There are few better ways to enjoy the holidays in Japan than with a traditional onsen experience, as C. James Dale discovers.
The tiny chapel was packed with people when we squeezed into the back, the choir singing “The First Noel,” which struck us doubly appropriate. It was the night of December 25 and the first Christmas my wife and I were spending with our baby, just four months old at the time and snuggled up against my chest in a sling. Outside, the air was crisp, the stars were bright, and candlelight danced across the thin layer of snow that blanketed the ground. A short walk away, bundled-up children huddled around a bonfire and roasted marshmallows as a Santa Claus aboard a sleigh posed for picture after picture, a funny sight in this land of Buddhists and Shintoists.
We were in Karuizawa, Japan, a 70-minute bullet train ride from Tokyo, a place where royalty (the current Emperor proposed to the Empress here), the rich, and the famous (John Lennon & Yoko Ono visited), along with regular folk, go to escape the hustle-bustle of the capital and enjoy hiking in the hills, golfing, skiing, and soaking in the wealth of hot spring water that fills the baths of the region’s hotels and resorts, often referred to as onsen (Japanese for “hot spring”). We’d come back to our favorite getaway, Hoshinoya Karuizawa, a collection of sublime structures huddled around an artfully-dammed river, tucked in a valley and surrounded by forest and hills. Mount Asama, which erupted in 2004 and 2009, stands watch in the distance.
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Stepping off the train, we took generous gulps of fresh highland air as we watched stickfigure skiers and snowboarders weave their way down a nearby hill. Then we boarded the Hoshinoya bus, sharing giddy glances as we got closer and closer to our destination, closer and closer to the healing waters.
A wealth of hot spring water pools deep below the surface of the Japanese archipelago, which is why onsen can be found in every corner of this country, from tiny shacks to traditional inns to upscale retreats. People here have been enjoying a soak, either daily or annually, for centuries.
“Onsen in Japanese culture is very important, especially when it comes to relaxation and stress relief,” Dr. Yuko Agishi told me a couple of years ago. He’s a leading researcher on the health benefits of onsen. His decades of studies have shown that hot spring water, depending on its mineral composition, can help people recover from certain surgeries and control a number of conditions, including rheumatism, neuralgia, hypertension, and skin diseases.
We’ve felt the benefits too, which is why we keep returning to Hoshinoya Karuizawa to enjoy its onsen, and the unique blend of Japanese hospitality, custom, and modern comfort it offers. On this occasion, we were in a room perched on a hill, overlooking the rest of the resort’s 75-plus suites, which blend a Japanese design sensibility with more Western touches, such as high ceilings, raised futon beds, and ample lounge space. It’s a warm and cozy place to lay your head, with low-lighting and traditional-style clothing you can wear in the room or around the grounds (less to pack!).
With our baby too young for the onsen, we took turns bathing in Hoshinoya’s grand indoor/outdoor hot springs, which are open to the public (however guests have exclusive access for two hours in the morning), and the private mediation baths.
Wherever you go, the ancient practice remains the same: disrobe, wash thoroughly in the showers, then wade naked into the 38-44 °C mineral-rich water “It’s hot, right?” I heard a father ask his son in Japanese.
“Aaaatttssuuuuiiii,” the boy replied, elongating the word for “hot” (atsui) for dramatic effect.
I was sitting outside with my back against a rock, my neck and head exposed to the chilly December air as the rest of my body pulsated in the heat. Wisps of mist curled off the water. Naked men and boys came and went, some jumping into the ice-cold plunge pool before slipping back into the hot water, wincing as the pins-and-needles feeling set in. I closed my eyes and remembered a previous visit, soaking in this same spot as I watched a toddler with a tiny belly gather bouquets of fallen leaves and hand them to her father. I smiled as I imagined my daughter doing the same one day.
“Experiencing an onsen has always been an essential part of Japanese society and culture,” my friend Duff Trimble once told me. He tailors exclusive tours of this country through his Toronto-based travel agency Wabi-Sabi Japan.
“Onsen also foster the egalitarian ideal for which Japan prides itself,” Trimble noted.
“Once you are in the baths stripped of all material possessions, everyone is equal.”
The full experience
Soaking in hot spring water is only part of the fun of visiting Hoshinoya Karuizawa. Strolling the stunning, gloriously landscaped grounds, where diehard autumn leaves still clung to branches above the snow-covered ground, we followed the Yukawa river to Harunire Terrace, home to a small collection of shops, cafes, and restaurants. My wife and I call this place “The Village” and we visit often, sipping cappuccinos al fresco as the river rushes by and our bodies continue to radiate the heat from the onsen. It’s a place where you can feast on pizza or soba noodles, shop for French wine or fresh farm produce, and then browse through stores offering mid-century modern furniture and well-made Scandinavian toys. It was even more magical at this time of year, dressed up with strings of lights, wreaths, and a Christmas tree.
Eager to stay in the spirit of the season, we left the baby at the nursery (first time with a stranger…ack!) and scurried off to go skating on the small but charming outdoor ice rink. The landscape I’d raced through more than a year prior on a mountain bike journey was now frozen. The cheery attendant handed us our newly-sharpened blades and we joined Japanese couples who were laughing and gliding around and around and around. Eventually, though, our knees refused to keep up and we retired as the light began to bleed from the sky, the cold chasing us back to the cloistered confines of our room, turned toasty by the radiant-floor heating.
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Hold the turkey
The next morning, I was standing waist deep in the meditation bath, twisting and contorting my body (wearing a swimsuit, mind you) as staff member Satoko Suzuki put me through the paces of her daily stretch routine.
“The water heat and pressure is good for circulation,” she noted as light spilled in through the towering, frosted windows. “It makes you a tenth of your body weight. And it takes three centimetres off your waist.”
Good thing, I thought, after the Christmas dinner I’d had at the main restaurant, Kasuke, which is filled with dark stone and designed to make one feel as if they’re inside a volcano. No turkey or stuffing here. In its place, a full Japanese kaiseki or multi-course meal, this one tailored for winter or fuyu. The dishes kept coming and coming: fried ebi-imo (a type of taro root); tofu accompanied by grilled leek, the pop of goji berries, and the burn of fresh wasabi; tofu skin folded into small rolls, dressed up with flowers and slender strings of shaved daikon radish; sashimi of seasonal fish; and a carved out yuzu (citrus fruit) with steamed egg, tiny sticks of Japanese parsley, and soft cod roe. All of it superbly presented and washed down with sake and shōchū. And all of it almost too much, really, to justify dessert, but I managed to squeeze in a spoonful of the green tea-flavoured ice cream.
It didn’t end there, though.
The next afternoon, I was seated at the French restaurant Yukawatan, which, though inside the neighbouring Hotel Bleston Court, is a highly-recommended dining option for Hoshinoya Karuizawa guests. I was fortunate enough to enjoy a private tasting menu, courtesy of the award-winning Chef Noriyuki Hamada. Though a faithful student of French cooking, he injects a Japanese sensibility into everything he conjures up. And that means working with local fishermen and farmers to source top-notch fish, meat, and vegetables.
“I feel a commitment to be tied and connected to local places and the countryside,” he explained. “I challenge myself to be creative by using a limited range of ingredients. It makes me feel connected to people from generations ago, who couldn’t import food.” Hamada’s dedication to meeting that challenge pays off for diners. Tiny, delicate appetizers emerged balanced atop marble balls. A dish made of snow trout and its golden eggs arrived in a circular pen of apple slices on a bed of celery root paste.
Small flowers and leaves decorated the top, which looked from above like a miniature garden. The earthy taste of the turnip potage was only eclipsed by the fact that the cup it was served it was edible. Another plate contrasted the light character of the snow trout with the sharpness of the yuzu, set alongside fish skin that had been wrapped around shallots and potatoes, and then deep fried. For dessert, a small shovel filled to overflowing with what looked like dirt, with a stone at its centre, appeared before me.
Upon closer inspection (and after a few laughs from the staff), I learned it was actually crumbled cookie tiramisu and soft, strawberry ice cream encased in a frozen ball.
“I don’t want guests to be bored so I put in a lot of time trying to make creative dishes,” Hamada added.
Amen to that.
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Whenever I visit Hoshinoya Karuizawa, I am hyperaware of the passage of time.
There’s so much to do, but yet at the same time little at all. We spend evenings watching the staff float candles on the man-made pond that forms the heart of the resort. Or counting the myriad stars we can’t see from our balcony in Tokyo. Or flipping through books and magazines on over-sized couches in the lounge. And, of course, making as many trips as we can to the onsen. On these cold nights in December, with the Christmas music setting the mood, it was hard to leave our snug shelter. But once the baby was sleeping, we each took the opportunity to sneak out and navigate the chill to the doors of the meditation bath, which is open 24 hours (but closed for cleaning from 11h30-15h00).
The facility, which is exclusive for guests, has light (hikari) and dark (yami) sections. I always find myself moving back to the dark end, wading down a small tunnel that opens up to an enclosure where you can’t really see anything at all and, in my experience, you don’t really bump into anyone. It’s here I repeat a ritual that helps me forget about time and stay centred. I pull my knees to my chest with my arms and float face down in a ball.
1, 2, 3, 4…
By ten, I’m meditating. Past 30, I may as well be floating in the ocean or space or my mother’s womb. Stress, anxiety, fear: it all leaves me, replaced by bliss, happiness, and calm.
41, 42, 43…
This time, I broke the surface before 50, coming up for air and feeling reborn. Best Christmas ever, I said aloud. Or at least I think I did. Who would know, anyway?
Hoshino Resorts’ other flagship properties are located in Kyoto and Taketomi Island (Okinawa). Coming soon: Tokyo, Mount Fuji, and Bali.
Qantas Airways offers flights to Haneda Airport in Tokyo and Narita Aiport.
JR-East operates high-speed (Shinkansen) from Tokyo Station to Karuizawa.