along with few surprises: I was invited by the hotel to their French restaurant, Bleston Court Yukawatan, located at their sister property up the road. This dinner may have been the most excellent dining experience of my life. Wow.
Attuned to the fact city-slickers come here to get away from Japan's modern frenzy, Hoshinoya Karuizawa is centered on traditional wellbeing and relaxation -- the town is particularly famous for its geothermal springs, what in Japanese are called onzen. There is an entire ritual to onzen: First the hot springs, then dry sauna, then cold water. As I entered the steaming water, outside in the lush mountains, it started to snow heavy, gorgeous flakes. I was all by myself then and savored this moment, my head back, my eyes closed.
It was somewhat jarring, the plane ride back. Everything was glittering and "now." There was the continuous buzz of schedules being kept. But when I closed my eyes, all I could hear was the rushing of the water outside my room, and I winged my way back to the modern world.
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